On August 28, 1963 something truly amazing occurred: the birth of true Democracy came to our shores for the very first time. Martin Luther King, Jr. famous “I Have a Dream “ speech resonated throughout the land, and as his companion in the fight for Democracy, Ralph Abernathy wrote in his excellent memoir of the same name, “The Walls Came Tumbling Down.”
Although It wasn’t just King’s speech alone that caused the onrush of freedom for women, gays, the rights of the planet earth not to be destroyed by human greed, and often overlooked, the rights of freedom of movement for the elderly and folks who suffer from handicaps (those kneeling buses, indented sidewalks and accommodations on public transportation for wheelchairs we now take for granted in cites and towns across the nation, didn’t come into being until advocates of rights for freedom of movement started using the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement)-- it brilliantly summed up, for all to hear, just what an American Democracy should look like for the first time in our short history.
As William P. Jones In his book The March on Washington: Job, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, Dr. King, the father of the Civil Rights Movement had many grandfathers and grandmothers, both black and white, and many greatgrandparents, for that matter.
One of the grandest grandfathers of all was the towering trade union leader A. Philip Randolph, who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping car Porters and Maids, who first called for a march on Washington in 1941 to press for equal opportunity in employment and the armed forces.
Professor Jones, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, first takes us through the volatile radical politics of 30s. For reason unknown, the 60s always grabbed the headlines for American radicalism, but that decade pales in comparison beside the 30s, the decade Randolph earned his strips.
Because of the Great Depression, starting with the collapse of Wall Street in 1929, the fun years of the “roaring twenties,” with its blazing stock market, jazz and endless booze, dancing and sex, was over.
Now, outright Fascist, Communist, Socialist, Anarchist, Racist ruled the streets with rigid rules that must be followed. Meanwhile, the old establishment dug in, ready for a fight.
What I found most interesting about this decade, with its many problems, and so many politicizing, polarizing ideas, was that so many highly intelligent, educated people, black and white, most with advance degrees from major universities, decided to use that education and intelligence not to pursue personal wealth, but to try and bring about a better world with out the regimentation and violence.
Those that were successful, like Randolph, learned to take what they could, and two-stepped around all the rest of the hard-core Ism, and keep their eyes on what was truly important: turning America into a true democracy.
Professor Jones takes us on a historical journey that I have been down many times, as the history of the Civil Rights Movement slowly unfolds. What I like most about this narrative, which differ from many I have read, is the due he gives to A. Philip Randolph, and especially Bayard Rustin.
The importance of Rustin cannot be exaggerated or overstated. When he first met Dr. Martin Luther King, the young King was leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first civil rights demonstration that gained national attention, due to a large measure of the increasing importance of television, and to the growing threat of unspeakable violence breaking out as blacks started arming themselves in light of the bombings and daily threats directed at them.
Even Dr. King, and Rev. Abernathy requested permits to carry pistols. “I will never forget those threatening telephone calls and letters of intimidation,” Ralph Abernathy wrote two years later.
Writes Jones, “The escalation of violence caught the attention of A. Philip Randolph…and soon after the bombings a small group of civil rights and labor leaders assembled to discuss the problem in New York City…Fearing that open warfare would bring a wave of repression far greater than they had seen already, Randolph and the others resolved to send Bayard Rustin to hold series of workshops on Gandhian nonviolence in Montgomery.
“Despite King’s emphasis on nonviolence and his familiarity with Gandhi, Rustin found that the minister had ‘very limited notions about how a nonviolent protest should be carried out.’ Writing about his experience years later, Rustin recalled, “I do not believe that one does honor to Dr. King by assuming that, somehow, he had been prepared for his job…The glorious thing is that he came to a profoundly deep understanding of nonviolence through the struggle itself, and through reading and discussions which he had in the process of carrying on the protest.””
In addition to introducing King to the leading black activist intellectual in America at the time, Randolph also offered him more down to earth help by putting him in touch with black union activists in Birmingham, who help raise funds to send to Montgomery.
I thought a great deal about Rustin sitting alone with King at his dinner table, late into the night, in a polarized southern city, with the very real threat of a bomb loudly bursting into their quiet space at any moment, instructing King in what Gandhi was trying to tell us about how nonviolence resistant weakens the oppressor until he realize that he has no moral grounds to stand on, for wrongs he is doing.
All of could think of what is happening in the Mideast as I write this. Where is a Rustin when we need one!
Randolph gambit paid off, as a brilliant Rustin made sure that King fully understood what it meant when he invoked the name of Gandhi.
One final point, and one that drives be crazy each time I read a book like this. Professor Jones makes the same historic mistake that I have trying to correct for decades: W.E.B. DuBois did not found the NAACP.
Mary White Overton did, and she is perhaps the greatest unsung heroine in American history. Don’t bother to look her up on Wikipedia, she does not have a page.
Here is the true story: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908 was a mass civil disturbance in Springfield, Illinois, sparked by the transfer of two African American prisoners out of the city jail by the county sheriff. This act enraged many white citizens, who responded by rioting in black neighborhoods, destroying and burning black-owned businesses and homes, and killing black citizens.
By the end of the riot, there were at least seven deaths and $200,000 in property damage. It was the only riot against blacks in United States history in which more white deaths (five) were recorded than black (two). The riot led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization to work for civil rights, education and improving relations, between blacks and whites.
Overton, a New Yorker, was appalled by the violence and destruction of property, no less in Lincoln’s hometown, so in 1909 she issue The Call to prominent religious and social leaders, including reaching out to Dr. DuBois, Harvard’s first black graduate , who, at the time, was trying to get the organization he founded with Monroe Trotter, The Niagara Movement, off the ground.
In this case, this would be movement does have a Wikipedia page: The Niagara Movement was a black civil rights organization founded in 1905 by a group led by W.E.B. DuBois and William Monroe Trotter. It was named for the "mighty current" of change the group wanted to effect and Niagara Falls, the Canadian side of which was where the first meeting took place in July 1905. The Niagara Movement was a call for opposition to racial segregation and disenfranchisement, and it was opposed to policies of accommodation and conciliation promoted by African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington.
In 1910, a year later after joining Overton’s new interracial organization, DuBois started the Crisis magazine, which became the official publication of the newly minted NAACP, and became one of the most feared magazine in American history.
When I became the editor of the Crisis in 1984, only the sixth in its long history, I discovered this hidden history about the central role Mary White Overton played in creating the most effective civil rights organization America has ever seen.
Let us hope that future books on the history of the civil rights struggle in America give her the same due that Professor Jones gave A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.