By Harry C. Boyte
In a coincidence of history, President Obama took the oath of office on the Martin Luther King Holiday, January 21, 2013. He sounded a call for collective action, with his hand on Martin Luther King’s bible.
Like King a half century ago in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama employed a language of citizenship, declaring that all must work together as citizens to advance the founding creed of the nation and to meet challenges of today. Obama has immersed himself in study of the black church tradition of call and response, which King brilliantly embodied. And in the citizen response to Obama’s call, we can use lessons from the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King is rightly remembered this year as a dreamer. But to see King only as a dreamer is to miss his greatness.
Stretched out on the floor in a sleeping bag in my father’s hotel room, I heard King practice the speech in the early morning hours of August 28th. My father had just gone on staff of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only white on the executive committee. Dad called me, hitch-hiking in California before college, and told me to come back. “We’ve planned a march to get the attention of the nation,” he said.
In “I Have a Dream,” King strikes a bold tone. “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights,” King said. King’s Dream speech was also a call to citizenship, to act with the welfare of the whole society in mind:
“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
King lived what community organizers describe as the tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. This is hard to do. The strong tendency is to split the two. On the one hand we have our ideals and those who embody them. On the other there is the vicious, violent world and of course the evil doers who are seen as its agents.
King refused this Manichean division of the world. He rooted his dream in the soil of human fallibility. He was fully aware of the propensities toward pettiness, jealousy, meanness in everyone – including himself. It was his ability to dream coupled with his rootedness in the human condition with its full complexity which made Martin Luther King great.
This rootedness of King is often missing in today’s tributes. The current controversy over the King Memorial in Washington illustrates the pattern.
In 2011, the poet Maya Angelou told the Washington Post she was upset at the paraphrase of a quote on the Memorial. The quote, from a sermon King gave on March 4, 1968, read: “If you want to say that I was a drum major say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.” On the Memorial the inscription was shortened to read “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
Angelou said, “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He never would have said that of himself. He said, ‘you might say it.’ It minimizes the man. It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was.” After a wave of such criticisms, the Park Service agreed to remove the inscription.
I have high regard for Maya Angelou and her writing. But she was wrong about King.
The sermon wasn’t creating a hypothetical. King begins the sermon querying those who condemn James and John for their request, recounted in the 10th chapter of Mark, to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands. King says:
“Why would they make such a selfish request? Before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. There is deep down within all of us kind of a drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”
King continues, the problem is not the Drum Major Instinct. It’s that the follow up question, for what? is rarely asked. That’s the meaning of the quote which was taken off the King Memorial. King’s “for what” drew deeply from conversations with co-workers in the movement. For instance, Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington and long-time adviser to King, was indispensable to creating the platform for “I Have a Dream.” Rustin’s question was always how to move from the world as it is to the world as it should be, or, put differently, how to put power behind vision.
By the mid-sixties, Rustin had become alarmed about the growing tendency of young activists, both black and white, to substitute “posture and volume” for strategy. In 1965 in an article in Commentary, “From Protest to Politics,” he challenged this tendency and proposed an alternative. “The civil rights movement must evolve from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement—an evolution calling its very name into question,” he said. “It is now concerned not merely with removing the barriers to full opportunity but with achieving the fact of equality.”
Rustin argued that the movement for equality requires institutional transformation, not simply moral exhortation. I see the civic transformations of colleges and universities, promoted by the American Commonwealth Partnership in partnership with the White House and the Department of Education, as examples.
Similarly, King also often visited the Dorchester Center in Georgia, where he heard stories and drew inspiration from those being trained in SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program (CEP) to create citizenship schools. Septima Clark, an early teacher, developed CEP’s vision statement: “to broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship.” Such broadening involved change in identity from victim to agent of change, a story told vividly in the book by CEP director Dorothy Cotton, If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement. I worked for CEP as a college student.
King is remembered in his last years for his fiery criticism to the Vietnam War and poverty in America. But we need to recall that he was also a Drum Major – and co-worker — in the movement for equality and for broadening the scope of democracy.
His marching orders have never been more relevant.
In September 2011, Auburn University students Marian Royston and Blake Evans traveled with Dr. Mark Wilson, College of Liberal Arts Director of Civic Learning Initiatives, to the Newnan Public Library in Georgia to interview Willie B. Wyatt regarding his role as one of thirteen students who filed the historic suit, Lee v. Macon County Board of Education, which desegregated Tuskegee High School in 1963. The oral history interview was one of several taken as part of the CLA Community and Civic Engagement Initiative’s participation in the Appalachian Teaching Project. The historic graduation event described below on May 23, 2012 is the result of this collaboration.
MACON CO., AL (WSFA) – You can hear the drum line of Notasulga High school miles away as band members welcome the graduating class of 1964 back to Macon County for a ceremony that’s been long overdue.
“I kind of thought I was a forgotten person from a graduation standpoint,” Willie Wyatt Jr. said.
Wyatt and Anthony Lee along with 10 other students paved the way for integration in Macon County and the state when they integrated two schools in the county.
“On the first day we were turned away by the state troopers. We just wanted to have the same opportunity as the other students did,” Wyatt said.
Lee and Wyatt say they would have graduated on May 25th, 1964 from Notasulga High School, along with now deceased classmate Robert Judkins. But after resistance and violence, the school mysteriously burned.
“[The principal was told] give them there diplomas, let that be there last day of school,” Wyatt said.
He says they were also denied class rings. But with the help of Auburn University and the Macon County School Board and current students who are celebrating them, these men will finally be in their high school cap and gown.
“We’re going to give them the full salutations that they deserve,” Macon County Superintendent Dr. Jacqueline Brooks said.
They will walk with the graduating class of Notasulga high school Wednesday at 7p.m., something they say will be very emotional but will serve as closure.
“To let them know how things were and how things are now and how they can with dreams and preparation and determination accomplish almost anything,” Lee said.
Finally getting the recognition they should have gotten 48 years ago.
The 12 students who integrated Macon County schools are a part of an exhibit on display at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center.
By Scott Warren and Daniel Millenson, Generation Citizen
Over the past several years, addressing educational inequity has become all the rage for recent college graduates, with applications to organizations like Teach For America and City Year skyrocketing. Often dubbed the “Civil Rights Movement of our time,” thousands of college graduates have dedicated themselves to closing the academic achievement gap to help guarantee equality of opportunity for all.
College- and career-readiness, and the improved academic skills they demand, are worthy, but incomplete goals. Ultimately, solutions to America’s most intractable problems must come from the best political resolution mechanism we know: the democratic process. Diplomas and jobs are not enough; we must mold engaged and informed citizens who will take up those challenges. Generation Citizen, an organization that is attempting to empower under-represented youth to be active participants in the democratic process, is predicated on the idea that every young person needs the knowledge and skills to effect change in their community. And the best way to learn civics is by doing civics – what we call “action civics.”
College students are absolutely vital to this equation. With an established record of solid academic achievement and leadership skills, college students are ideal leaders and mentors for secondary students, and can help them learn about and navigate the democratic process to take effective action on issues they care about.
Even more importantly, secondary students, in turn, can help collegians transcend the town-gown divide and develop an understanding of their communities outside the confines of the ivory tower. At a school like Brown University, students rarely get off of “College Hill”, not even knowing that their ID provides free local bus passes. This is a problem.
Hence Generation Citizen’s model, in which top-notch college volunteers work in low-income secondary classrooms for a semester to help students take action on an issue they care about, giving them a foundation for effecting community change. College students learn about the problems in the community through talking to the people most affected by the local politics.
Waiting for graduation to enlist college students in social justice careers is too late; majors and often career paths have already been decided. For our college volunteers, the experience is life-changing, and they frequently change their majors or career paths after participating in the program. Ensuring underrepresented youth have the knowledge and skills to make their voices heard – voices amplified by committed college volunteers – can help make our democracy truly representative.
Scott Warren is the Executive Director of Generation Citizen, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering underrepresented youth to be active participants in the democratic process. He is a current recipient of an Echoing Green Fellowship, and was a finalist for the Truman Scholarship. Scott graduated from Brown University with a degree in International Relations. In 2002, Scott served as an observer in the first truly democratic elections in Kenya’s history, where he began to recognize the transformative potential of democracy. During college, Scott served as the National Student Director of STAND, a national student anti-genocide coalition. Scott also helped lead successful campaigns to divest Brown University, the City of Providence, and the State of Rhode Island from companies conducting business in Sudan. Scott founded Generation Citizen his senior year at Brown with the aim of helping to create an authentic democratic experience for all youth across the country, keeping in mind the transformative power he first witnessed in Kenya.
Daniel Millenson is the managing director of Generation Citizen. Daniel spent the last two years as a Teach For America corps member in the Mississippi Delta, where he taught 11th and 12th grade English in one of the poorest counties in the state. Daniel graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in philosophy and history and was a finalist for the Truman Scholarship. While an undergraduate at Brandeis University, Daniel was the co-founder and national advocacy director of the Sudan Divestment Task Force (SDTF), a national effort to apply economic pressure on Sudan to halt the genocide in Darfur. Starting in 2005, SDTF pushed universities and public pension funds to divest their portfolios of companies engaged in problematic business operations in Sudan, ultimately getting divestment policies adopted by over 60 universities, 24 states, and the federal government.