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Brooks: The march of ideas

  • A. Philip Randolph, one of the chairmen for the March On Washington, stands in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. (Associated Press)

As we commemorate the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, it's worth remembering how close it came to not happening at all. When A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin started shopping the idea, the Urban League declined to support it, the NAACP refused to commit one way or another, and Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were too busy with other challenges to get engaged. President John Kennedy argued that the march would hurt the chances of passing legislation.

It was only the events in Birmingham, Ala., in early May — the police beatings, the snapping dogs, the fire hoses turned on people — that galvanized the movement. Without Bull Connor's brutal overreaction, there might not have been a history-making march.

It's also worth remembering that while today we take marches and protests for granted, the tactics of the civil rights movement had deep philosophical and religious roots. The leaders rejected the soft meliorism of more secular activists, the idea that significant progress could be made through consciousness-raising and education campaigns, through consensus and gradual reform. As Rustin put it, African-American leaders like him looked upon “the middle-class idea of long-term educational and cultural changes with fear and mistrust.” They wanted a set of tactics that were at once more aggressive and at the same time deeply rooted in biblical teaching. That meant the tactics had to start with love, not hate; nonviolence, not violence; renunciation, not self-indulgence. “Ours would be one of nonresistance,” Randolph told the Senate Armed Services Committee all the way back in 1948. “We would be willing to absorb the violence, absorb the terrorism, to face the music and to take whatever comes.” At the same time this tactic was not passive. It was not just turning the other cheek, loving your enemies or trying to win people over with friendship. Nonviolent coercion was an ironic form of aggression. Nonviolence furnished the movement with a series of tactics that allowed it to remain on permanent offense.

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