Thursday, August 22, 2013

M.L.King: “The greatest weapon is the mass demonstration.”

As people gather in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, demands of jobs, freedom and an end to racial segregation are as important today as they were a half century ago.

“We are on the threshold of significant breakthrough, and the greatest weapon is the mass demonstration,” King told a close friend in a telephone call wiretapped by the F.B.I. according to the NY Times review of UW Madison historian William P. Jones’ new book, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.

A recent interview of Jones and Gary Younge, author of The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream on Democracy Now! provides valuable background on the March that is left out of most newspaper stories and school history books. Teachers will find the interview (like much on Democracy Now’s daily news programming) a great resource for their classrooms.

The 1963 March on Washington was the largest mass civil rights protest in the nation’s history. When marchers returned to their hometowns, they carried the energy into local protests demanding an end to segregation in public facilities and in favor of full voting rights.

In Milwaukee, those returning from the March on Washington infused their energy into the growing movements against school and housing segregation and policy brutality. As Barbara Miner relates in her book, Lessons from the Heartland, during King’s visit to Milwaukee a few months after the March on Washington,

he publicly addressed the issue of Milwaukee’s schools and agreed that residential segregation should not be used “as an excuse for perpetuating de facto segregation” in schools. In a prescient comment, he noted that “honesty impels me to admit that the school problem cannot be solve permanently until the housing problem is solved.”

The Milwaukee movement took to the streets. A campaign by MUSIC – Milwaukee United School Integration Committee – over the next two years included more than ten demonstrations against intact bussing and more than “sixty people arrested as they formed human chains, sat, knelt or stood in front of schools buses, went limp, and were tossed into patrol wagons, all to the tune of freedom songs.”

Two hundred consecutive days of open housing marches followed in 1967 and 1968, led by Father Groppi, Alderwoman Vel Phillips, and the NAACP Youth Council as they march across the 16th Street viaduct, at times being met by thousands of hostile and violent whites.

Mass demonstrations do not automatically lead to success. But they provide a time-honored way to promote activism and to invigorate broader social movements. For instance, it took two years after the March on Washington before the 1965 Voting Rights passed — and then years more of organizing to secure the right for all people.

A generation later, conservative forces are challenging voting rights through measures such as voter ID and an end to same day registration. It is an important lesson that the struggle for fundamental rights is ever-unfolding.

The ebb and flow of history was also evident in the populist uprising in Wisconsin in the spring of 2011. While the mass protests were unsuccessful in stopping Act 10, they were an unprecedented showing of grassroots political power; tens of thousands of citizens increased their understanding of how corporate power can corrode democracy. The current chapter in Wisconsin history is far from over.

Mass demonstrations, by their very nature, rely on grassroots support. To be successful, they must be grounded in political organizing that respects the essential role of everyday people in building a better world.

In September, Milwaukee area people will have the opportunity participate in two marches and rallies that continue M. L. King’s tradition of popular protest.

Milwaukeeans will take to the streets on Labor Day, September 2. A coalition of labor unions, including the MTEA, has organized two marches (one from the north side and one from the south side) to meet with a picnic and family celebration at Zeidler Park. For details click here.

Then on September 21 Milwaukeeans will again march across the 16th Street Viaduct in under the slogan “Public Education is a Civil Right.” A coalition of over 50 organizations and community leaders, including the MTEA, is sponsoring the march drawing attention to the need for full support of public schools as the foundation of multiracial democracy. For a flyer click here and for list of sponsors, details and to sign up go to the Facebook page PublicEducationIsACivilRight.

Dr. King’s statement about mass demonstrations being a great weapon is as true today as when the F.B.I. wiretapped him saying it a half century ago.

Let’s continue King’s tradition in Washington D.C. on August 24, and then in Milwaukee on Labor Day, September 2 and on September 21 at the Public Education is a Civil Right March and Rally.