On a glorious afternoon in August 1963, after the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom wrapped up on the national mall, President John F. Kennedy, prodded by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, welcomed John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, and other march organizers to the White House for a discussion of proposed civil rights legislation. Fifty-four years later, on an afternoon in January 2017, when the even more massive Women’s March on Washington wrapped up, President Donald Trump responded with a sarcastic tweet. Just the day before, Trump’s team had removed the “civil rights” page from the issues section of the WhiteHouse.gov website and replaced it with a new entry entitled “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community.” The page is still missing.
Today, with the three branches of government controlled by men intolerant of dissent and hounded by their own dark vision of pluralism, few human rights advocates of any stripe can reasonably expect a hearing in Washington. Our long-running, ongoing, unfinished American civil rights struggle that so often focused on pressing the federal government toward justice, is suddenly in uncharted territory. The legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King has slammed up against the legacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace, whose snarling campaign for president in 1968 has come home to roost in the presidency of Donald Trump. Where civil rights leaders, warriors, and foot soldiers found support in high places they will now find a void.
Partners With Power
Amid discussion of renewed civil rights activism, you may well ask whether we’ll need to fight those fights all over again. Will black people once more have to claim their humanity? For perspective on this moment, let’s consider why the strategies of the southern liberation struggle worked as well as they did back in the day.
The classic civil rights movement (1954-1965) was sparked, organized, and driven by local people and leaders (maids, teachers, farmers, cooks, janitors, students, ministers) in a hundred southern towns who, with ferocious courage, stood up and said “No more!” Their victories — some temporary, some lasting — regularly depended on their ability as citizens to reach beyond local and state segregationists to faraway presidents, congressional representatives, federal circuit court judges, and Supreme Court justices in Washington, appealing to them to respond with regulations, executive orders, laws, and even armed force.
Dogged organizing by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), together with the NAACP’s decades-long legal campaigns, Martin Luther King’s rhetorical genius, and the massed moral crusade of black southerners first shamed and finally forced the latent hand of federal power. Alert to this leapfrog tactic, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others went a step further and tried unsuccessfully to appeal to the United Nations, as more recently have the parents of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Jordan Davis.