Civil Rights

A few thoughts on recent Civil Rights commemorations

On August 28, the nation celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event whose name has been conveniently shortened by dropping the four very significant words at the end. On that day in 1963, the whole nation got a taste of what had, at that point, been going on mainly in the Deep South. The frustration that had become resolve was displayed publicly and peacefully, not in a mostly rural, historically backwards region that was easily ignored, but in the nation’s capitol, right in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool and the White House. On that day fifty years ago, ordinary Americans also got a taste of the eloquence with which Dr. King had been leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other movements, and he inspired a larger crowd than ever before to side with righteousness and move away from both bigotry and complacency. When he strayed from his scripted speech and let the “I have a dream” remarks fly, this huge crowd felt the same awe and fascination that had been felt by non-Southerners a decade earlier when they realized that Deep Southern music ­– Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, James Brown – was the most incredible thing they had ever heard.

I am too young to have participated in the Civil Rights movement, but I have worked on commemoration projects with movement veterans, and I have studied the movement more than most Americans. I’m no expert but I know enough to have recognized what has been left out in recent looks back. Much of the media coverage of the week has discussed the commonly repeated facts and modern reactions to them. But what disappoints me most is the near-total neglect of Bayard Rustin as the March’s organizer in favor of focusing energy on remembering King’s infamous speech. Rustin was an openly gay black man who had been one of King’s early mentors, urging him toward a nonviolent stance. (Read the chapter on Bayard Rustin in Howell Raines’ My Soul Is Rested for more details.) Rustin’s life has always deserved attention, but he seems particularly deserving of attention right now given the juxtaposition of the March’s anniversary and the current so-called gay rights debates, like the DOMA and Prop 8 rulings. Among the tokens of appreciation for the March on Washington’s lasting effects should have come an acknowledgment that an openly gay man planned it.

In case you don’t have a copy of My Soul Is Rested, here are two articles you can reference to get a fuller picture of Bayard Rustin’s importance. The first by Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter, “What Bayard Rustin’s Role in the March on Washington teaches us about the Church.” provides a solid portrait.The second article, “Obama, Bayard Rustin and the New LGBT Civil-Rights Movement” from The Atlantic, is less about Rustin but still puts his work into a modern context.

What was also disappointing about the coverage of the anniversary last week is the common omission of “for Jobs and Freedom.” In America, the degree of freedom that a person enjoys is largely based on his or her economic situation. We may be a democratic country, but we’re also a capitalist country. Though we rarely heap shame on people who don’t vote – as evidence by sometimes pitiful voter turnout – but not to have a job carries a stigma in our culture. Within reason, any person can have access to anything they can pay for, and  far more political power is derived from the ability to shell out money than from the ability to vote.  Sadly, even voting is beginning to have associated fees again, since some states are now requiring a  picture ID to vote.  An ordinary person with no job, in this country, may be able to vote but he or she has less freedom than a person with a steady income. The omission of those last four words – “for Jobs and Freedom” – relegates the March to being something more general than it was. Why were they marching anyway? For jobs and freedom!

This fact is especially important to consider in context of the Labor Day holiday this weekend. On the first Monday in September, Americans take the day off to eat barbecue and watch parades . . . but too few people remember, or even know, why. Jobs and freedom! Labor Day was originally a show of force by labor unions who had their members lay out of work on the first Monday in September, to show the employers that workers had power, too. As a political move that came later, Labor Day was made a national holiday in an effort to nullify the ability of the unions to show their effectiveness annually. (You can read the Department of Labor’s explanation of the holiday’s history by clicking here.) Now, nearly all Americans get to take Monday off to honor laborers in the same way that we honor our soldiers on Veteran’s Day.

I’m always glad when the history and struggles of the Civil Rights movement are offered to the general public as reminders that “freedom isn’t free.” (We recognize that openly about overseas conflicts related to national security, but too often we fail to recognize the domestic struggles.) Yet to oversimplify these situations doesn’t do them justice. My little two cents about the whole thing would go like this: How do you think those thousands of people knew to show up to hear King give that speech? Through the organizational work done by many hard-working, innovative people like Bayard Rustin who get mentioned far less often. And how are we supposed to implement Dr. King’s dream? Though jobs and freedom.

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