The move into the courts demanded a more formal “container”: a legitimate structure to hold and represent our point of view in the mainstream. The main group that stepped up to this role was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and specifically its Legal Defense Fund, headed by Thurgood Marshall. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, if you had an NAACP membership card in the South, you could be fired…or killed. Rosa Parks happened to be the secretary of her local chapter.
This structure, formal and informal, was the real power behind Rosa Parks, the reason she could stop the whole bus. She had been preparing for that moment, and so had the whole community; they had spent years building their capacity to unite. When the protests began in Montgomery, the leaders called Martin Luther King Jr. to speak.
The Movement’s Time
It is not easy to understand the phenomenon of Martin Luther King Jr. in any conventional way. He had no army, no political apparatus, and no publishing arm. His organization, called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), had only 175 employees at its height in 1963. By then, Dr. King and others had been speaking throughout the South; there were demonstrations in more than 100 cities and towns in 1963. No organization as small as the SCLC could have set up that level of activity by itself.
I’ve read newspaper accounts of those events, and they’re all eerily similar. They make Dr. King sound like a mysterious, magical figure, capable of appearing in southern Alabama in the morning and northern Kentucky in the afternoon. Of course, he wasn’t in all those places. But he was the most visible aspect of the field, which had grown so strong that it was impossible to ignore anywhere in the U.S. It was like a living example of the old Hindu saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
As Dr. King became more visible, other preachers heard his messages and repeated them in their own ways. Television carried the signal further, amplifying it into the kind of noosphere, or large-scale network of intention, that Teilhard de Chardin has written about. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Dr. King tapped into a wave of change that gave him enough power to deal, one on one, with President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The two men needed each other; President Johnson for legitimacy after the assassination, and Dr. King for tangible results. In his book Judgment Days (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), journalist Nick Kotz describes the way this relationship led directly to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The relationship had taken 20 years to build. It was a relationship not between two men, but between a movement (in part, a religious movement, a movement of God) and a national government. I’ve met many people of action who don’t understand that each change process has its own natural period of gestation. They don’t have the patience to wait that long for it; they want it now. But it took all those years for the field to develop — or, if you prefer, for people, inside and outside the movement, to be ready to handle the change they were creating.
A poster embodied the spirit of the time; it showed an old black man who had obviously worked hard all his life. “Hands that once picked cotton,” it said, “can now pick presidents.” But when I escorted older black people to the polls in 1965, some of them got up to the registration door but could not cross the threshold, even though they had wanted it with all their hearts for years. “I can’t do this voting,” they’d say. The transformation outside in society hadn’t yet been matched by a transformation inside their own identity. Or, as my father used to say, “It didn’t take the Lord 40 years to get the children of Israel out of the wilderness. It took 40 years to get the wilderness out of them.”