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The legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and race in America today.
- Isabel Wilkerson Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Warmth of Other Suns."
- Taylor Branch Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several books on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights era.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a bad cold. On Monday, we honor, with a national holiday, the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. He was born 84 years ago.
MR. TOM GJELTENPlus, it's inauguration day, the country's first African-American president will be sworn into office for four more years. Joining me in the studio to talk about Martin Luther King's legacy and racial justice in America today is Taylor Branch, the author of several books on Reverend King and from a studio in Atlanta, journalist Isabel Wilkerson who has written extensively on African-American history.
MR. TOM GJELTENYou can join our conversation. We're at 1-800-433-8850. Email us, our address is firstname.lastname@example.org and of course, you can join us via Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, Taylor, and good morning, Isabel.
MR. TAYLOR BRANCHGood morning, Tom.
MS. ISABEL WILKERSONGood morning.
GJELTENThanks to both of you for joining us. Isabel, I'm going to begin with you in Atlanta. I think that what we want to do here at the start is go way back. Let's go way back to the 1950s and life in the South. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister in Alabama.
GJELTENHe did not aspire, from what I have understood from Taylor Branch's writing and your own as well, did not aspire to be a national leader. What was it like to be an African-American, Isabel, in the 1950s in the deep South, in places like Montgomery, Ala.?
WILKERSONWell, the world that he grew up in, the world of the South at that time was a world that essentially was bound up in a caste system in which what you could do, where you could work, your actual behavior, interactions between and among people was based upon the caste into which you were born which was based on what you looked like.
WILKERSONAnd it was a world in which it was actually against the law for a black person and a white person merely to play checkers together in Birmingham. There were actually black and white bibles, separate bibles in courtrooms throughout the South and there were actually such things as segregated ambulances, segregated hospitals.
WILKERSONEvery single thing was segregated by a thick wall of distinction between what anyone could do at that time. And any breach of that caste system could actually mean the loss of one's life.
GJELTENInteresting, Isabel, that you use the word caste, a caste in your words, you were put into a caste based on what you looked like. You don't use the word racism in describing the system. You call it, instead, a caste system. Why do you describe it that way?
WILKERSONBecause the structure of the economy of the South depended upon the cheap labor of African-Americans throughout much of our country's history and after the end of slavery, it was replaced by sharecropping and a caste system that determined what an individual could do.
WILKERSONTo keep people fixed in a place, they needed to be able to -- everyone needed to know where everyone stood. It was if they had roles in a play and in this case, there were roles for African-Americans, roles for white Americans and that meant that there were very distinct things that people could and could not do.
WILKERSONUltimately, what Martin Luther King and the thousands upon thousands of unnamed, unknown people who buttressed his strength and his courage, what they were fighting was a structure that needed to be dismantled in order for justice to prevail in the South and the rest of the country as well.
GJELTENWell, one of those people who stood alongside and behind Martin Luther King, of course, was Rosa Parks, who would have turned 100 years old in just a couple weeks. And take us back to 1955 in Montgomery, Ala. and Rosa Parks' role.
WILKERSONWell, interestingly enough, Martin Luther King himself had just arrived to Montgomery as a young minister. He had just finished doing much of his graduate work at Boston University and was newly married and was not really looking toward necessarily the greatness that we now ascribe to him at this time.
WILKERSONHe had arrived new and at this time, there were already strategies in place to begin to work and fight against this caste system, this one aspect of it which had to do with the segregation and busing. And in early December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress and also a civil rights activist herself, planned to refuse to give up her seat on a bus.
WILKERSONThey, she and those who were the organizers of this, knew what that would mean. It would mean that she would be arrested and thus would set off what would become known as the 'Montgomery bus boycott'.
WILKERSONMartin Luther King was a new minister in a perfectly placed church known as the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and he was the, interestingly enough, reluctant leader, became a reluctant though charismatic leader of what would become a watershed moment in not just Southern history, not just African-American history, but in American history.
GJELTENTaylor Branch, you've devoted, what, 25 years of your life to studying Martin Luther King and writing about him. Isabel Wilkerson just described him as a reluctant leader. What, in your view, after analyzing his life so deeply, what distinguished Martin Luther King from all the others that might have played that role?
BRANCHI think the most outstanding attribute he had was an ability to communicate the meaning of the movement that he was involved in for racial justice in very, very broad terms that was appealing across racial lines and even internationally to plain folk and educated folk alike.
BRANCHI like to say that he put one foot in the scriptures and one foot in the constitution and said basically whether you're concerned about equal souls or equal votes, you have to take account of this movement because that's what we're about. We're not strictly speaking about race. We're about justice and we're about democracy and we're about the true spirit of religion.
GJELTENBut do you share Isabel's view that he was reluctant to sort of take that step to, you know, emerge as the public face of this movement?
BRANCHOh, absolutely. I mean, quite frankly, he was named the leader of the bus boycott at a time when any of the more senior black leaders could have taken that role and most of them didn't think that the bus boycott was going to succeed and that this newcomer in town would look good and he might take the fall when everything fizzled out.
BRANCHSo it wasn't like he took command of this thing or proposed himself. He was, like, drafted and at the very first, hours before his first public speech of his public career, before that, he was just a minister. And when he addressed this audience on the night of December 5, he was a stranger to most of the people in the audience.
BRANCHHe was a newcomer in town and that, to me, was literally the birth of a movement. If you think of a movement in its classical terms of something that starts out with a small movement, an individual, you're moved. You see something larger and that it grows. And that's what the civil rights movement grew from, that very first night that made him a public person.
GJELTENIsabel Wilkerson, Taylor Branch just said that it was Martin Luther King's ability to communicate that sort of separated him from others. Of course, he was a minister. Give us a sense of the importance of black ministers in the black community in the South and of the church. Do you think it was almost essential that the leader of the civil rights, the African-American portion of the civil rights movement, would come from the black church?
WILKERSONThat's such a great point that you make. When you go back and think about the fact that we are also acknowledging or commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it's a reminder that, you know, exactly 150 years ago at this time, African-Americans were just emerging from centuries of enslavement.
WILKERSONAnd so one of the first things that they did was to build churches to be able to worship and many of the great leaders among African-Americans at that time could only have been those who had been ministers. They had not been permitted to go to school. There had been so many limits on them that actually the spiritual focus and the leadership would have come among ministers. And so this is actually quite, I would think, in keeping with the history of these people who had been held down for so long and were just now emerging.
GJELTENVery interesting, Taylor, so we're talking about a bus boycott that happened in 1955, yet I think most of us, when we think about the civil rights movement at its heyday, we think in the early 1960s. What happened in those years from 1955 to, say, 1963 or 1964 when there was so much going on? What happened to the civil rights movement in those years?
BRANCHWell, you're right to look back on it with that sense of time. '63 was definitely the breaking-point year. We're starting the 50th anniversary of that year, 1963. So what happened between the bus boycott which ran through 1956 and 1963 is a lot in my view, a lot of percolation in the 1950s of groups that thought about trying to challenge the segregation system, but didn't have the standing and weren't quite sure how to go about it.
BRANCHBut they did build up their rolodexes and things really changed in 1960 with the sit-ins, the student sit-ins in February of 1960 which spread all across the South. The very first ones were confusing to people. They thought of them as panty raids because they didn't think that young African-Americans could be serious actors in politics but they were.
BRANCHAnd the movement built and expanded from there through the freedom rides and protests of the early 1960s.
GJELTENAnd of course, Isabel, 1963 was the 100th anniversary of the emancipation of slaves.
WILKERSONYes, I would also add that the additional pressures to create this turning point in the late 1950s and 1960s would also be the fact that there were other things going on that were putting tremendous pressure on the entire country. And that was the outpouring of six million African-Americans defecting from this caste system of the South and moving to all-points north and west and thus putting pressure on the north to pay attention, greater attention to what was going on in the South.
WILKERSONI think the advent of television and the televising of the violence that was occurring as a result of the peaceful protests of people that were going on, that were being mounted in the South, all of this making the efforts of resistance more visible to the rest of the country and to the world combined to create this tremendous amount of pressure to make, to finally confront this.
GJELTENIsabel Wilkerson, who has written extensively on African-American history, she's joining us from Atlanta and with me here in the studio, Taylor Branch, the author of a magisterial trilogy of books of Martin Luther King. Of course, we're coming up on the Martin Luther King holiday and the inauguration of Barack Obama for a second term. We're going to be talking about what that means for America. Stay with us, we'll be right back.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And my two guests are Taylor Branch, who has written a terrific trilogy on Martin Luther King, Jr. He's with me here in the studio. And joining us from a studio in Atlanta is journalist and author, Isabel Wilkerson who has also written extensively on African American history. And we are talking about what has been achieved in the last 50 years in the area of racial justice and what remains to be achieved.
GJELTENAnd, of course, one of the big achievements has been the election of an African American president, something that would have been unthinkable I'm sure many years ago. But let's -- we're still back in the 1960s. And, Taylor Branch, let's talk about one year in particular that I think your writing has really underscored. And that is the year 1964. Not even sure where to begin. Let's begin in the summer of 1964. That was known as the Freedom Summer. Explain.
BRANCHIt was known as Freedom Summer in Mississippi because the student movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Movement, had been trying to register African American voters in Mississippi for four years, largely without success. And as a desperation measure, they couldn't even mount a picket sign in Mississippi, they brought in hundreds of white volunteers for the summer, mostly from elite white colleges in what was called Mississippi Freedom Summer.
BRANCHAnd three of them were lynched on the very first night of Freedom Summer, June 21, 1964. And it became a crisis for the whole summer. It was up in the White House within hours. You had President Johnson talking to senators and to J. Edgar Hoover and every -- it was a national crisis just as the people in Freedom Summer predicted it would be that when elite white people started getting oppressed the way African Americans had been, that the country would pay attention.
BRANCHAnd that same summer was the year, the summer of the presidential conventions in a pivotal moment for the subsequent history of American politics.
GJELTENPivotal because why?
BRANCHBecause the South, for 100 years, had been the bedrock of the Democratic Party that had restored white rule after the end of reconstruction. It was the solid South for Democrat, any Democrat who wanted to run for president and needed a solid South that was Democrat and based on segregation. When I grew up, I was born in Atlanta, there were practically no Republicans in the South. They were scarce as polar bears because the Republicans were the party of Lincoln.
BRANCHThey were Yankees. We were all Democrats. But a Democratic president, John Kennedy, proposed the Civil Rights Bill and another Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, pushed it through in the year 1964 and began to shift the Democratic Party into cross-racial coalitions. At the same time, though, in a U-turn, the Republican Party that had always been the party of Lincoln, nominated Barry Goldwater who went into consultation with his two legal advisers, William Rehnquist and Robert Bork and announced that he was going to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the bedrock freedom movement.
BRANCHAnd from that moment, instantly, the very first Republican sprang up in the South, where there was not a single Republican representative from the Atlantic Ocean to Texas. But as soon as Goldwater said I'm against civil rights, Southerners sprang up saying, I'm going to become a Republican too. And over the years since, and a lot of people aren't aware of it, essentially the two parties have switched roles.
BRANCHThe Republicans are by and large the default party of white people, certainly white, married protestants in the South. And the Democratic Party is a party that is reluctantly but trying to adjust to become a cross-racial party. So it has really turned partisan politics upside down. And a lot of people aren't aware of it precisely because we tend to suppress racial influences in our public discussion, and even more so in our public memory, which is what Isabel Wilkerson's book is wonderful in reminding us.
GJELTENOf course in that convention, the Democratic convention in particular in 1964, there was a big fight over who would represent -- who would be represented in the Mississippi delegation.
BRANCHWho would be represented, whether the freedom Democrats from Mississippi which were integrated would be granted seats or whether all the seats would be reserved for the traditional white Mississippi party that was segregated, it was all white. And not only that, all of its members were pledged to vote for Goldwater. They were pledged to vote -- they publicly announced, we're going to vote for the Republican candidate but we're claiming seats in the Democratic convention.
BRANCHIt's a truly absurd situation when you think back on it. But they still wanted to maintain control in the name of the Democratic Party for all those state and local offices that have gradually, over the years, switched over. But that convention, it's not widely known, President Lyndon Johnson had a virtual breakdown behind the scenes in trying to navigate the shift from the Democratic Party as the party of segregation into a Democratic Party that -- only in the next convention, 1968, adopted rules that required the representation not only by minorities but of women.
BRANCHFifty percent representation, moving toward a truly representation political party.
GJELTENWell, Isabel Wilkerson, so 1964 from the point of view of political realignments was momentous. Put that in a larger context. Where was America at in 1964?
WILKERSONIn 1964, I think that we were, as a country, in great transition and we still remain a country in great transition because what Martin Luther King and President Johnson, and all those who were seeking to make this, you know, great shift of this gigantic ocean liner known as a country into a new way of, in some ways, overturning what had been generations upon generations of how the country identified itself, of how everyone interacted among one another.
WILKERSONThe caste system, as I described it to you, in which people had grown comfortable and accepting of the way things were. And they were attempting a sea change in what it meant to be American and who had a right to the deservedness, one might say, of what it meant to be an American. And I think that, in some ways, it connects us to today because this was a very long period of time that we're speaking about, one would think.
WILKERSONBut when you think of the long arch of history, 50 years from the 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and all that it took to make that happen. And now we're going into almost 50 years from that. That's an eye blink in the long arch of history. I think that as a country, we are still, in some ways, in the adolescents of this freedom. If you think about it, anyone born before 1965, the Voting Rights Act, was in some ways not born in a democracy because until 1965, not everyone born in the United States was permitted to vote.
WILKERSONThat was not really -- that was not the law. That was not the reality for many, many, many, millions of people born in the South, born in the United States. And so, in some ways, this is still very, very, very, very new. And the idea that we could instantly make the adjustment from generations and centuries of things being one-way to everyone accepting instantly a whole new way of being, I think is probably more than maybe what we might hope but might not be what we should probably expect.
GJELTENBut, Isabel, isn't it true that, in fact, there had been a moment when African Americans in the South did feel they had the right to vote? In the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War and there was actually a number of African Americans elected to responsible positions in local and state governments.
WILKERSONThat's true. That was called Reconstruction and it was a woefully, heartbreakingly blip, you know, I might say, in our country's long history. You're talking about a decade of freedoms that were then, you know, quickly evaporated after reconstruction. And the introduction of Black Codes and what we now know as Jim Crow, Plessy v. Ferguson being the Supreme Court case that codified and, in some ways, memorialized that, made it formal.
WILKERSONAnd thus entered a 100-year period of time in which African Americans were not permitted to do those things that have been accorded them through the 15th Amendment, the 14th Amendment. And so, it took another 100 years until 1964, 1965 before that actually became reality.
GJELTENTaylor Branch, let's go back to Martin Luther King and the role that he played and the opposition that he faced at that time. We've already -- you already mentioned Barry Goldwater as opposition to the civil rights legislation in the 1960s. What was Barry Goldwater's opinion at that time of Martin Luther King and did it evolve later?
BRANCHWell, I think Barry Goldwater actually respected Martin Luther King. It was a political move on his part to oppose the Civil Rights Act. And he did so in the name of state's rights. He said the Civil Rights Bill usurped states rights, which became the convenient framework in which people opposed it. George Wallace opposed it on the same ground. Isabel, in speaking of these memories and anniversaries, it was 50 years ago this month that George Wallace was sworn in to become governor of Alabama, pledging segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever, 50 years ago.
WILKERSONThat's an eye blink.
BRANCHA hundred years after -- that's an eye blink of history.
BRANCHAnd if people will think back briefly to that moment, he's pledging segregation, the South was segregated. Black people couldn't even go into libraries by public law and a number of the other things that Isabel mentioned earlier in the show. But women couldn't go to Harvard. They couldn't go to Yale. There were no seatbelts in automobiles and you could smoke anywhere on an airplane.
BRANCHAnd this world was stratified in ways beyond measure. Wallace could not preserve that. The civil rights movement for equal access and equal citizenship changed lots of things, opening up even West Point to women and pulpits and congregations. But Wallace did invent a whole language of resentment of that period, saying when it was no longer respectable to advocate for segregation.
BRANCHHe was a pioneer and an ingenious politician in resenting the federal government, which he called pointy headed bureaucrats, tax and spend liberals, in league with a biased national media that's overemphasizing the race issue to concentrate power in the central government against state's rights. And he claimed he had absolutely no racial motivation. And that's part of the willful misremembering of this history that is still part of our life. If we misremembered the Civil War for a hundred years, as Isabel said, in many respects, we have misremembered the blessings of the civil rights era for this last 50 years, which has been a blink of time, as Isabel says.
GJELTENTaylor Branch is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of several books on Martin Luther King, Jr. and race in America, including the just published book, "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement." Isabel Wilkerson, Jesse Jackson has said that at the time of his assassination in 1968, just a few years after the period we're talking about here, Martin Luther King was the most hated man in America.
GJELTENDo you think that's an accurate statement? Was he, in fact, widely hated in the United States, presumably among the white population in 1968?
WILKERSONI think that he was a misunderstood figure and, in some respects, remains misunderstood because we've kind of removed him from his humanity and we have viewed him, in some way, as this figure in granite as opposed to, in some ways, an ordinary American individual who found himself at the nexus of history and rose to that occasion. I think one of the most inspiring things about him as an individual is not just that he was a great leader but that he speaks to the potential for greatness in all of us if we can find it.
WILKERSONI think that he was became, at the time that he was alive, very likely the symbol of the change that was being resented by so many or resisted by so many because change is frightening for anyone. And so you have an entire country in upheaval, social upheaval, cultural upheaval, political upheaval, there was war. This was a time of great turmoil in every way. And so, I think, he became one of those people along with President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and so many others who became, in some ways, the symbol of the very change that the country was being forced to confront.
WILKERSONAnd so, I think now he's come to be, in another kind of way, a symbol that's far removed from the ordinary person but I'd love to see us view him for the humanity that he truly represents.
GJELTENIsabel, I want to read you an email from Betty who's wondering about the change in the segregation culture. Of course, there are still tacit segregation in many parts of the country, including in the South. But also, much has changed in terms of culture. Betty wants to know, what worked and how much did the segregation culture changed? How did it change? And how was it possible to change it?
WILKERSONThat's a fascinating question. You know, the change occurred in the South in fits and starts. It was a continuum. It was not a single -- no single act, no single decision was responsible. I'd defer it to Taylor Branch on the specifics of the 1960s. But overall, this is a continuum and it starts with the resistance. It continues with the leadership, then makes its ways into the politics. And then it makes its way into the law.
WILKERSONHowever, changing a law does not necessarily change the hearts. And so, when you think about Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s, the 1950s education legislation and rulings and then you think about the 1964, '65 and '68 civil rights acts and the resistance to those in the South that continued into the 1970s, which meant that it was not until the 1970s that many of these things actually went into action actually became reality for people who were living in the South.
WILKERSONFor example, Prince Edward County, VA, the school system actually shut down for five years rather than to permit integration. And so that meant that -- and white students were given vouchers to go to private schools. Black students had to -- their parents had to find alternative places for their kids to go in other counties, with family, with friends. And some of them didn't go to school at all.
WILKERSONAnd so this was resisted with great effort. And then when those -- when they had exhausted all legal abilities to resist any further, then integration actually began and then what happened? People began to move away. There's re-segregation with suburbanization and segregation that exists in many northern cities that's called hyper-segregation. So it just indicates that you can change the laws but that does not mean that you change necessarily the hearts of all people. And I think that we still are on that journey. We're still on that continuum.
GJELTENTaylor Branch, Martin Luther King said he had a dream in 1963. At the time of his death, his assassination in 1968, was he still talking about having a dream? Did his outlook -- had his outlook changed by then? Was he more or less optimistic?
BRANCHHe had the same dream and it was very, very broad. Best articulated, in my view, in his Nobel Prize lecture in which he said that nonviolence in the South was helping to set in motion a worldwide liberation movement, the widest in history by confronting the triple scourges of war, racism and poverty, which he called violence of the flesh and violence of the spirit. However, by the end of his life, toward the end of his life, the Vietnam War and the culture was made violent.
BRANCHAnd in that respect, there was a lot more resistance. He was less optimistic that the message in the short run was going to be received. But he was no less committed to it in the long run.
GJELTENTaylor Branch is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of several books on Martin Luther King. I'm also joined by Isabel Wilkerson who is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist as well. She's with us in Atlanta. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And, of course, on Monday is Martin Luther King Day. And also Monday Barrack Obama will be inaugurated for a second term as president. And the first African American elected president of the United States. So we're looking at race relations in American today. On this occasion my guests are Isabel Wilkerson who's a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. And she's the author of "The Warmth of Other Suns," about the great migration of African Americans who left the South in search of better lives. She joins us from the studio in Atlanta.
GJELTENAnd here in the studio with me here is Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize winning author of several books on Martin Luther King, Jr. and race in America including the just published "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement." I'm going to first read a couple of emails here and then I'm going to go the phones. We have listeners stacked up waiting to comment on our topic today.
GJELTENFirst of all, Ken who's emailing from North Carolina says, "In my rural Surrey County in North Carolina the New Rockford Elementary School was dedicated in 2010 and named in honor of a closed school that served only white children. At the dedication ceremony the entire elected leadership of the county, school board, county commission, sheriff stood by while the Rockford Colored School, which served the same community was ignored. Our community chooses not to remember the past. This ignorance is worse, in my opinion, than any form of racism." This goes to your point, Taylor, about how we misremember the past for our own purposes and our own prejudices.
GJELTENAnother email, this one from Paul, who says, "Martin Luther King was magnificent. But I don't know if he would have grown and developed into the great leader he became without people like A. Phillip Randolph, Eddie Nixon and Bayard Rustin." Taylor, do you have a quick comment on that?
BRANCHWell, I knew all three of them and they -- they certainly had a big influence on him. But many, many people did. His -- from his education in Gandhi and Reinhold Niebuhr and Howard Thurman and Vernon Johns and on and on and it's also fair to say that for a period he, himself, acknowledge that the students in the sit-ins and the freedom rides were ahead of him in their willingness to make sacrifices.
BRANCHAnd he was unique precisely because he was the only adult leader at that time, even though he was just a few years older than they were who said there are some things in human nature that are so stubborn that oratory alone is not enough. You've got to sacrifice and you've got to figure out how to make witness to people. And in that sense he praised the students who were ahead of him. So he had many, many influences on his growth through those movement years.
GJELTENUm-hum. Let's go now to Francis, who's on the line from Salisbury, Md. Good morning, Francis thanks for calling us.
FRANCISGood morning. My question is for both Taylor and Isabel. And it's about the historical black colleges of our nation, 97 of them, I believe. And so the question starts with do you think they're capable and would you support -- and here's what I'm talking about. The reindustrialization of the North American Rust Belt cities Milwaukee, Detroit through Baltimore, Philly and the 50 plus nations of Africa, socialist most of them, who have untold manufacturing commodity.
FRANCISSo do you think the HPCU's could be at the center of a movement to tie efforts at stability and recruitment of that manufacturing commodity from the continent of Africa to the great cities, former manufacturing powerhouses of North America, and bring prosperity to lots of unemployed people of color in the cities of North America while doing the right thing in Africa?
GJELTENIsabel, did you look at historical black colleges in your own research?
WILKERSONYes, they do turn up in the book that I've written. It's interesting to note true, also that Dr. King was a graduate of Morehouse College, which is a historically black college. And he represents the, you know, the possibilities of these schools. The schools that you speak about face many, many challenges as do many places of higher education. And they have a specific historic role in our country.
WILKERSONI think that spreading -- adding to their responsibility such as the caller writes in would be a very tall order for them. I think that -- overall I think that Martin Luther King represents the potential of these schools. And I think that the schools still have a very important place in our country.
GJELTENOK, thank you very much for that call, Francis. Let's go now to John who's on the line. John, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
JOHNIt's an honor to be on "The Diane Rehm Show" with Taylor Branch and Isabel Wilkerson. I have a few personal comments and a question. Taylor, I grew up with you in Atlanta. I was in the Atlanta Boy Choir and -- ages 11, 11, 12. I remember going to the White House and unexpectedly having a chance to sing for President Eisenhower, if you remember that.
GJELTENDid you sing for President Eisenhower, Taylor?
BRANCH1957, I was ten years old. And we sang for President Eisenhower. It was right after Sputnik and we sang an original composition called "Make 58 Great Hit the Moon Soon."
JOHNHit the moon soon, yes.
BRANCHYes, that goes way back.
JOHNIt does. I have followed your career and many times wanted to talk to you. I, too, experienced the segregated south and then saw Martin Luther King, who was a personal hero to me as a teenager and young man, use peaceful, nonviolence to create amazing movement for civil rights and for social change. I am most proud of the fact that my very troubled family history, which goes back to the Civil War and pre-Civil War with a democrat and Whig Tennessee congressman in Washington who were brothers. And their nephew who was a republican contemporary of Lincoln that became governor and senator in Washington in the late 1800s into the 1900s on.
JOHNThere was considerable conflict, but I never realized what I'd have to deal with until I actually went to Carthage, Tennessee to the home there which Al Gore, from Carthage had visited and spoke of in his Martin Luther King speech in 2000 at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta. But I found out that my grandfather was born on a slave plantation in 1860 and my great grandfather owned slaves, something that had been totally erased from the family memory and not passed down to the younger generations.
GJELTENWell, thank you very much, John. Your personal recounting really supports what both Isabel and Taylor have said about misremembering the past. And it's great to have you call in with your own personal collection. I do want to get to some other callers now. Let's go to Steven who's calling us from Collinsville, Ala. Good morning, Steven.
STEVENTaylor, I desperately wanted to hear you at Sanford last October in the lecture there. But I didn't make it. I want you to tell your story about the anonymous black fellow who was on the march from Selma to Montgomery in '65. He said we won when we started walking. And to Isabel my parents were married in a house about a quarter of a mile from the Faithful Baptist Church in Rome, Georgia. So I feel very kind of...
STEVENMy father was a Baptist minister and I know, Taylor, you're a product of the Second Ponce de Leon Baptist in Atlanta as is Charles Marsh, who's written about civil rights. And so I know that white Baptists have a very checkered history, to say the least, in that era. But there was, you know, the priesthood, the belief thing, it's good and thanks.
GJELTENWell, Isabel and Taylor we're getting all your old friends calling. Isn't that great?
BRANCHYeah, this is quite something and connecting...
BRANCH...connecting the two of us. Well, the story that he mentioned is from a guy up in Lowndes County, Alabama, one of the most primitive counties -- nobody -- no black. It was 70 percent black, but not a single black person had even tried to register to vote in the entire 20th Century. But one man joined the march to Montgomery and was asked, you know, when did you know this might be a good thing. And he said we won when we started.
BRANCHAnd what he meant by that is that if you're an ordinary citizen the hardest thing to do is to take action toward and act like you deserve the rights you're claiming. Which is a great metaphor for that whole movement, which was an aroused citizenry interacting with responsive elected representatives. That's what makes the 1960s so great.
BRANCHAnd if you -- speaking to Isabel because of her book, "The Warmth of Other Suns," it is such a great corrective to Americans' loss of memory about these amazing migrations because we generally willfully and, to some degree, wishfully misremember all the strands in our history that really should be inspiring. But you have to face -- you have to face the unflinching realities of the divisions that we have in order to be inspired by the changes.
BRANCHAnd if you did, we would be inspired by the politics of this 1960s era. And it should inspire us to tackle big problems today. And, instead, because we misremember it so pervasively there are awful lot of people who think that what guards their liberty is the machine gun in their closet instead of the things that we've built among ourselves in this amazing history that we're trying to describe that really do protect freedom.
GJELTENWell, Isabel, Taylor has brought us up to the present day. And let's talk for a moment about Barrack Obama and what importance he has had as the nation's first African American president. Sharvon from Washington, D.C. has sent us an email and she asks this question. "Has Barrack Obama failed to live up to Martin Luther King's legacy in any ways?"
GJELTEN"I'm particularly interested to hear the guests view on Obama's track record on civil liberties, drones, deportations, indefinite detention of Americans at Guantanamo, etc. But more broadly, of course, those weren't the issues that Martin Luther King was looking at so much in the 1960s." What's your view, Isabel on the connection between Barrack Obama as a president and Martin Luther King's legacy?
WILKERSONWell, I see one connection between Taylor Branch's beautiful anecdote about the man in Selma, which means that in some ways, and for many Americans, just the arrival of Barrack Obama at the White House. His election and then now re-election to a position that Martin Luther King, himself, could never have imagined is, in itself, an important -- an incredible milestone, a momentous part of the continuum toward where we ultimately hope, as a country, to go.
WILKERSONAnd I think that one of the distinctions that has to be made between the two men is that one was a grass roots leader of -- a populace leader of a movement in which he was dependent upon the, in some ways, the advance guard of all the young people, white and black, north and south, who actually helped push forth what he was attempting to achieve.
WILKERSONPresident Obama is an elected official who represents all Americans. And, thus, his -- the circumstances under which he is operating means that he's dealing in a very different new year than Martin Luther King was. His very being there -- his very presence in itself from a continuum of justice in this country is in some ways the message of his presidency for many people. And that's how I would look at it.
GJELTENIsabel Wilkerson is the author of, "The Warmth of Other Suns," about the great migration of African Americans who left the South. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Isabel, does it matter that President Obama has not talked much about race? I mean I think that your analysis that you just laid out there shows that, sort of, just the fact of who he is is maybe what's most significant. But he hasn't talked about race very much has he?
WILKERSONHe hasn't. I think that's an excellent point that you make. And that brings me to -- or helps me to be -- I make the connection between the two men and the era in which they both lived in that what President Obama is now living in or operating in in some ways reflects the world that Martin Luther King was living in at the end of his life.
WILKERSONAnd that is that he had conquered the more obvious black and white of clear injustices in our country. The fact that people could not vote. The fact that people could be killed for the slightest infraction of the cast system into which they had been born. And he had been able to achieve and overcome that in law -- three main laws that it should be reminded did not just focus on African Americans. The Civil Rights Acts of '64, '65 and '68 were not geared just toward African Americans. They helped all Americans. It was on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender. These -- people of all backgrounds benefited from the sacrifices that Martin Luther King made.
WILKERSONBut at the end of his life -- toward the end of his life I think that he was dealing with -- and I deferred it to Taylor on this, as well -- I think he was dealing with the sense of the inability to break through on the invisible, less obvious, more nebulous resistance that is now also, perhaps, what President Obama's dealing with as well, which is one reason why he may not even be in a position to speak about race to the degree that he may himself like to. Because we're living in a more nebulous time in which we appear to have the freedoms and we've arrived. And yet there is still so much farther to go.
WILKERSONWhen you look at the unemployment rates for African Americans vis-a-vis other Americans. When you look at the wealth disparity between African Americans and white Americans, the wealth disparity was ten to one white to black in 2000, at the turn of the 21st Century. After this great recession it's now nearly 20 to 1. So that means that for every dollar that an African American family has in the event of roof that leaks or a transmission that goes out or education for their children, white families have $20 for every $1 that an African American family has.
WILKERSONAnd so you see such great disparities in the circumstances of African Americans vis-a-vis other Americans that I think that Dr. King would feel a bit of despair. I think he would be quite dismayed in some ways at how far we actually haven't come when it comes to the justices that I think he was fighting for, particularly poverty, which is one of the things that he was working toward at the end of his life.
GJELTENIn fact, Taylor, he was in Memphis to support striking garbage workers at the time he was killed.
BRANCHAbsolutely, as part of his -- as part of his poor people's campaign. He was diverted there -- actually toward the end of his career Dr. King got much more assertive in his leadership for what nonviolence was. He went to -- he went to the North when most of his staff didn't want him to go to the North. He came out against the Vietnam War when they didn't -- and did this poverty campaign, as well.
GJELTENTaylor Branch is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of several books on Martin Luther King, Jr. and race in America including the just published book, "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement." And joining us from Atlanta has been Isabel Wilkerson, also a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Her book is, "The Warmth of Other Suns" about the great migration of African Americans who left the South in search of better lives. We've been talking about Martin Luther King, his legacy, on the eve of Martin Luther King Day on Monday and also about the legacy or the importance of Barrack Obama's election as our first African American president. Thanks to both of you. And thanks to all of you for listening.
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