A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.
The Hall of Fame baseball player is credited with being the first African American to play in the Major Leagues, debuting with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He not only excelled athletically and professionally in a segregated society but became a vocal advocate for civil rights reform in the United States.
~Susan Leem, associate producer
Photo of Jackie Robinson courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection (cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
King constantly pointed out to those in the freedom movement that their refusal to respond in kind to the violence and terrorism of their opponents was increasing their own strength and unity. He reminded them and the world that their goal was not only the right to sit at the front of the bus or to vote, but to give birth to a new society based on more human values. In so doing, he not only empowered those on the front lines, but in the process developed a strategy for transforming a struggle for rights into a struggle that advances the humanity of everyone in the society and thereby brings the beloved community closer to realization. This is what true revolutions are about.
—Grace Lee Boggs, from her article “The Beloved Community of Martin Luther King” commemorating the 75th anniversary of his birth.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Paris in March 1966. (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
A. Philip Randolph as Inspiration for Change
by Susan Leem, associate producer
March 6, 1963: A. Philip Randolph (third from left) meets with other organizers of the March on Washington at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands to his right. (photo: OFF/AFP/Getty Images)
When we asked Grace Lee Boggs to speak about a leader who inspired her across her 96 years, the “elder stateswoman of the Black Power movement” credited labor leader A. Philip Randolph as her inspiration:
“In 1941, I was working for $10 a week in the philosophy library of the University of Chicago. I had got my PhD the year before. But $10 a week didn’t allow me to live very luxuriously, in fact, I was living rent-free in a basement. One of the disadvantages was that I had to face down a barricade of rats in order to get to the basement. And that put me in touch with the black community which was also facing rat-infested housing.
It was July 1941 and A. Philip Randolph was calling upon blacks to march on Washington to demand jobs in defense industries. Because the depression that ended for white workers were not for black workers. When Franklin Roosevelt heard about the march, he begged Randolph to call it off. Randolph refused. Mrs. Roosevelt begged him to call off the march, Randolph refused. And eventually FDR issued executive order 8802 (Fair Employment Act) banning discrimination in defense plants for blacks.
That changed the life of blacks and made me decide I was going to become a movement activist. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’ve been so fortunate!”
The 1941 March on Washington never happened. FDR did issue an executive order, which was enacted into law as the Fair Employment Act. Randolph’s idea later came to fruition over 20 years later when he directed the 1963 March on Washington. With 250,000 people attending, it was the largest peaceful demonstration for human rights in U.S. history, and the setting for Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
The audio above features A. Philip Randolph speaking at the 1963 March on Washington. His voice is deeply sonorous and moving in its call for equality not only for the sake of African Americans, but for all people.
To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.
Change and Hope Come from the Margins
by Krista Tippett, host
I can only urge you to listen to this wise voice of history and its deep resonance for the contemporary world. Vincent Harding uses the word “magnificent” often and he embodies that word.
He offers an essential and utterly helpful perspective, I feel, to our ongoing collective reflection on civility, moral imagination, and social healing. He was a friend and speechwriter of Martin Luther King Jr. and a force in the philosophy of nonviolence that drove the civil rights movement’s success. That is to say, he was at the center of a moment of human and societal transformation that was wrested from another American era of toxic division and social violence. And Vincent Harding has continued to mine the lessons of that time in the intervening decades, and to bring them creatively and usefully to young people today.
These are stories we rarely see or hear, and they are happening in neighborhoods in places like Detroit and Philadelphia where our lens is usually focused on despair and decay.
So among other things — interestingly, from a very different direction, echoing my conversation with Frances Kissling — Vincent Harding reminds us that change and hope come from the margins. And he has stories to tell about that hope as it’s embodied and lived on the margins of today.
This is also a beautiful hour of production — rich with the music by which people, as Vincent Harding puts it, did not merely demonstrate but “sang” their way to freedom in the 1960s. You will never hear the song “This Little Light of Mine” or the phrase “a Kumbaya moment” in the same way again. Enjoy, and be enriched.