DSA activists remember how their lives were impacted by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.
“You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of the slums. . . . There must be a better distribution of wealth . . .And maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speech to the SCLC staff, Frogmore, S.C., November 14, 1966
In 1962 I graduated from Raleigh’s all-white Broughton High School; in 1963 I walked out of the all-white White Memorial Presbyterian Church. Race was the constant subtext of growing up in Raleigh. My mother worked as a nurse in a doctor’s office with “white” and “colored” waiting areas; we – like most middle income white families – had an African American maid once a week. It was probably the fight at the church that had the biggest impact. Our young adults’ class proposed a series of actions to challenge religious segregation; all were rejected by church elders. Our last idea was that our church members and their black counterparts attend each other’s services. Also rejected. In response, a young woman a year older than I, stood up and said, “I guess the church will be the last segregated institution in the South.” She walked out; we followed. Two years later I joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
— Bill Barclay, co-chair, Chicago DSA
In April 1967 I was teaching at Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA. Student protests over inhumane conditions in dormitories and cafeterias led to a general uprising against apartheid Louisiana. As one of the few white instructors, I was able to use my safe position to help facilitate the forbidden presence of SNCC activists and Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael on the campus. It became evident that my activist role demanded my return to the North. I was guided by the great sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered at the Riverside Church that month. Dr. King ended the silence of the civil rights movement on the Vietnam War, making what remains a prophetic and courageous indictment of the oppressive structure of U.S. imperialism, linked to poverty and racial oppression in the USA. When I returned to the North, I joined the movement against the Vietnam War and became a draft resister.
— Paul Garver, member of Boston DSA and the DSA National Political Committee
Martin Luther King Day is one of my favorite holidays. Every year, I look forward to MLK Day programs, where I’m guaranteed an opportunity to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — the black national anthem. I also look forward to seeing well-meaning white people feign knowing all three verses of the song. I enjoy the many panels and community service events which surround the holiday. Most of all, I enjoy that the holiday is a rare opportunity for radical blackness to be celebrated. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an anti-capitalist black man, who was not afraid to confront white supremacy or capitalism. For me, celebrating King feels subversive. It’s a chance for me to publicly align myself with a man who opposed the worst aspects of the United States. The holiday is a time where I meditate on how I can help to dismantle these lingering systems of oppression.
— Brandon Hicks, member of DSA’s Anti-Racist Working Group, is 25 years old and from Charlotte, NC
When I arrived at Vassar for my freshman year (1959-60) I was disappointed that there were no progressive organizations on campus until that spring, when students sat in at the Greensboro, NC Woolworths. The four (!) black students at Vassar organized about 100 of us to hold a solidarity picket in front of the Poughkeepsie Woolworths. I was thrilled by the realization that my actions, however small, could make a difference. A few weeks later I attended a meeting of northern student sit-in supporters, where I met my future husband, a democratic socialist who was working with Bayard Rustin¹s Committee to Defend Martin Luther King (King was being harassed by the IRS). I went on to start a Vassar chapter of Students for a Democratic Society and helped organize volunteers for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I was hooked on activism.
— Barbara Joye is secretary of Metro Atlanta DSA and a member of the National Political Committee
The flickering images on the small television screen brought the brutal beatings of Freedom Riders into our living room. I was 14, living in central Pennsylvania and ready to join the noble cause. My parents approved, in theory, but two years later, they were too scared to let my brother and me get on the bus to the March on Washington. I didn’t hear Martin Luther King in person until a year before his death. . . When a college classmate asked me in 1967 to take part in Vietnam Summer, I said that I only wanted to focus on civil rights. Had I heard about King’s speech at Riverside Church? he asked. If we didn’t stop the war, we couldn’t expect progress on civil rights. I was in. King’s interconnected vision carried me from sweltering vigils on the steps of the Pennsylvania state capitol building to further activism.
— Maxine Phillips, former national director of DSA, member of the National Political Committee and volunteer editor of Democratic Left
At age ten in 1964, at a drive-in movie in Virginia, I inadvertently went to the “colored only” bathroom. My father then explained to me that I did nothing wrong, but that if I had been black and had inadvertently gone to the “white only” bathroom I might be dead. When I looked at him incredulously, he told me the story of Emmett Till. Later on during that same vacation, in North Carolina, an elderly black man three times refused my father’s polite invitation to jump ahead in line so he could pay for his tin of chewing tobacco before my dad paid for a ton of groceries. Did the man refuse out of deference and/or fear of what local whites might do to him? Those experiences provided me with some understanding of why my black friends in the late 1960s were so drawn to the Black Power movement. It’s only 50 years since the legal barriers to people of color exercising their humanity were overthrown; the fight to build a society where all humans are truly equal remains.
— Joseph M. Schwartz, professor of political science at Temple University, a DSA National Vice-Chair and member of Philadelphia DSA and the National Political Committee
As a teenager in St. Louis Park, MN (I was born in 1946), I had only a very indirect relationship to the Civil Rights Movement. But I remember one moment vividly. The adult leaders of my local Presbyterian church youth group introduced us to the movement. Integration was a fairly abstract issue; the first African American in my high school of 2100 students arrived in 1963. I had Japanese American friends whose families settled when released from internment camps. My first experience of being the only white person was their youth group meeting. But Asian American mobilization was several years in the future. The moment: I was going door-to-door in my 99% white community, collecting money for some civil rights cause — I think to support Freedom Summer 1964. One person answering the door responded, “I think we should let Southerners handle it themselves.” Until then, I had naively assumed that everyone in the North supported civil rights.
— Peg Strobel, member of Chicago DSA and co-chair of DSA’s Feminist Commission
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