When Theresa Cropper was leaving one job in Chicago and setting up her own law practice, she got a call from her friend, musician Stevie Wonder. "He started talking about the importance of the King national holiday, and then he said I want you to coordinate this year's march. And I laughed and said I would have to move to Washington, and he said, 'Well.' Then I said I was starting up a private practice, and he said, 'Well.' Stevie can be very persuasive," says Cropper.
The support of Stevie Wonder, who for the second year is sponsoring a national march in Washington to get Congress to pass legislation making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, the persistence of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who initially introduced legislation for the holiday 14 years ago, the work of Cropper, the march's national coordinator, and the other organizers will culminate in today's activities. Today would have been King's 53rd birthday.
In the last six weeks, the hub of activity has been the mobilization office, a suite of large rooms with peeling baby-blue paint, in a former school building owned by the District government on Capitol Hill. Cropper, 27, who is a former staff attorney for Operation PUSH, was working with Delores Bates, a veteran of many march organizations, Beverly DeHoniesto, a teacher and homemaker, and Marcella Ware, Jesse Jackson's administrative assistant who was spending her vacation at the office.
At the last minute, calls came from across the nation expressing concern about the weather and the air crash in Washington. "Our momentum wasn't affected by the air tragedy, but certainly some of our spirit was," said Cropper. There will be no change in today's events, but the program will include a prayer for the families of the crash victims.
Though the march plans were going smoothly, Wonder's hour on television with Phil Donahue raised the work load in the office to a fever pitch. When the show was first aired in the Midwest last Friday, 250 calls were logged at the Capitol Hill office. "One man called from Kentucky saying he didn't like King in the '60s but after hearing Steve, he supported the holiday," volunteer Dick Brown reported to Cropper. Bates received calls from prisons, churches and campuses like Vassar. "A lot of people said I can't come but we think the issue is timely. How can we help," says Cropper.
While Cropper listened to that report, she quizzed another volunteer about his driver's license. Like most organizers Cropper has to juggle a dozen decisions at once, signing letters for the local City Council members, scheduling a telephone call to a lawyers group in Newark, deciding when she could tape a radio announcement that needed to be in Chicago, deciding how many typewriters offered by a company they could use, counting the volunteers for the work at the subways, schools and shopping malls, finding churches where the early arrivals for the march could rest.
Cropper's energy and enthusiasm came from the example of her mother. "I always thought King was the greatest person because my mother thought he was. She was an organizer, worked with Saul Alinsky the late community organizer , and worked some in Mississippi, and then started an adult education school. And she told me you will have to take up the baton," says Cropper. When she was a law student at American University, Cropper was the first woman to be national chair of the Black American Law Students Association. "I became active then because I didn't want to be in Washington and not be involved in events here," explains Cropper, who then helped organize the two demonstrations to gain support against the Bakke case, which brought the issue of minority admission plans to the Supreme Court. After working for the National Bar Association briefly, she joined Operation PUSH's staff in Chicago and worked on its short but successful Coca-Cola boycott and other issues.
Sitting in the office in front of a color photograph of Wonder and Conyers, Cropper talked about the impact of the economic downturn and conservative politics on support of the march. She described the mood as a mixed blessing. "People have developed bottom-line issues. This is bottom line, like the Voting Rights Act, so the momentum happens. Legislatively it's a different matter. On the Senate side, the bill goes up before Strom Thurmond's Judiciary Committee and we don't see him as being as sympathetic as Ted Kennedy. But we have been politicizing people on how they can use their vote. We can say so-and-so is acting ugly on the King holiday, so let's look at their other stands."
Cropper and the other organizers are planning the follow-up to the march. Participants will receive a post card to mail to their congressmen in favor of the holiday and a petition to be sent to the King Center in Atlanta. "As with Solidarity Day, we are saying marching is an effective way in the 1980s, but as part of the legislative process," says Cropper. The committee sent out legislative materials, emphasizing the need for circulating petitions and writing Congress, along with the organizing packets that invited people to the march. "We are very aware of the economic difference this year. Many people can't afford to come," she says.