Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t there by himself.
On that sweltering sunlit day of August 28, 1963, King and the other leaders of the national civil rights organizations didn’t stand at the Lincoln Memorial and speak their powerful words to an empty outdoor auditorium of the National Mall.
They spoke to the masses of the movement – a quarter-million strong in Washington that day, and millions more glued to television sets and radios around the country. And they spoke to White America for the masses of the movement.
But it’s critically important to understand that their speaking for the masses was, in significant measure, just a matter of convenience.
It in no way diminishes the oratorical, intellectual and tactical brilliance of King; Whitney M. Young, Jr. of the National Urban League; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the famous Black union of Pullman railroad porters; Dorothy I. Height of the National Council of Negro Women; John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality; or the organizational genius of Bayard Rustin to say they didn’t build the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s by themselves.
The masses of Black Americans and their few allies among other Americans – those who stood on the front lines and those who worked behind the scenes – did. They did so by their work, largely out of the somewhat protective spotlight of the national media, in scores of Southern cities, towns and hamlets. And they did so at a great cost.
The sugary sentimentality that often obscures the reality of the civil rights movement era glosses over the fact that the March itself was bracketed by two terrible acts of racial violence. It occurred just two months after Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s fearless Mississippi field secretary, was assassinated as he stood in the driveway of his home, and two weeks before Klan extremists in Birmingham, Ala. dynamited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church during its Sunday School hour, killing four young Black girls.
That those evil acts did not provoke the Black masses to break their commitment to nonviolence underscores their profound discipline – and patience with White America – during those years.
I’ve always considered the three most metaphorical events of the Movement to have been the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955; the Little Rock (Ark.) school desegregation effort of 1957; and the first attempt by civil rights activists in Selma, Ala. to march from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote:
The one: a citywide protest that ordinary Black working people undertook at considerable peril to their always-precarious economic livelihoods.
The second: the courageous decision by ordinary Black parents and their children to directly challenge a state’s segregationist political and civic leadership – despite the threat of violence always lurking in the background.
The third: a band of nonviolent demonstrators who, facing a murderous posse of Alabama state police, showed anew that the masses’ commitment to nonviolence could defeat the Southern power structure’s continued commitment to evil.
In all these actions, it was the masses who gave certain individuals or a group of people among them the authority to represent them.
Of course, the Movement’s national leadership understood the role of the masses better than anyone. So, King, in his historic speech paid homage to them in words that are still too little recalled: “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”
Tragically, they would for some years after that continue to endure such “unearned suffering.”
But the masses of the Movement persevered then and beyond the 1960s, and over the last four decades have brilliantly used the power of the vote their activism brought them to help redeem the Constitution’s “self-evident” declaration about the “unalienable rights” of human beings.
So, as America marks the hallowed moment of the 1963 March on Washington, let us remember not only who was on the podium but also who made up the vast throng surrounding the Lincoln Memorial – the ones who in equal measure made it an event for the ages.