What Gun-Control Activists Can Learn From the Civil-Rights Movement

The success of the 1963 March on Washington hinged on a confluence of factors—several of which the student-led March for Our Lives won’t have.

The crowds at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 (AP)

Hundreds of thousands of young Americans are expected to show up at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., on Saturday to demand that Congress do something about gun control. In the aftermath of the horrific high-school shooting in Parkland, Florida, these activists are trying to end the political gridlock on gun violence. The march is a display of grass-roots enthusiasm, intended to overcome the power of the NRA and its allies on Capitol Hill.

Even as Washington stands still, public support for gun control keeps growing. According to Gallup, 67 percent of Americans believe that there needs to be stricter regulations on the sale of firearms. This constitutes the highest level of support in the 25 years since President Bill Clinton worked with a Democratic Congress to enact the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act in 1993. Polls also show that in the politically powerful suburbs, interest in firearm regulation is getting stronger.

The activists hope that the events of the upcoming weekend can have the same kind of impact as the civil-rights-era March on Washington on August 28, 1963. But their nascent movement has yet to assemble the key organizational and political assets that helped that earlier march shift the debate, and force through legislation. If Saturday’s marchers hope to replicate that earlier success, they will first need to study it closely, and learn its lessons.

By the late summer of 1963, when activists marched on the White House and Capitol Hill, Americans had seen the brutal attacks by Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor’s police officers on young civil-rights marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, and President John F. Kennedy had finally sent Congress a civil-rights bill to end segregation. Bayard Rustin of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and A. Philip Randolph, a prominent African American labor leader famous for pressuring FDR to ban discrimination in defense industries during World War II, worked with various organizations to set up this event. Officially called the “March for Jobs and Freedom,” the event was meant to deal with the racial inequalities that grew out of the nation’s economic system as well as legalized racial segregation. The organizers very much wanted to create a “living petition” with activists placing “the national human-rights problem squarely on the doorstep” of the government.

The police were prepared for violence, with many officials expecting the worst. The fears that had circulated drained the streets of nearly everyone but the marchers. But nothing of the sort took place.

The event was peaceful and it was a smashing success. On a beautiful summer day, over 200,000 people participated in a peaceful gathering on the National Mall, culminating with a series of stirring speeches in front of the Lincoln Memorial. One D.C. student, who was going to start his undergraduate education at Howard in the fall, recalled that “there was an expectation and excitement that this march finally would make a difference.” The actor and activist Harry Belafonte said, “We had to seize this opportunity and make our voices heard. Make those who are comfortable with our oppression—make them uncomfortable—Dr. King said that was the purpose of his mission.”

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s John Lewis talked about the need for programs to stimulate jobs, avoiding some radical ideas he had in mind when organizers asked him to tame his words so as to maintain the broad appeal of the event. Lewis started by saying that, “By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation … But what political leader can stand up and say, ‘My party is the party of principles?’ … Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?”

Martin Luther King Jr. lit up the entire world with one of the most rousing pieces of oratory to ever be uttered on American soil, his “I Have A Dream” speech, in which he wrapped himself in the American tradition, with the Lincoln Memorial behind him, to demand social justice. He went off script for the best part of the speech, when he shared with those in attendance his dream that “little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Watching on his television set in the Oval Office, Kennedy turned to his assistant Lee White and said: “He’s damn good.” Mahalia Jackson enchanted the crowd as she sang “I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” and “How I Got Over,” while Marian Anderson, who was delayed, followed King’s speech with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Joan Baez mesmerized with “We Shall Overcome.”

One of the New York Times journalists covering civil rights, Claude Sitton, a child of the South, recounted to readers: “The changing mood of the Negro people and the urgency of their drive for equality emerged dramatically today in a show of strength by a protest movement only three-and-a-half years old.” Portions of the march were carried live on television on all three networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS), which interrupted their daily programming for some of the key speeches. Europeans watched images of the protest of the evening news that were transmitted by the Telstar communications satellite.

When the rally ended, Kennedy agreed to meet with some of the top leaders—King, Randolph, Whitney Young of the Urban League, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, as well as Walter Reuther of the AFL-CIO—to discuss the bill. Kennedy scheduled the meeting after the rally just in case there had been any violence. Civil-rights leaders were radiating with enthusiasm after the day’s events. “We think today’s demonstration,” Wilkins said, “if it did nothing else … showed that people back home, from the small towns, big cities, the working people, men who gave up two day’s pay, three day’s pay … who flew from Los Angeles at $300 round-trip to come here. It means that they and not Martin Luther King or Roy Wilkins or Whitney Young or Walter Reuther have dreamed up this civil-rights business.” They asked the president to support broadened legislation that would also tackle employment discrimination. The leaders were disappointed that Kennedy still seemed lukewarm, reminding his visitors of the vote count in the House and Senate, where the odds for passage remained formidable.

In this case, the march worked. Senator Hubert Humphrey said that: “If I had to pick one day in my public life when I was most encouraged that democracy could work, when my spirit soared on the wings of the American dream of social justice for everyone, it was that day.” As he, Senator Eugene McCarthy and 73 other legislators sat on the steps and listened to the speeches, Humphrey felt for the first time that legislation was possible. As they stood up and walked off the Memorial steps, they heard the rhythmic chant of SNCC activists who cried out: “Pass the bill, pass the bill!”

After the initial horror of a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the momentum for legislation continued. Rustin, King, and his allies, along with the hundreds of thousands of average Americans who came to the city to make their voices heard, were victorious. Although President Kennedy would be assassinated a few months later in Dallas, his successor Lyndon B. Johnson would pick up where his predecessor left off. Johnson moved the bill through the House and then the Senate, working with Humphrey to break the Southern filibuster that had traditionally been used to block civil-rights legislation. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the weekend of July 4, the Americans who had come to Washington about a year earlier were proud that they had played a part in ending the reign of power that Southern Democrats enjoyed on race.

Yet it is unlikely that the march for gun control will have the same impact as the March on Washington; most other marches have fizzled once the crowds grew thin. Indeed, in 2000, there were almost 750,000 persons who joined the Million Mom March on May 14, Mother’s Day, to build support for gun-control legislation following a shooting in Granada Hills, California, in August 1999. An estimated 250,000 people marched in satellite cities around the country. But it would be three years until Congress passed any kind of legislation.

Why did the march in 1963 have such a big effect? What were the ingredients that went into the mix that day? That is what today’s young protesters might want to think about as they seek to break through opposition in Congress.

The power of the civil-rights march stemmed foremost from it being an expression of a mass movement that had been taking shape since the mid-1950s. Participants in this movement had organized, they had marched, they had confronted law-enforcement authorities many times before. The movement thus had national recognition and a proven track record before the event on the National Mall took place. The civil-rights movement already included a thick network of groups with mass-membership bases, ranging from organized labor to religious associations, who could collectively make clear to legislators there would be a political price to pay if they did nothing. Organized across issue areas and across state lines, by 1963 the civil-rights movement had nurtured a talented cohort of leaders, such as King, who committed themselves to fighting for this issue on a full-time basis and over as many years as it would take.

The movement also had a skilled Washington presence that could keep the pressure on inside the halls of Congress. Clarence Mitchell, the African American lobbyist for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, known as the “Lion in the Lobby,” was a regular presence in congressional offices and a shrewd politico who understood the legislative process. “When you have a law,” Mitchell liked to say, “you have an instrument that will work for you permanently. But when you branch out on a separate line of direct action, you may wind up with nothing.” With such a mature set of organizations behind it, the marchers in August could shift congressional sentiment in a way that still might be difficult for the nascent movement led by student activists in 2018.

There were, by 1963, elected officials who were willing to spend political capital to get civil-rights legislation done by the time that the marchers arrived. Had they not been present, all the of speeches in the world would have not achieved their effect. Kennedy was not quite there yet, though he finally agreed to send Congress legislation after witnessing the brutality against civil-rights protesters in Birmingham. But within Congress, there were a number of prominent legislators who were all in regardless of whether they risked the wrath of their Southern colleagues.

Humphrey and Representative Richard Bolling had been railing against Southern barons since the moment they stepped into Congress. Humphrey’s colleague, Senator Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania, had been organizing and fighting for years. There were also liberal Republicans like Jacob Javits of New York who championed desegregation. The parties were not nearly as polarized in 1963 as in 2018, so there was room among Democrats and Republicans to reject the leaders who stood in the way of racial justice. And the legislators who supported civil rights did more than make speeches. They organized, they devised strategy, they combatted the procedural trickery of Southern Democrats, and they conducted continual outreach with activists and the media to make sure that the bill kept moving forward. Many of the civil-rights leaders who came to Washington in August met with these legislators before meeting with the president. They were true profiles in courage, and they made sure that the voices on the Mall were heard. Johnson turned out to be a president who was willing to give away the South to the GOP—as he famously told Bill Moyers on the night after he signed the legislation into law—to do what was morally right.

Much of the media did not do a good job with the story. A large number of journalists did not pay nearly enough attention to the grassroots battles that were occurring over race relations, while many others allowed the commitment to “objectivity” to prevent them from fully describing the nature of the violence taking place (Southern papers barely covered any of this). But there were a number of extremely talented voices, especially in newspapers that had a national reach, who were determined to follow this debate through the bitter end. Journalists like Sitton, Anthony Lewis, and Roy Reed were making sure that this story received attention, often over the concerns of cautious editors.

These reporters covered race relations for more than the moment of the march and they were determined to stick with the coverage even when the news shifted to other issues. They saw the newspapers, as well as television, as tools through which they could expose the reality of race relations in Southern society. The coverage was ongoing, and it was intense. It had prepped non-Southerners for the march that took place, and to assimilate the meaning of the gathering. After the march was over, these and other reporters made sure the issue received sufficient attention, even when political will waned, and from the time of the march through the battle over the Senate filibuster—when the CBS reporter Roger Mudd stood in front of the Senate building with a clock superimposed next to his head to mark how long it had gone on—some journalists lived up to the challenge of the moment. “His continued presence at the scene of Washington inaction,” one reporter said of Mudd, “has personalized and dramatized the halting processes of our government to the average viewer in a way no amount of words or secondary reports could have.”

The students who are heading the march today have ushered in a major development in the battle over gun rights. They are bringing a level of energy and optimism to the gun-control debate, and putting front and center the faces of the school communities that have been victimized.

But gun-control advocates have a great deal of work ahead of them. The students need to transform this mobilization into a full-blown movement, if they are to succeed. That will require making alliances with more established organizations, including those that are not only about gun control, and nurturing emerging leaders who will be willing to focus on this issue over time. They also don’t yet have the kind support from elected officials who, as LBJ liked to say, were prepared to fight with hammer and tong for victory.

Republicans have been steadfast in opposing gun control while President Trump has done nothing other than to offer some lip service when the television cameras are on. Democrats have been more receptive to gun control, though the party has also backed down in the past. Many Democrats are also influenced by the NRA and by their pro-gun constituents, while others are scared to take on the fight. By building pressure in the upcoming months, gun-control advocates could help elect leaders in the midterm elections who would be willing to champion their cause. And it will be a challenge for them to keep the national media, with its short attention span, from moving on too quickly after the 24-hour frenzy ends and Trump sends off his next provocative tweet.

The student activists also have to overcome a conservative media echo chamber, which did not exist in the early 1960s in this scale and scope, that continually pumps out stories rebutting anyone who insists that our Wild West approach to guns is dangerous.

After the Parkland shooting, the instinct of Fox News host Greg Gutfeld was to complain on The Five about “emotional” news coverage about guns. “You have to be rational about it,” he said, “which means hardening soft targets through drills and training, learning combat, learning hand-to-hand combat.” Pontificating on Trump’s favorite source of intelligence, the morning news show Fox & Friends, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said, “We are not going to confiscate guns on the scale to make us a disarmed country.” He explained that the “only long-term solution, depending on the size of the school, is a minimum of six to eight teachers and administrators who are trained in the use of firearms and have conceal carry permits and are prepared to defend kids.” Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson warned of the gun-control activists who are allegedly using the “traumatized children of Parkland as a human shield.”

When African American students conducted a sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960 to protest segregation, civil-rights activists were still in the early stages of movement-building. But their efforts were ultimately successful, and culminated in a law that transformed Southern race relations. The forces of reaction then were met with a force more powerful. And this time it is possible that the forces of reaction today, led by the Republicans and the NRA, will similarly be defeated. But if today's activists on gun control wish to replicate the successes of the civil-rights movement, there remains a long road ahead of them. The march this weekend will have to be just the beginning for these student activists, if they hope to achieve their dream of curbing gun violence in American schools and streets.