King’s Boots and Lewis’ Backpack

Ideas and Issues Organizing
Photo with the backpack from
Photo with the backpack from

New Orleans      Too often our tactics lose their edge when they devolve into more show than steel, more parade than march, more about the media than the target.  This is constantly an organizer’s dilemma in putting together actions that have to impact various audiences.   Without care and thorough, disciplined organizing with real people actions can become mere charades and performances rather than demonstrations of power producing pressure and change.

If, as the saying goes, pictures can say a thousand words, I could hear more than that while looking closely at two reprints of photos taken by James “Spider” Martin, the Alabama newspaper photographer of the events around Selma and Montgomery in 1965 that the New York Times reprinted from his archive recently acquired by the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin.  There were details in the picture that were the signatures of authenticity, keeping it real.

In the 21st century backpacks are everywhere weighing down school children and slung on the shoulder behind a hoodie defining urban transportation and community for many.  Backpacks were for campers fifty years ago, the badge of Boy Scouts and few others.  It struck me watching the film, Selma, recently and again studying the picture of John Lewis and Hosea Williams in the faceoff on the Pettus Bridge before the police attack, that Lewis was wearing a backpack over his overcoat.  That backpack is itself a symbol of seriousness.  What did he have in that pack?  Was he prepared to cross the bridge towards Montgomery?  Was he hoping he had access to a toothbrush or a change of shorts if he ended up in jail?  It doesn’t matter for the point of the march.  The backpack makes it real and yells to anyone looking – and caring – that he was ready.  The coat, tie, and even the overcoat were a message to the media and the American people that the marchers were good, solid, reasonable people trying to make change and not fire-breathers or as George McGovern said while running for President, “…those who would be most radical must appear the most conservative.”  The backpack though makes it all real and not just a show.

Another picture of the march hitting the streets of Montgomery several weeks later could be any picture of any march anywhere, except for a similar and significant difference.  If you looked down from the photo of the front line singing, Martin Luther King holding Coretta Scott King’s hand, and their triumphant entry into the city, you see that on King’s feet and a couple of people over on Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s feet are hiking boots.  King has his suit pants cuffed over the boots, while Abernathy has his hanging loose.  Those boots make it all real.  This was no parade.  This was a march on the capitol.  This was real; they had done the miles; they had taken the steps along the highway.  The suit coats, slacks, white shirts, and ties were put on for the camera and many in this same picture had undoubtedly joined at the end for the final surge, but the hiking boots on the front line on King and Abernathy’s feet and another pair of hush puppy looking shoes mismatched to another front line marcher’s shoes tell the true story of real struggle.


There’s more than the devil in the details.  There are the touches of reality that bring the punch and power to action, and worth every organizer remembering.


Please enjoy another pro-union song, Phil Ochs’ Links on the Chain