Civil-rights era: Dangerous time for activists

Prepare, America. Aug. 28 is the 50th anniversary of the Great March on Washington, the watershed event in 1963 that culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Get ready for the televised memorials of that historical moment, but expect them to be light on actual history and heavy on platitude and spin. Predictably and sadly, the passage of time has blurred the realities of the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement that fought — and saw many of its faithful slaughtered — to purge the nation of this immoral outrage.

Expect network and cable airheads to muse about “what Reverend King might say about race relations today.” Expect numerous attempts to measure “how far we’ve come” in securing civil rights and equality for African-Americans and others formerly categorized as “colored.” It’s difficult if not impossible to fully appreciate and assess where the nation is today without a thorough understanding of the past. A lot of us weren’t alive then or were too young to be aware. History tends to recall the march as a singular event, rather than framing it in a long program of direct action, one step in an extremely long movement for justice.

Some will proclaim that King’s dream has been fulfilled in the fact that a biracial man is in the White House, by the success of Oprah Winfrey and by the fact that interracial dating and marriage no longer leads to bloodshed.

Others might point out that the full name of that gathering that drew more than 250,000 marchers to D.C. in August 1963 was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They’ll note that many black, brown and Native American people lack equal access to quality public education and are more likely than whites to be born into poverty.

Both points of view have merit.

King’s children have commented for years that if everyone who claimed to have marched with their father actually had done so, civil rights would have been secured much sooner than they were. As it happened, more political pressure had to be applied and more blood had to be spilled before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were enacted.

At times I think we have reinvented the march. We like King’s soaring, high-minded oratory, and we’re not ashamed to co-opt it for feel-good moments in sentimental movies like Forrest Gump. We prefer a version that could be called MLK Lite. We like to think that because nonviolence triumphed over violence, the nation and its violent history could be redeemed. But the fact is that this outcome was anything but a certainty, such were the times.

What’s often missing is a deep understanding of how dangerous such marches could be, how susceptible to assault and murder participants were.

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in which four African-American girls died, was three weeks after the Washington march. The burning of the freedom riders’ buses in 1961 stoked fears of a similar incident for the more than 2,000 buses that brought marchers to the mall.

Even John F. Kennedy had to be convinced that the march could be a positive event, and his declaration to the nation that ending segregation was a moral calling was a hard-won victory. And it was one fought not only by King, but a cadre of other clergy, union leaders and civil-rights activists whose names are rarely recalled.

King, in fact, had called out what he termed the Kennedy administration’s “schizophrenic tendency” on civil rights just months before the march.

Initially, King favored simultaneous marches around the country and work stoppages to press Congress and Kennedy to pass civil-rights legislation. It was a delicate balance; movement leaders weighed the possibility of turning off legislators and the public from supporting civil rights against the possibility of gaining wider attention and support.

Two books provide especially enlightening accounts of the planning, the jostling with the Kennedy administration, the hesitancy and fear about the march among both white and black people. They are David J. Garrow’s Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch.

If America had a book club, I could think of no better assignment for August.

©2013 The Kansas City Star

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