The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. (AP Photo/File)
by John Blake
(CNN) — Nan Grogan Orrock defied her family’s wishes by sneaking away to join the 1963 March on Washington. But don’t ask her about Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She doesn’t remember it.
She was struck by something else.
Orrock was stunned by the marchers. They nonchalantly told her they had been fired from their jobs, forced from their homes and beaten and jailed for joining the movement.
A White student at a women’s college in Virginia, Orrock had ignored the movement until then; she’d been taught by her fellow Southerners that civil rights were “somebody else’s business that had nothing to do with me.”
“The highlight of the day was not his speech,” says Orrock, now a Democratic senator in the Georgia legislature. “My mind was on fire from all that I was seeing and hearing. I realized that I was in the presence of great courage. I resolved that day that I was going to be a part of this.”
When the country commemorates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28, some will ask if the nation needs another civil rights movement today. Here’s another question: What makes a movement work in the first place? Why do some movements like the struggle for civil rights take off while others like Occupy Wall Street wilt?
Orrock’s story suggests that it’s not just the big moments — the charismatic leader and the thrilling speech — that make a movement work. There are those tiny moments, such as ordinary people sharing their stories of quiet courage with outsiders, that are just as crucial. What are the ingredients that any successful movement needs?
There is a secret sauce for the weak to beat the strong, say those who have studied and participated in successful nonviolent social movements. The lessons from the March on Washington and other movements throughout history offer clues. If you want to take on the forces of power and privilege known in some circles as “The Man,” they say, you must remember four rules:
1. Don’t get seduced by spontaneity
Spontaneity is sexy. The urge to act on an irrepressible urge can inspire others. A Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire is credited with starting the Arab Spring. And who can forget the lone man who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square during the pro-democracy protests in China in 1989?
A spontaneous act gave the March on Washington its most memorable moment. King’s “I Have a Dream” riff wasn’t in his written speech. He improvised it after he completed his written speech sooner than he had planned and a gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, behind yelled, “Tell them about the dream.”
Yet spontaneity is overrated, some observers say. Successful movements are built on years of planning, trial and error, honing strategies for change. A good movement should already have an organizational structure set up to take advantage of a spontaneous act that grips the public.
Some movements stage their own “spontaneous” acts.
Remember Rosa Parks? Schoolchildren are taught that Rosa Parks was the quiet, bespectacled Black woman who sparked the civil rights movement when she spontaneously decided one day that she was not going to move to the back of a segregated bus.
It’s a good story but bad history. Parks had been carefully chosen for that moment. The woman who looked so docile in the historical photographs was actually a tough, seasoned civil rights activist who had been with the NAACP for 12 years and had attended an elite training school for civil rights and labor activists.
Parks was just one in a line of several Black women chosen to stage “spontaneous” sit-ins on segregated buses, says Parker J. Palmer, author of “Healing the Heart of Democracy.”
“Six or seven Black women had done what Parks had done before and had simply been ticketed or arrested and certainly did not make history,” Palmer says. “I can guarantee you when Parks sat down on that bus where she ought not to, she had no guarantee that this was going to work out. In that moment, she felt very alone.”
Parks attracted attention because her arrest could not be ignored, historians say. The other women arrested were unmarried or single mothers who could be caricatured by segregationists as women of ill repute. Parks was a married seamstress who was respected in her community.
“She could not be thrown in jail and forgotten and there would be no publicity,” says Jerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. “She had been preparing for that moment her entire life.”
A contemporary movement in North Carolina also reveals how deceptive the idea of “spontaneous” can be.
The movement has been called Moral Mondays. News accounts say it began in February when 17 people were arrested in Raleigh, North Carolina, while protesting the policies of a new Republican-led state legislature. At least 900 people have since been arrested during weekly protests over everything from the legislature’s decision to cut teachers’ pay and unemployment benefits to its rejection of expanded medical coverage for the poor and underinsured under Obamacare.
Much of the news coverage describes Moral Mondays as a spontaneous reaction to the legislature’s decisions. But the coalition driving the protests actually formed years ago to be a force in North Carolina politics and “go where the sparks go,” says the Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP and one of Moral Mondays’ leaders.
“Seven years ago we started to prepare,” Barber says. “We didn’t know we were preparing for this moment. We didn’t see this day coming.”
Barber says the multiracial coalition behind Moral Mondays originally formed to push for increased voter registration, labor rights and more support for public education. It maintained its unity over the years because it knew other issues might arise and it wanted to be ready to hit the ground running.
“You have to do the hard work,” he says. “You just don’t helicopter in and make a speech. You have to build trust, talk with people and struggle with the issues.”
The coalition is multiracial and multi-issue, crucial for any movement that wants to have broad appeal. It has the support of about 150 groups, including clergy, White college students and women’s groups. Barber says he has received calls from people around the country who want to replicate Moral Mondays in other states.
He says the years of planning paid off when the Republican-led assembly provided the spark that helped Moral Mondays launch the “spontaneous” protests.
Barber’s advice for movement builders: Don’t wait for the right spark to organize. Do it now.
“No matter where you are now, now is the time to build coalitions,” Barber says. “You do it now because when the moment comes, the only thing that will be able to save you is to be together.”
2. Make policy, not noise
They gave the nation a nifty slogan: “We are the 99%.” But they haven’t been heard from much since. Remember Occupy Wall Street? In 2011, a group of protesters occupied a park in New York City’s financial district to protest income inequality and the growing power of financial institutions.
Occupy Wall Street generated plenty of media coverage, but its largely faded from public attention. Yet the tea party, a conservative movement that arose in 2009 to protest government spending and debt, is still wielding influence in American public life.
Why does the tea party have more influence than Occupy Wall Street?
The tea party didn’t just make noise; it put people in office, several political scientists and historians note.
“The tea party from the outset focused on winning elections and setting up a structure that could affect the political process,” says Larry Schweikart, co-author of “A Patriot’s History of the United States.”
“The Occupy Wall Street group only wanted to raise hell.”
Successful movements just don’t take it to the streets. They elect candidates, pass laws, set up institutions to raise money, train people and produce leaders, observers say.
The March on Washington, for example, had the charisma of King. But it also had the organizational genius of Bayard Rustin, a man whose attention to detail was so keen that people wryly noted he knew precisely how many portable toilets 250,000 marchers needed.
“Occupy used a very smart tactic — sit in parks where people could join the protests,” says Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University in Washington and an expert on social movements.
“At the same time, it was just a tactic,” says Kazin, author of “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.”
“A tactic is not a movement. A lot of people got excited by the tactics, but they didn’t have a second act.”
People remember the March on Washington because it did have a second act. Civil rights leaders used the political pressure generated by the march and the subsequent assassination of President John F. Kennedy to pressure Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, historians say.
Still, they were also willing to compromise. And compromise is not glamorous. Failed movements are filled with stories of idealistic people who didn’t make compromises. A successful movement, though, is filled with people who know that it is wise at times to compromise.
A compromise is what helped the March on Washington take flight, some historians say.
The original March on Washington wasn’t supposed to be just about race but about economic issues as well. Organizers originally billed it as a march for “jobs and freedom.”
Yet King and others de-emphasized the jobs’ focus of the march because they thought it would jeopardize the passage of the pending civil rights bill, says Podair, the Lawrence University professor.
Talking about poverty and inequality at the 1963 march would have alienated potential Northern White supporters who would have seen such rhetoric as a ploy to redistribute money from the White middle class to blacks, Podair says.
Instead, organizers reassured them by focusing on King’s dream of racial equality, he says.
“The reason they can get Northern Whites to support the march is to say we’re not going to touch your wallets,” Podair says. “What we’re going to do is ask the South to give African-Americans their political rights, something they should have done 100 years ago. But we’re not going to redistribute income.”
Those commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s speech during various events in Washington this month can learn from the leaders of the 1963 march, Podair says.
If the commemoration speeches are confined to racial issues such as the Trayvon Martin case, they won’t be as powerful. But if they also talk about economic inequality, a major issue for white voters, they can also do what King originally did: cast a vision of America that appeals to all types of people.
“Sometimes it makes you feel good to preach to the choir,” Podair says, “but after a while you have to go outside the church and find other people for your coalition.”