It is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, a federal holiday celebrating one of our nation’s most influential civil rights leaders. This being the 25th anniversary of MLK Day, the Corporation for National & Community Service has challenged us to pledge “at least 25 actions during 2011 to make a difference for others and strengthen our communities.” Many of us enjoy positions of privilege we do not fully appreciate, and treat this holiday as a day off rather than a “day on,” as my teachers used to say. If today has no other affect, I hope it will at least serve as a reminder to reflect on the importance of civil rights and equal opportunities. Moreover, I hope it will help us recognize our own prejudices – whether demonstrated by our actions or just in our thoughts – so that we can overcome them. In light of recent events, we would also do well to remember that Dr. King made many calls-to-action, but none were calls-to-arms, none were pleas for violence.
Below, we present the chapter “Standing with Lincoln” from All the People: A History of Us by Joy Hakim, which looks back on all the effort (and cheese sandwiches!) that went into the August 1963 march on Washington.
The civil rights leaders were human, and so there were rivalries and jealousies. They disagreed among themselves. Those from older organizations, like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), were at their best working through the courts and trying to change the laws. That was a slow process; it took skilled leadership. The lawyer Thurgood Marshall and the labor chief A. Philip Randolph were that kind of leader.
Martin Luther King, Jr., had helped organize the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Its appeal was to the mass of moderate churchgoing blacks; most of its leaders were ministers. But many young people were impatient with both of these approaches, which seemed too slow-moving. They formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), known as SNICK. SNCC and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) organized many of the sit-ins in college communities. Some black groups wanted to fight with fists, weapons, and anger. Everyone knew that if they got their way, much of the high purpose of the civil rights movement would be lost. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., had made civil rights a cause for all Americans. It was about quality. It was about justice and freedom for all. It wasn’t just for blacks—although most of the leadership was black.
For years, A. Philip Randolph had talked of a freedom rally in the nation’s capital. Perhaps it would bring the diverse black leaders together. Perhaps it would bring black and white people together. Perhaps it would influence Congress.
President Kennedy had sent a civil rights bill to Congress. Would it be passed? No one was sure. A march would show Congress and the president the importance of the civil rights movement. Many thought that Kennedy was paying more attention to affairs in Cuba and Vietnam than to the problem of unfairness at home. When President Kennedy gave a speech in West Berlin, Germany, about political freedom, it inspired cheers from people around the world. But some Americans weren’t enthusiastic. They knew there was a kind of freedom that was missing right here in America—it went straight to the soul and spirit of an individual. The black leaders understood that soul freedom.
Exactly 100 years had passed since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Some white people were still telling black people to be patient. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We can’t wait any longer. Now is the time.” Philip Randolph was 74. If ever he was to have his march, it had to be soon. And so it was decided: on August 28, 1963, there would be a march for freedom in Washington, D.C. Black leaders hoped that 100,000 people would participate. The marchers were going to demand four things: passage of the civil rights bill; integration of schools by year’s end; an end to job discrimination; and a program of job training. Bayard Rustin, who was a whiz at organizing, was in charge.
Rustin got to work. He had 21 drinking fountains, 24 first-aid stations, and lots of portable toilets set up on Washington’s grassy Mall. Workers made 80,000 cheese sandwiches. Movie stars, singers, high-school bands, preachers, and politicians practiced speeches and songs. The speakers and entertainers were to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and look toward the tall, slender Washington Monument and, beyond that, to the nation’s Capitol.
Rustin worried about every detail. He got a big hook and put it on the end of a long stick. Then he gave careful instructions to a helper he called the “hook man.” Anyone who spoke too long was to be pulled from the microphones by the hook man.
Two thousand buses headed for Washington, and 21 chartered trains. A man with a freedom banner roller-skated from Chicago. An 82-year-old man bicycled from Ohio. Another, who was younger, came by bike from South Dakota. Sixty thousand whites came. Television crews, high in the Washington Monument, guessed that there were 250,000 people altogether.
It was a day filled with song, and hope, and good will. Finally, in the late afternoon, the last of the speakers stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. He began with a prepared speech, which was formal and dignified, as was his nature. Then something happened inside him. Perhaps he responded to the crowd. Perhaps his training as a preacher took over. Whatever it was, he left his written speech and began talking from his heart. “I have a dream,” he said.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!
Then he challenged the whole nation, not just those who were marching.
So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado; let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia; let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee; let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”