African-American citizens and a host of supporters made some of this country’s most important history fifty years ago in the mobilization that resulted in the March on Washington in August, 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his most famous speech on the occasion, and many of us are remembering Dr. King’s legacy today on the fiftieth anniversary of this occasion.
The civil rights movement created deep and permanent changes in our country, and they were hard won. And what is clear today is the depth of change that was needed — not at the margin, not gradually, but at the core and rapidly. The attitudes and structures that constituted racial inequality and racism in this country in the 1950s and 1960s were a profound, coercive social reality. Only a concerted, courageous, and sustained social movement involving millions of people could have broken the roots of that system of thought and power. (Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer and Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 provide vivid narratives of the depth of these challenges and responses.)
It is hard to think of many historical social movements that had as much impact and success as the U.S. civil rights movement. Its objective was not to change a temporary situation — a war, a military occupation, an egregious dictatorship, or a famine — but to create a thorough change in attitudes, ideas, and institutions; and to do that in a nation in which racism was organic. Laws, public schools, housing, jobs, universities, hospitals, and transportation — all were racialized, all demanded change. And then to create a movement that deliberately worked through nonviolent change — this was exceptional.
A rich tradition of leadership within the black community is one part of the story of success of this struggle for equality. Of course many of the leaders and agents of change of that movement are now household names — Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy. But many other key figures are not so well remembered. One man in particular deserves recognition, Bayard Rustin. Rustin was a civil rights activist throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He was one of the earliest organizers of what became known as the Freedom Rides, and he served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violation of segregation laws in transportation in 1947. (He also was sentenced in 1944 to two years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for violations of the Selective Service Act as a Quaker pacifist and war resister.)
Rustin was the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and he was an invaluable strategist for Dr. King. But because of his open homosexuality he kept his visible role in the mobilization of the March on Washington to a minimum. Numerous participants credit his organizational abilities and acute perception of what the moment required as crucial to the success of the March and what followed from it. He went on to become an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights in the 1980s. Rustin is a great example of the persistence and courage shown by so many civil rights activists and leaders throughout America’s struggles. (Here is some basic information about Rustin’s biography. Here is a film based on Rustin’s life.)
Rustin stands out as a particularly vivid example of a kind of leader who was common throughout the early decades of the modern civil rights movement: articulate, smart, passionate, committed, and courageous in the face of prejudice and threat. And there were hundreds of such men and women. For example, Doug McAdam provides an appendix in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 listing well over 150 leaders from churches, NAACP local chapter, independents, and students who were important protest leaders during the late 1950s. And the networks and organizational capabilities of these men and women translated into successful mobilizations throughout the South.
McAdam’s account of the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s also gives particular emphasis to the organizations that existed within African-American society, and the millions of people who supported those organizations. Particularly important were the churches, the local NAACP chapters, and the universities. “Perhaps the most important resource supplied by these institutions was a potentially mobilizable body of participants. By virtue of their integration into the most organized segments of the black community, the students, church members, and NAACP personnel were readily available for recruitment into the movement” (128). The movement was successful in the face of often violent opposition, because hundreds of thousands of African-American people supported its efforts with courage and tenacity.
As we reflect on the legacy of the March on Washington, it is crucial to remember how steep the challenges were and how much we all owe to the activists and followers who joined with King and brought us closer to a society embodying racial justice and equality. And as an observation about history, we can marvel at the magnitude of change that these men and women brought about.