Democracy Colleges As Schools For Citizenship

By Harry C. Boyte

Today, on Martin Luther King’s Holiday, I’ve been thinking about the March on Washington, and how much its citizenship message is relevant to the American Commonwealth Partnership.

In the summer of 1963, my father, Harry George Boyte, went on staff of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At his urging I hitch-hiked across the country, arriving in Washington the day before, August 27, 1963, on my way to Duke as a freshman in the fall. I lay in a sleeping bag on the floor of his hotel room. Early in the morning, I heard King’s booming voice in a nearby room, practicing “I Have a Dream.”

It was an electric moment. The message took on added depth and power throughout the march. King’s speech that day struck notes of what he called the “marvelous militancy” infusing the movement. “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” King combined his edgy challenge to “business as usual”with a spirit of discipline and redemption. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he declared. The march’s program notes, issued in the name of march leaders but most likely written by march organizer Bayard Rustin, conveyed a similar message, calling people to rise to a larger citizenship, despite whatever justifiable anger many might feel. “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.”

Public histories tend to portray the movement as great mobilizations. But as Charles Euchner describes in Nobody Turn Me Around, subtitled a “people’s history of the 1963 March on Washington,” the leaders’ civic messages channeled a movement culture which had incubated for years in “schools of citizenship” in local communities. In college campuses and beauty parlors, church basements and nonviolent training workshops, sermons, songs, and a myriad of other practices, people developed the sobriety of citizens, the ability to put aside immediate impulses for the larger work, to keep long range goals in clear view, to “keep our eyes on the prize” in the words of the freedom song. I saw this process again and again as I worked in the Citizenship Education Program of SCLC over the next two years. All this added up to a vast process of citizenship education that spread beyond the movement, which helped to wake up the nation after the somnolent, consumerist, privatized 1950s.

Today, we need a similar re-awakening. The bitter divisions along lines of partisanship, income, race, religion and geography are fed by devaluation of the talents and intelligence of people without credentials and celebrity status. Private pursuits have taken the place of public ones. What one owns is too often the measure of one’s value. Our citizenship declines while we are entertained as spectators, pacified as clients and pandered to as customers. We need again to call forth America’s democratic genius of a self-reliant, productive, future-oriented citizenry. And the American Commonwealth Partnership, growing democracy colleges as new schools of citizenship for the 21st century, aims to respond to the need.

Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership.