His name would not come up alongside Andrew Young, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson or James Orange, but Young, a foot soldier of the movement and close adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., says Bascom and hundreds more like him were vital to the movement.
On Feb. 4, Young remembered dozens of heroes from the struggle for social change in the 1950s and ’60s whose names don’t resonate with the public but who played important roles.
The occasion was Hyatt Regency hotel’s Heritage Celebration that honored Atlanta community activist Billye Aaron. During his speech, Young recalled the gritty, courageous volunteers who went in ahead of their higher-profile comrades and prepared the way for nonviolent action against racial discrimination.
They were the field staff for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
On more than one occasion, King referred to them as the “Ground Crew.”
He explained that just as an aircraft could not take off and land without the work of mechanics, air traffic controllers, runway directors and baggage handlers who remained on the ground, SCLC could not have implemented its programs without the work of the field staff.
Bascom, 75, who lives in Atlanta, has vivid memories of working on the National Poor People’s Campaign, one of King’s last projects that was carried out in June 1968, two months after King’s assassination.
Fresh out of the service, he volunteered to help organize the Poor People’s March on Washington. Tens of thousands of blacks, poor whites, Native Americans and Latinos converged on the National Mall and set up a peaceful but unauthorized encampment known as “Resurrection City.”
It was a demand for aid for low-income workers and a protest against the Vietnam War, which demonstrators said drained resources away from the War on Poverty.
“I was arrested in Resurrection City and spent 14 days in jail in Washington,” Bascom recalled Feb. 13. “After that, I was recruited into SCLC.”
He worked for the organization’s Operation Breadbasket in his native Philadelphia.
“In August 1968, Andrew Young brought me to Atlanta where I worked on the staff at the national office of SCLC as a field organizer,” he said.
Before long, Bascom and other members of the SCLC field team were in Pike County, Ga., setting up and taking part in demonstrations for school desegregation.
“We got locked up and I spent two months in jail in Pike County for demonstrating on school property,” he said this week.
Bascom served as national director of Student Affairs from 1969 to 1972.
“I remember that the vast majority of demonstrators I saw were women and children,” Bascom said. “They really were the heart and soul of the movement.”
Bascom remembers demonstrators like Lula Joe Williams of Montgomery, Ala., who as a student was jailed repeatedly in Selma for unlawful assembly during protests.
He explained that many black men struggled with the movement’s nonviolence tactics and some couldn’t commit to not responding passively if they were physically attacked.
Williams chuckles when asked how often she was jail.
“I went to jail way more than 12 times,” she said. “I was one of the few women on the field staff working in Montgomery 1964-65 during the Selma movement [for voting rights],” she said.
Williams stayed with the SCLC field staff until 1968 when King asked her to work at the SCLC headquarters. She continued with SCLC after King’s death, helping with planning for the Poor People’s March on Washington.
The volunteers on the SCLC’s Ground Crew did a lot of the difficult and often dangerous advance work for marches, sit-ins, voter registration and protests against police brutality all over the country from the late 1950s until the early ’70s.
Williams said she is proud of all of it.
“I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” she said.
As an adviser to King, Young got to know the Ground Crew well and appreciated their skill and planning ability.
“I want all of the people who have been volunteering to set us free for the last 50 years to come up onstage,” he said, glancing at faces he knew in the Hyatt’s crowded Centennial Ballroom.
Eleven civil rights veterans answered the call, joining Young in an unfamiliar place – the spotlight.
“It was an honor, a privilege and a blessing,” said Bascom, who was among those who joined Young onstage.
It took a bit of prodding, but Young got them to introduce themselves individually.
Then, without much prompting at all, they and Young burst out in a perfect a capella rendition of the civil rights anthem “Nobody Turn Me Around.”
They got a rousing ovation, a moment of recognition and appreciation after decades of laboring in obscurity.
“We didn’t do it for the recognition,” Bascom said. “We did it because it was the right thing to do.”