1.16.2012

When Walking Becomes Marching: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

(Versions of these posts were published previously on Walking Off the Big Apple.)

• When Walking Becomes Marching

On March 12, 1930, when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) set out on his 240-mile march to the seaside town of Dandi to protest the British tax on salt, he was joined by 78 followers. As the walk continued and the word spread of his unconventional means of protest, thousands more joined in the nonviolent protest against the injustices of colonialism. By the time he arrived on April 5, Gandhi had attracted the attention of the whole world.

Marches and walks as a form of demonstration were not new, finding precedents in cities in the 19th century. Years before the March on Washington in 1963, civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph and others had proposed a march on Washington in 1941 to protest discrimination in the war industries.

The march was called off after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation pledging fairness. Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the historic event of August 28, 1963 when an estimated quarter of a million people took part in the walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. That walk, in terms of distance, was not long. It was the symbolism that mattered. The 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965 proved to be more physically difficult.

By 1966, challenges to the strategy of nonviolence emerged within the civil rights community. Responding to the calls for more direct confrontations, King articulated the effectiveness of the marches and boycotts. In the 1966 essay, "Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom," he writes about the power of marching:

"The power of the nonviolent march is indeed a mystery. It is always surprising that a few hundred Negroes marching can produce such a reaction across the nation. When marches are carefully organized around well-defined issues, they represent the power with Victor Hugo phrased as the most powerful force in the world, "an idea whose time has come." Marching feet announce that time has come for a given idea. When the idea is a sound one, the cause is a just one, and the demonstration a righteous one, change will be forthcoming. "
In other words, walking for justice is much more than a solitary stroll.

Image: The statue of Gandhi in the southwest corner of Union Square Park was presented to the city by the Gandhi Memorial International Foundation and dedicated October 2, 1986. The bronze sculpture is by Kantilal B. Patel.


• "Walks Singing": The Selma to Montgomery March, March 21-25, 1965

The distance from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the state capital, is about 54 miles. When marchers assembled for the third attempt to make the walk in support of voting rights with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in March of 1965 - the first had met with state-supported violence at the Pettus Bridge and the second stopped by court order - several participants were not fully prepared for four days of walking 12 miles per day and sleeping in tents on the roadside at night. But conviction will overcome these kind of obstacles.

Thousands of people flew into Selma and Montgomery to assist with the march and to give whatever aid they could. The march itself had been limited to three hundred participants at any time. Among the entertainers who attended a rally on the fourth night of the march were Shelley Winters, Tony Perkins, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Dick Gregory, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mike Nichols and Elaine May. On this last full night of the march, the last before the final miles into Montgomery the following day, many of the marchers started falling ill from exhaustion.

Journalist Renata Adler, in her enthralling account of the march, "Letter From Selma," for April 10, 1965 issue of The New Yorker, described the scene:

On its fourth night, the march began to look first like a football rally, then like a carnival and a hootenanny, and finally like something dangerously close to a hysterical mob...Word got out that the doctors on the march had treated several cases of strep throat, two of pneumonia, one of advanced pulmonary tuberculosis, and one of epilepsy, and because of the number and variety of sick and handicapped who had made the march a macabre new joke began to go the rounds: "What has five hundred and ninety-nine legs, five hundred and ninety-eight eyes, an indeterminate number of germs, and walks singing? The march from Selma."

According to Adler, at the staged camp entertainment on Wednesday night, "A number of girls in the crowd collapsed and, because there was no other lighted space, had to be carried onstage, where Miss Winters did her best to minister them."

The march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights laid the foundation for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Credit for advancing this particular piece of legislation needs to shared with hundreds of exhausted walkers, the thousands that traveled to Alabama to lend their support and a handful of gutsy entertainers.

Image: Photograph by Peter Pettus. Modern gelatin silver reprint from 1965 negative. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (30)

See the website for the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail in Alabama.


• The April 15, 1967 Antiwar March from Central Park to the United Nations

Organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, the antiwar march from Central Park to the United Nations on April 15, 1967 was among the largest antiwar marches in New York history. Though estimates widely vary from 100,000 to 400,000 in attendance that day, participants included a broad coalition of civil rights activists, among them Martin Luther King, Jr., and an ideological spectrum of antiwar activists.

After assembling in Central Park for a peace fair, speeches and performances, the marchers walked down Fifth Avenue and then made their way east to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at the United Nations. Though city officials worried about violence and mayhem, the march was peaceful, and the five people arrested belonged to the group of protesters who were opposed to the march.

The following newsreel account reveals the usual establishment sarcasm that's directed toward the protesters.



Resources and Related Links


• The city's official website, NYC.gov, features the page Fighting for Justice: New York Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.

• SoulofAmerica.com, a website for Black Cultural Travel, has a page with a summary of the civil rights movement in New York.

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