Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Amplifying the dream

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In the book Nobody Turn Me Around, Charles Euchner shares a story about Bayard Rustin, a neglected but pivotal figure in the civil rights movement who played a crucial role in the March on Washington in 1963:

Bayard Rustin had insisted on renting the best sound system money could buy. To ensure order at the march, Rustin insisted, people needed to hear the program clearly. He told engineers what he wanted. “Very simple,” he said, pointing at a map. “The Lincoln Memorial is here, the Washington Monument is there. I want one square mile where anyone can hear.” Most big events rented systems for $1,000 or $2,000, but Rustin wanted to spend ten times that. Other members of the march committee were skeptical about the need for a deluxe system. “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear,” Rustin said. If the Mall was jammed with people baking in the sun, waiting in long lines for portable toilets, anything could happen. Rustin’s job was to control the crowd. “In my view it was a classic resolution of the problem of how can you keep a crowd from becoming something else,” he said. “Transform it into an audience.”

Ultimately, Rustin was able to convince the United Auto Workers and International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Unions to raise twenty thousand dollars for the sound system, and when he was informed that it ought to be possible to do it for less, he replied: “Not for what I want.” The company American Amplifier and Television landed the contract, and after the system was sabotaged by persons unknown the night before the march, Walter Fauntroy, who was in charge of operations on the ground, called Attorney General Robert Kennedy and said: “We have a serious problem. We have a couple hundred thousand people coming. Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we’ve done?”

The system was fixed just in time, and its importance to the march is hard to overstate. As Zeynep Tufekci writes in her recent book Twitter and Tear Gas: “Rustin knew that without a focused way to communicate with the massive crowd and to keep things orderly, much could go wrong…The sound system worked without a hitch during the day of the march, playing just the role Rustin had imagined: all the participants could hear exactly what was going on, hear instructions needed to keep things orderly, and feel connected to the whole march.” And its impact on our collective memory of the event may have been even more profound. In an article in last week’s issue of The New Yorker, which is where I first encountered the story, Nathan Heller notes in a discussion of Tufekci’s work:

Before the march, Martin Luther King, Jr., had delivered variations on his “I Have a Dream” speech twice in public. He had given a longer version to a group of two thousand people in North Carolina. And he had presented a second variation, earlier in the summer, before a vast crowd of a hundred thousand at a march in Detroit. The reason we remember only the Washington, D.C., version, Tufekci argues, has to do with the strategic vision and attentive detail work of people like Rustin. Framed by the Lincoln Memorial, amplified by a fancy sound system, delivered before a thousand-person press bay with good camera sight lines, King’s performance came across as something more than what it had been in Detroit—it was the announcement of a shift in national mood, the fulcrum of a movement’s story line and power. It became, in other words, the rarest of protest performances: the kind through which American history can change.

Heller concludes that successful protest movements hinge on the existence of organized, flexible, practical structures with access to elites, noting that the sound system was repaired, on Kennedy’s orders, by the Army Corps of Engineers: “You can’t get much cozier with the Man than that.”

There’s another side to the story, however, which neither Tufekci or Heller mention. In his memoir Behind the Dream, the activist Clarence B. Jones recalls:

The Justice Department and the police had worked hand in hand with the March Committee to design a public address system powerful enough to get the speakers’ voices across the Mall; what march coordinators wouldn’t learn until after the event had ended was that the government had built in a bypass to the system so that they could instantly take over control if they deemed it necessary…Ted [Brown] and Bayard [Rustin] told us that right after the march ended those officers approached them, eager to relieve their consciences and reveal the truth about the sound system. There was a kill switch and an administration official’s thumb had been on it the entire time.

The journalist Gary Jounge—whose primary source seems to be Jones—expands on this claim in his book The Speech: “Fearing incitement from the podium, the Justice Department secretly inserted a cutoff switch into the sound system so they could turn off the speakers if an insurgent group hijacked the microphone. In such an eventuality, the plan was to play a recording to Mahalia Jackson singing ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ in order to calm down the crowd.” And in Pillar of Fire, Taylor Branch identifies the official in question as Jerry Bruno, President Kennedy’s “advance man,” who “positioned himself to cut the power to the public address system if rally speeches proved incendiary.” Regardless of the truth of the matter, it speaks to the extent to which Rustin’s sound system was central to the question of who controlled the march and its message. If nothing else, the people who sabotaged it understood this intuitively. (I should also mention the curious rumor, shared by Dave Chapelle in a recent comedy special on Netflix: “I heard when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a PA system that Bill Cosby paid for.” It’s demonstrably untrue, but it also speaks to the hold that the sound system has on the stories that we tell about the march.)

But what strikes me the most is the sheer practicality of the ends that Rustin, Fauntroy, and the others on the ground were trying to achieve. Listen to how they describe it: “We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear.” “How can you keep a crowd from becoming something else?” “Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we’ve done?” They weren’t worried about history, but about making it safely to the end of the day. Rustin had been thinking about this march for two decades, and he spent years actively planning for it, conscious that it presented massive organizational challenges that could only be addressed by careful preparation in advance. He had specifically envisioned it as ending at the Lincoln Memorial, with a crowd filling the National Mall, a huge space that imposed enormous logistical problems of its own. The primary purpose of the sound system was to allow a quarter of a million people to assemble and disperse in a peaceful fashion, and its properties were chosen with that end in mind. (As Euchner notes: “To get one square mile of clear sound, you need to spend upwards of twenty thousand dollars.”) A system of unusual power, expense, and complexity was the minimum required to ensure the orderly conclusion of an event on this scale. But when the audacity to envision the National Mall as a backdrop was combined with the attention to detail to make it work, the result was an electrically charged platform that would amplify any message, figuratively and literally, which made it both powerful and potentially dangerous. Everyone understood this. The saboteurs did. So did the Justice Department. The march’s organizers were keenly aware of it, which was why potentially controversial speakers—including James Baldwin—were excluded from the program. In the end, it became a stage for King, and at least one lesson is clear. When you aim high, and then devote everything you can to the practical side, the result might be more than you could have dreamed.

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