What made that one-day event so successful was that in every city and community in the country civil rights protest had been taking place. March organizers did not call people to organize on the grassroots level because that was occurring everywhere through local leaders. What the organizers needed to do was to get those local leaders to bring their people from their towns and hamlets to Washington. The hard work was getting all these people to cooperate and come together around the common themes of “Jobs and Freedoms.” Dr. King’s “I Have Dream Speech” was the topping on the cake. He voiced the collective aspirations of a country and a people who had been denied both full employment and civic liberties. However, the real work as King knew so well had been done on the grassroots level and without that organizing that speech would not be remembered today.
Back in 1963, what the March organizers accomplished outlasted the Dodgers’ pennant win. And it will surely out last the tomfoolery of the latest conservative media spectacle. Let us not be distracted by romanticization of the past or angered by this momentary nonsense of reactionary conservatism. Rather, let us commit ourselves to organizing and building on the legacy that made that very special day forty-seven years ago possible.
And finally, CNN has put together a nice history of SNCC video today, featuring my dear friend Maria Varela:
Her work is relatively little known to the general public, and appears infrequently even in studies of this era, but she took some of the most interesting, "in the action" photographs I've seen from that era, and has gone on to a lifetime of community organizing (and a MacArthur award) since then. "My 60s wasn't sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll," she likes to say, a favorite chestnut that I like to use when students start repeating tired cliches about the 60s, or older folks repeat even tireder cliches about the same period.
Maria came at this era from a Catholic social justice perspective, complementary to but very different from the Protestant underpinnings of most of her black (and white) SNCC compatriots. My students hugely enjoyed the couple of times I've been able to have Maria around the classroom for dialogues about the history of SNCC -- our interpretations of the period are quite different, and clash at some points, including on the relationship of SNCC to religious faith. I'll always treasure that dialogue.