Stewart Acuff

Jan 18

The Lessons Today’s Organizers Can Learn from Dr. King

Today begins one of the most important weekends in American history. Over this three day weekend, our nation will inaugurate and celebrate the second term of our first African-American president – one of the most progressive in our history. We will also celebrate the life, work, and legacy of one of America’s greatest heroes and most successful organizers and movement leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The president would not be possible without the organizer and movement leader.

Let us not forget President Obama would not be possible without Dr. King, the movement he led, and the people who followed him in the streets.

Many of us think of Dr. King’s movement freed African-Americans to be full participants in American life. And for the most part that is true. But Dr. King and his movement to a large extent opened the doors to freedom for all Americans of color and freed many white Americans from their own prisons of prejudice, bigotry, and racism.

I was raised white with Native American and African-American forebears. Dr. King and his movement allowed me to reconcile who I am – Black, Red, and White – Sierra Leone, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Scots-Irish. This is not just my personal history and story, but that of thousands, maybe millions of Americans.

Dr. King’s courage, oratory, skill, talent, charisma, and commitment seared the consciences of all white America. The struggle and movement he led not only changed the politics, but all the culture of the South and all America. And changing culture is much harder than changing politics.

What are the lessons today’s organizers can learn from Dr. King?

  • Movements don’t just happen. Movements require hard, close to the ground organizing. The Montgomery Bus Boycott did not just happen. Dr. King was recruited to lead the boycott by E. D. Nixon, a shop steward for A. Philp Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters who had been organizing for civil rights in Montgomery for many years. Dr. King’s close relationship with the labor movement goes back at least as far as Montgomery.
  • The moral high ground matters. To this day we must always gain and hold the moral high ground. Our struggle is about justice.
  • Courage matters. Would the conscience of America have been moved without the pictures of African-American teenagers and children organized by Rev. James Orange facing down Bull Connor’s German Shepherds and fire hoses?
  • Sacrifice matters. How many maids and domestic workers walked miles in Montgomery? How many demonstrators filled all the jails of southwest Georgia during the Albany Movement? How did the families of striking sanitation workers in Memphis eat and pay their bills?
  • Institutions matter. Institutionalization is critical to making Movement Change into permanent change. That is why the sanitation workers in Memphis struck for collective bargaining and dues checkoff.
  • Perseverance matters. Change in America takes a long time. May we have the commitment and perseverance to spend all our lives in struggle for a Just America and a more just world.


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Stewart Acuff is the former organizing Director of the AFL-CIO. Acuff has also written two books: Playing Bigger Than You Are: A Life in Organizing, and Getting America Back to Work.

Playing Bigger Than You Are - A Life in OrganizingGet the e-book edition of Playing Bigger Than You Are by clicking here!

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