If you can count a crowd and keep your virtue …
During the fall of 1964, I was director of the Collegiate Press Service, an operation that supplied content — or “news,” as we quaintly called it at the time — to 300 or 400 college newspapers.
Our big story that fall was the Free Speech Movement on the University of California’s Berkeley campus. The protests, which went on all fall and reverberated throughout the American higher education system, were sparked by a University of California decision to ban student political activity from the last sliver of university property on which it was allowed, a sidewalk along Bancroft Street on the south side of the campus.
That was the year of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and just about the time the university was shutting down the student political organizations’ tables along Bancroft, hundreds of Cal students who had spent the summer in Mississippi were returning to the campus. They were outraged by the crackdown.
On Aug. 31, campus cops arrested a student member of the Congress for Racial Equality who wouldn’t abandon his table, and hundreds of sit-in protesters immobilized the police car he had been taken to, the roof of which becoming an impromptu speakers’ platform. (The student, Jack Weinberg, emerged from the car two days later and went on to coin one of the defining one-liners of the ’60s: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”) After that, there were protest rallies almost daily. The size of the crowds at the rallies was routinely estimated at 3,000 or 3,500. In December, there was an occupation of the administration building, followed by mass arrests, and crowds at the rallies visibly swelled. Somebody — the press or the campus police — estimated attendance at one of the largest ones at 7,000 to 10,000. Protesters howled that the count was being low-balled.
That prompted Herbert A. Jacobs, a Cal journalism professor, to obtain an aerial photograph of the rally, divide it into 1-inch squares, and, with the aid of a magnifying glass, count the crowd. His final number was 2,804.
So that he wouldn’t have to repeat the exercise every time there was a subsequent rally, and to check his work, he acquired the dimensions of the space where the rallies were taking place (Sproul Plaza) so he could calculate the space they were occupying, and deduced the average square footage taken up by each student (about four square feet at a tightly packed outdoor event). Subsequent rallies confirmed his approach.
I’ve been very cautious about crowd estimates ever since.
What brought all this to mind was the flap that broke out over the size of the crowd at Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally on Aug. 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. NBC News and The New York Times reported the crowd size at 300,000. Beck estimated attendance at his rally “at a minimum of 500,000 people.”
CBS News said, in so many words, “they’re dreaming.” The network had hired experts in crowd-counting to estimate the size of Beck’s crowd. The experts came up with an estimate of 87,000, plus or minus 9,000.
CBS’ crowd estimators arrived at their numbers using methods based on the ones Jacobs used at Berkeley. They strike me as credible. Beck’s 500,000 figure is wishful thinking.
CBS is to be commended for trying to get a crowd estimate based on more than guesswork, but it failed to address an angle of its story that should have been covered — particularly since Beck’s rally occurred on the anniversary of King’s. If Beck’s rally attracted 87,000 people instead of 300,000 to 500,000, how many people attended Dr. King’s rally in 1963?
The iconic photos of King’s rally, taken from about the same angles as the photos of Beck’s rally, show a crowd of roughly the same size. At the time, The New York Times estimated the crowd at 200,000.
I think it would be extremely interesting to count the crowd at King’s rally using the same techniques that were used to count the crowd at Beck’s. And, should the recount yield a lower number, to contemplate some unsettling questions:
Would passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have had “the terrible urgency of now” that it acquired after King’s march on Washington, if the size of the march was known to have been less than half the size originally reported?
Would Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen have been able to push the bill through Congress in those circumstances?
Would the end of segregation have been deferred?
And, more broadly and most troubling of all: For good or ill, to what extent is national policy determined by our inability to count accurately?