DANIELS: Celebrating the 'Masses' of the Mass Movement

Lee A. Daniels | 8/21/2013, 3 p.m.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't there by himself.
Lee A. Daniels

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t there by himself.

On that sweltering sunlit day of Aug. 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.