McCabe and five other Pontiac mothers set off on their six-week trek on 15 March 1972, and both print and television reporters noted the historical echoes of the event. 'How and why', one article asked, 'did the trim housewife emerge as a national figure emulating the tactics of the civil rights marchers of the '60s?' At the Pontiac sendoff to McCabe and the marching mothers, ABC’s Jim Kincaid noted, 'Irene McCabe and her National Action Group have taken a page from other demonstrations in the past. It won’t be the first walk to Washington, it may be one of the longest.' In addition to the clear reference to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the marchers also made a side trip to Massillion, Ohio, the starting point of Coxey’s Army March on Washington by unemployed workers in 1894. As these historical precedents suggest, McCabe’s 'mothers’ march' was designed to be easily recognized as a newsworthy event.
Early in the march, McCabe told a newspaper reporter, 'This is not my favorite thing – walking, but hopefully people will look along the way at six miserable women on television and write their congressman in favor of the [anti-busing] amendment.' As McCabe’s reference to 'six miserable women' indicates, the physical pain the marchers endured was a recurring theme in the print coverage of the march. Two weeks into the walk, one marcher had her calves wrapped in bandages and McCabe noted, 'I’m wearing sun glasses to hide the tears.' After particularly hilly terrain in West Virginia, McCabe told a waiting reporter, 'When you consider what we’ve been through, its amazing. You think your chest is going to pop open, your heart explodes and then there’s another vicious, vicious hill to climb.' A photo of McCabe soaking her feet accompanied a story on the marching mothers’ arrival in Maryland. Just a day before reaching Washington DC, McCabe stopped for medical treatment on her feet. 'I simply could not bear the pain any longer', she said. 'It has been this way for almost two weeks. Every step, I don’t know for how many days, has just been agony.' The marching mothers’ misery became as much a part of the story as their opposition to busing. The Associated Press and United Press International distributed dozens of stories on the march which appeared in newspapers across the country, and this print media coverage served as advance promotion for the culminating rally when the mothers reached Washington DC at the end of April 1972. The news reports inspired a group of eight mothers from Richmond, Virginia to walk 100 miles to join the Pontiac marchers. 'Irene McCabe is a national heroine', said one of the Richmond mothers. 'It was a spur of the moment thing, but I figured if she could walk 620 miles from Pontiac, Mich., to Washington then I could do it from Virginia.' Sandi Cahoon, leader of the Richmond mothers, told reporters, 'the South will rise again, and so will the North, the East and the West – as long as there are freedom loving, God-fearing, dedicated Americans like [McCabe].' Calling McCabe 'a Joan of Arc', Cahoon continued, 'Don’t bother with Vogue magazine, the marching mothers are the beautiful people'.
For these Richmond mothers and many other busing opponents, the march raised McCabe’s profile and helped establish her as a representative voice of the 'silent majority' in the busing debate. When Nixon gave his 1972 March speech calling on Congress to pass a moratorium on new busing orders, for example, McCabe’s reaction to the speech was quoted alongside presidential candidates like George Wallace and George McGovern, politicians like Gerald Ford and Jacob Javits and NAACP national executives Roy Wilkins and Clarence Mitchell. At least two local papers ran photos of McCabe above wire service stories about Nixon’s speech. McCabe, who watched the speech with the other marching mothers at a motel in Taylor, Michigan, told reporters that the 'President took a good antibusing position but didn’t propose the right solution…all we have is this great flood of rhetoric. We’re going to choke on rhetoric and I’ve very disappointed because I love this President.' All of the attention to McCabe’s opinion of Nixon’s televised speech further established her as an important and newsworthy voice in the national school desegregation controversy.
After the 44-day march, television cameras from ABC, CBS and NBC followed McCabe and the other mothers as they arrived in Washington DC. The coverage on each station picked up the themes that circulated in print coverage of the march over the prior six weeks, emphasizing that the marchers were attempting to bring national political attention to the busing issue, that they had endured physical pain during their long walk Washington and, most importantly, that they undertook the march as mothers. To symbolize their roles as housewives and mothers, McCabe and the other marchers wore aprons with their names and references to HJ 620. The marchers' first stop at the steps of the Capitol, where they met with then Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, Tennessee Senator William Brock (who sponsored the anti-busing amendment in the Senate), Massachusetts Congresswoman and anti-busing leader Louis Day Hicks, and several other prominent politicians, reminded viewers of the political purpose of the mothers' march. As the mothers walked the final blocks to the anti-busing rally on the grounds of the Washington monument, the television reports segued to focus on how the mothers, and especially McCabe, had gamely suffered in support of their cause. Each station mentioned the mothers’ feet and the how sore they were after miles of walking. CBS cut to a medium shot of three of the mothers’ feet, while reporter Tony Sargent said: 'Mrs. McCabe and the others all had foot and leg problems along the way, some requiring doctor’s care.' These scenes made the mothers’ suffering, described in dozens of newspapers stories filed during the march, visible to a national television audience.
Not coincidentally, McCabe’s speech at the rally picked up this theme, connecting the physical pain of the march and the pain childbirth to the building of an anti-busing coalition. As a band played Nancy Sinatra’s 'These Boots Are Made for Walking', McCabe limped visibly as she approached a podium, outfitted with several microphones. 'I can’t believe we walked the whole way,' she told the crowd.
I personally have suffered a great deal of pain on this walk. It was far more physically grueling than I ever could have imagined. The only time I have ever been in such pain has been in labor. Whenever you’re in labor, you finally give birth to something beautiful. We’ve labored long and we’ve been through a great deal of pain, but it’s worth it, because we have given birth to the rekindling of the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Look, you’re here!
Like the Mothers of Conservatism featured in Michelle Nickerson’s book, McCabe claimed the authority to speak based on her status as a mother and her related ability to present a common sense view on a complex political issue. While McCabe’s rhetoric drew on familiar themes of motherhood and populism, television gave her rallying cries a crucial visual component and broadcast her message on a scale inaccessible to the vast majority of grassroots female activists.
At the end of McCabe’s speech, each network followed her cue ('Look, you’re here!') and cut to reaction shots of the crowd. Those gathered, almost all white and mostly women, hold clearly worded placards readings 'Stop Forced Busing', 'Pass HJ Res 620', and 'Welcome Irene'. Behind the crowd, the Washington monument is visible, ringed by U.S. flags. It is an impressive, but misleading sight. While McCabe initially said she expected 250,000 anti-busing supporters to attend the rally, and the march promoters promised 10,000 people, the Washington Post estimated that only 500 to 800 people attended the anti-busing rally. CBS’s Tony Sargent noted drily, 'Despite Mrs. McCabe’s dramatic march, today’s turnout was far smaller than expected.' L. Brooks Patterson, NAG’s attorney, expressed his disappointment at the low turnout 'This hillside should have been covered with all your neighbors and friends,' he told the crowd. 'They scream the loudest when their children are bused and they should be here to protest.'
In Michigan, the rally’s ability accurately to represent public opposition to busing became a point of contention. While the Michigan House of Representatives passed a resolution (by a 61-28 vote) to honor McCabe, calling her 'the symbol of tens of millions of people who are opposed to forced busing', the Detroit Urban League questioned this symbolism. 'With the small rally turnout Mrs. McCabe received in Washington, how can the House assume or even support the notion that Mrs. McCabe represents such a large segment of the American population?' asked Detroit Urban League executive director Francis Kornegay. For her part, McCabe said 'I didn’t expect many people', because her anti-busing supporters are 'working people' who 'can’t afford to lose a day’s pay', but expressed her frustration with the turnout to the Washington Post, 'If I can give up a year of my life (to fight busing) why can’t they turn out for day?'
McCabe’s disappointment was no doubt sincere, but it underestimated the march’s success as a media event. The march reportedly cost $7,500 and was paid for by fund raising in Pontiac and along the parade route. Despite this small budget, the march generated daily newspaper reports and television news coverage of the marchers’ departure from Pontiac and their arrival in Washington, DC. Here again, news media, and especially television, helped McCabe dramatically scale-up her anti-busing message. Television news brought McCabe’s rally, which despite a month of advance publicity failed to draw 1,000 people, to a national audience of millions of television viewers. By any accounting, this was an extraordinary return on the time and money McCabe and NAG invested in the march. Given the legislative challenges of passing a constitutional amendment, moreover, HJ Res. 620 and other anti-busing amendments were primarily intended as symbolic political maneuvers. In this light, while HJ Res. 620 never had any real chance of passing, the mothers’ march to Washington generated a tremendous amount of press attention for anti-busing views.
While busing continued to be a major political issue throughout the 1970s, the mothers’ march on Washington was the pinnacle of McCabe’s political career. In Pontiac, tensions emerged within NAG over the media’s focus on McCabe and over her leadership style. When asked what the march had accomplished, marcher Lorene Fligger noted, 'Well, in my case, I walked to Washington.' Another mother, Ardith Heineman, who quit NAG shortly after the march, said, 'Irene’s style of doing things is to tell you to do it. If you ask questions she whirls on you and tells you not the straddle the fence.' By February 1973, the Associated Press reported, 'The National Action Group (NAG), once the most vocal and best publicized anti-busing group in the nation, has fallen into a state of near chaos.' As NAG meetings became increasingly contentious and McCabe faced challenges from rival NAG factions, she stepped down, lamenting, 'Too many people are interested in fighting me and not fighting busing.' After leaving NAG, McCabe campaigned unsuccessfully for a position on the county board of supervisors and floated the idea of challenging Michigan Senator Philip Hart for his seat. Unlike Boston’s Louis Day Hicks or Los Angeles’ Bobbi Fiedler, both of whom were elected to the US House of Representations largely on the strength of their anti-busing credentials, McCabe’s campaign did not lead to success in electoral politics. McCabe expressed frustration that the politicians and political advisors who had once eagerly met with her ignored her once she was out of the national spotlight. After L.Brooks Patterson, former NAG legal advisor, was elected county prosecutor, McCabe noted, 'I was once his voice of the average person. He doesn’t need me now. He’s elected. A guy from Hazel Park [a Detroit suburb] told me a long time ago, "they’re gonna use you, honey." He was right.' McCabe also questioned the sincerity of John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s chief domestic affairs advisor, with whom she met after the mothers’ march on Washington and who indicated that Nixon would support a constitutional amendment opposing busing. 'Perhaps he used us as a ploy to quiet down the antibusing protesting voices', she told a reporter. 'I’ll never lift a hand to support another political hack', she later declared.
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This page references:
- McCabe with camera during mothers' march.
- Irene McCabe & NAG marching mothers.
- McCabe greeted at capitol.
- McCabe waves to supporters at Washington DC rally.
- Footsore Irene McCabe.
- Marching mothers leave Pontiac – ABC – 15 March 1972.
- McCabe watching Nixon on TV.
- McCabe arrives in DC – CBS – 27 April 1972.
- Marching mothers in Washington DC – CBS – 27 April 1972.
- McCabe speaking at DC rally - ABC - 27 April 1972
- McCabe Speaking at DC Rally