Beck, King and nonviolence
It’s not exactly a memorable anniversary year – not the 25th, or 50th, or 75th year since Martin Luther King’s memorable “I Have a Dream Speech.” It’s the 47th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington on Saturday, and this one may become memorable because in this highly charged election year, the day is being claimed from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Charles Euchner has chronicled the actual day more than 40 years ago (and less than 50) in “Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington,” released this month by Beacon Press. Here, Euchner, who teaches writing at Yale University and is the author of eight books, reflects on the competing commemorations taking place in Washington this weekend.
By Charles Euchner
On the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington -- “the greatest demonstration for freedom in our nation’s history,” in Martin Luther King’s words -- a coalition of conservative groups, including the Tea Party, and the Rev. Al Sharpton plan dueling rallies.
Glenn Beck, the conservative radio talk show host who has called President Barack Obama racist and compared Al Gore to Nazis, says he plans to unveil a “100-year plan” to “reclaim” America. He will be joined by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and, presumably, at least 100,000 demonstrators on the National Mall where King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” oration 47 years ago.
Sharpton, no stranger to controversy since his involvement in the Tawana Brawley fiasco in 1987, plans to lead a march from Washington’s historic Dunbar High School to the site of a planned King memorial on the mall. Sharpton says he wants no confrontations with the Tea Party, only to honor King’s legacy. The NAACP and 200 other civil rights organizations, meanwhile, have planned a major rally for October 2 to “celebrate the dream.”
Mass demonstrations have played a powerful role in American history -- from the Boston Tea Party and Shay’s Rebellion to rallies for labor rights and women’s suffrage to modern civil rights, peace, women’s rights demonstrations.
But for every march with impact, hundreds or even thousands of marches fall flat or, worse, tear communities apart.
The 1963 March on Washington succeeded -- not only improving prospects for landmark civil rights legislation, but also changing mainstream America’s appreciation of blacks --because its leaders focused on the universal values of fairness, nonviolence, and respect for friends and foes alike.
Philip Randolph, the aging labor leader, originally called the march to demand jobs and training for blacks. Blacks suffered high unemployment rates, low wages, and the loss of jobs from technology. But to get King and other mainstream civil rights leaders to join, the focus shifted to civil rights issues like public accommodations, voting rights, and protection from police and mob violence.
When President John F. Kennedy announced landmark civil rights legislation on June 11, the march became a massive push to get Congress to pass the bill.
The march took place at a time -- like today -- of incendiary rhetoric, unrest and violence, and corrosive cynicism about government’s potential to do the right thing. Extremists on both right and left rejected King’s call for nonviolence and integration. Police and march organizers feared violence, for good reason. Death threats and bomb scares were an everyday reality. The American Nazi Party planned a counter-rally with 10,000 followers, and its leader said he “would love to see” celebrity supporters of civil rights “trampled by their coon friends.”
On that long-ago August afternoon, order prevailed. Americans watching live TV coverage -- the first time anyone ever saw the movement gather together -- witnessed a joyous but determined crowd. One commentator likened it to a church picnic, but it was more than that. With their numbers, marchers presented a “living petition.” Marchers served notice, in King’s words, that they “can never be satisfied” until gaining their full rights as citizens.
But marchers knew they had to avoid responding to violence with violence -- or even returning the vitriol of their foes. When they were attacked or slandered, they were taught to turn away. Only by focusing on higher values -- universal values -- could they succeed.
Speakers and performers were not above attacking segregationists. In “When the Ship Comes In,” Bob Dylan warned enemies of retribution. John Lewis vowed to “splinter the South into a thousand pieces” if the ruling elite did not grant civil rights. King inveighed against “vicious racists.”
But the ’63 marchers reached out to even bitter foes. They vowed to create a new world of fairness that would enhance everyone, black and white. Speaking to southern Democrats who opposed the civil rights bill, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins called out: “Give us a little time and we’ll emancipate you!”
The day’s high point came with King. Every school child today knows his evocation of a dream, which blacks and whites would “join hands” and “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
Missing from that dream is rancor or bitterness. King tells us that he want to join whites, not defeat them. He wants to emancipate foes, not conquer them. He wants to gain the same rights, not demand special privilege.
But he goes further, in the most important moment of the day.
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations,” he says. “Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail 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.”
To all who took beatings and other abuse, who lost jobs and homes, who bore the brunt of corrupt police and mob rule, King offered not so much outrage as hope for all.
“Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive,” he said.
Those four words -- unearned suffering is redemptive -- define the movement. King and his followers knew that change cannot come cheaply, that oppressors do not yield power voluntarily. To gain rights, the activists would have to suffer and sometimes even die -- and they must do so with love and without complaint.
King could ask his followers to stay peaceful, suffer without attacking their adversaries, because he was calling them to a higher plane. Unlike so many modern protesters -- who reject compromise or sacrifice, demand more benefits and lower taxes, and play the victim rather than accepting responsibility -- King and his followers embraced suffering for a higher cause.
As Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, and others gather on the National Mall on August 28, they would profit by dwelling on King’s message of redemption. Rather than attacking opponents and demanding benefits, they might consider how all Americans can come together once again.
Followers of King might not want to give Glenn Beck a break. And suspicious conservatives might rather think the worst of Al Sharpton. But King’s lesson is simple and clear. Every moment offers an opportunity for redemption and overcoming the past.
Steven E. Levingston
August 27, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: beck and march on washington; sharpton and march on washington; king and march on washington; anniversary of march on washington; anniversary of 'I Have a Dream' speech;
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