Monday, January 18, 2010

On Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, watch his "I Have a Dream" speech

I was there in August 1963, which actually doesn't seem like all that long ago. Dr. King was an extraordinary leader, murdered in his prime. But there were many others, now all gone, without whom the vast changes in American society since that day might not have happened.

The 1963 March on Washington, which is often referred to these days as "Dr. King's march on Washington," was actually the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

Randolph was the grand old man of the civil rights leadership at the time. President of the all-Black railroad Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (wow, how archaic does that seem!) and a Vice President of the AFL-CIO, Randolph was arguably the only person who could have forged the alliance of all the major civil rights groups, key labor unions and white liberal organizations that made the March happen.

Bayard Rustin, a veteran of decades of pacifist, socialist and civil rights causes and an advocate of Ghandian non-violent resistance, might well be regarded as the most important organizational and political thinker and organizer behind the civil rights protests that emerged in 1950s and 1960s. Rustin was a prime mover behind the creation of the activist Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). His was the strategic brain behind the 1956 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott that catapulted King into the movement's leadership. He and King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) the next year. SCLC, its youth arm, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and CORE were the groups that propelled the movement through a decade of turmoil and advances. And it was Rustin's organizational genius that made the 1963 March a resounding success. (Rustin always took a back seat publicly because his brief youthful flirtation with the Communist Party and his homosexuality made him an easy target.)

All that said, of course, Dr. King gave the movement its crucial inspirational leadership. At no moment was that more obvious than on August 28, 1963 when his stirring speech at the Lincoln Memorial made history.

Any thoughts on this day? Post a comment.

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