Politics & Policy

MLK, Grassroots Lobbyist

Imagine if Jim Crow states could have known the names of the people in the organizations working with Martin Luther King Jr.

Forty-three years ago, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. declared his dream to 250,000 marchers and a national television audience: an America without racial segregation.

King recognized that a decades-long grassroots campaign of nonviolent protest, culminating in the 1963 March on Washington, might bring his dream into reality. That grassroots effort, and the media campaign surrounding it, was the most successful in American history, and led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It’s easy to look back fondly now on the March on Washington as a spontaneous gathering on a subject no one could oppose. But the event was planned for years, with a first attempt jettisoned in 1941 by the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the “Big Six” civil-rights organizations that planned the 1963 March. We forget about the “freedom trains” and “freedom buses” that brought marchers to Washington from all parts of the United States, and pass easily over the planning and financing that were necessary to bring the march together.

We can forget that many powerful forces did oppose the civil rights movement; Jim Crow was the law of the land in many southern states. And we can forget that King led Rosa Parks in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of Jim Crow in the mid 1950s, for which he had his house bombed and also was arrested. We forget that the FBI wiretapped King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961 to determine whether he was mixed up with the Communists, and when that FBI rationale evaporated, it still used incidental details caught on tape in an attempt to force him out of the leadership of the organization.

We cannot forget that King was out front on an issue of national importance. We cannot forget his fate, and that it was a tragedy. In such an environment, we might wonder how secure would be his backers and consultants if the “Big Six” had to register with the government, disclose their spending, and report the names of the consultants brave enough to help them.

This is now a pertinent question as the Senate takes up grassroots-lobbying provisions in the ethics and lobbying-reform bill. One provision would amend the definition of “lobbying activities” to include “paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying” directed at more than 500 members of the general public. There is a low-dollar registration exemption that applies to direct lobbyists, but it appears the bill would regulate low-dollar communications by nonprofits, corporations, and other organizations by specifically making their “paid” grassroots communications ineligible for the registration exemptions. There is a $25,000 threshold for what the bill (creates and) calls a “grassroots lobbying firm,” but it is unclear whether the quarterly threshold would apply to nonprofits, individuals, and other small causes, including bloggers. Even if it did, $25,000 is less than the cost of placing one ad in the New York Times’s national edition, and less than what many nonprofits pay quarterly for direct mail.

Proponents of this “reform” call the activity they wish to regulate “Astroturf lobbying” to imply that the public outcry from such campaigns is somehow fake, manufactured, or unrepresentative of citizen sentiment, because it is corporations and other advocates who alert citizens to the issue and encourage citizen involvement. But all grassroots lobbying campaigns are organic, in that they tap true concerns of real citizens. Whatever stimulates a citizen to speak out or get involved, once he is involved he speaks for reasons of his own, and speaks directly to his elected representatives. This is precisely the point of participatory democracy in a republican form of government. As noted by political analyst Ron Faucheux, “Critics who decry the artificiality of grassroots campaigns and disparage the manufacturing of public sentiment by well-heeled corporations and interest groups miss one point: grassroots lobbying … is a valid way to increase public awareness and participation in the governmental process.”

Grassroots-lobbying disclosure appears to put two canons of political law on an apparent collision course: that government corruption is cured by disclosure; and that the right of individuals to speak and associate freely depends upon their ability to do so anonymously. But the conflict is a false one because both canons achieve the same purpose when each is applied to its proper context; both protect citizens from abusive officeholders. Disclosure regimes for campaign contributions and direct lobbying protect citizens from officeholders who can confer benefits on large contributors (and pain on opponents) by passing future legislation. Regimes that protect the right to speak anonymously with fellow citizens about issues, even issues of official action or pending legislation, also protect citizens from abusive officeholders by reducing an officeholder’s ability to visit retribution on those who would oppose his policy preferences.

And there is no doubt that the danger of retribution by politicians is real. It is not hard to imagine, for example, why one Jim Crow state might have wanted to know the names of all NAACP members in 1950s Alabama, and why the Supreme Court said in response to Alabama’s desire to learn those names that “[i]t is hardly a novel perception that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute as effective a restraint on freedom of association as [other] forms of governmental action.” It is also easy to imagine the leverage Alabama could have put on the NAACP and the rest of the “Big Six” civil-rights groups if 1950s Alabama knew about the NAACP what the twenty-first century Congress proposes to learn about grassroots organizations.

It is easy to kid ourselves that there will never be a cause so divisive and deserving as racial equality that disclosure could now impede its progress. But we cannot know this with certainty, and, if the past is to be our guide, it seems that there surely will be such an issue in the future. That it is why it is important to remember Martin Luther King Jr., the civil-rights struggle, and the 1963 March on Washington, when we are considering measures that may frighten tomorrow’s skilled consultants away from tomorrow’s unpopular causes.

— Stephen M. Hoersting is executive director of the Center for Competitive Politics.


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