A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Guest Host: Frank Sesno
The largest mass demonstration in U. S. history began as a rally for jobs and freedom and ended with one of the most famous speeches of our time. The March on Washington, 50 years ago today, drew a quarter-million people to the National Mall. Protestors peacefully demanded equal access to housing, education, and voting rights. They also wanted dignified jobs at decent wages. But the event is mostly remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – a defining moment of the Civil Rights Movement. Guest host, Frank Sesno, and his guests discuss the legacy of the March on Washington and the state of American civil rights today.
- David Garrow professor of history and law at University of Pittsburgh School of Law and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."
- Anthony Cook law professor at Georgetown University. He teaches courses in constitutional law, civil rights and African-American critical thought.
- Isabel Wilkerson Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Warmth of Other Suns."
MR. FRANK SESNOThanks for joining us. I'm Frank Sesno of the George Washington University and host of Planet Forward, which you can find at planetforward.org, sitting in for Diane Rehm today. She's on vacation. Today's 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech comes just two months after the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act.
MR. FRANK SESNOJoining me in the studio to talk about the legacy of the March on Washington, what it means, where we're going, the state of civil rights in America today, Anthony Cook of Georgetown University, journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Joining us from WQED in Pittsburgh, historian and author, David Garrow. And welcome to you all.
MR. ANTHONY COOKThank you.
MR. DAVID GARROWGlad to be here.
MS. ISABEL WILKERSONThank you.
SESNOIsabel, start us off. Tell us about the commemoration, what's happening today, the president is speaking, others are speaking. What should we expect to hear, what does it mean?
WILKERSONWell, this is in many respects the culmination, this is a commemoration of the culmination of the bringing together of all of the forces that represented African American interests in this country.
WILKERSONThis march occurred during the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and so when these quarter of a million people gathered together on this mall in this capital of the United States they were in some ways beseeching the country to live up to its creed and this is in many respects a recognition of a commemoration of this moment by three of the presidents who if we go back to 1963 the President John F. Kennedy did not speak and so here we have three living presidents speaking at this anniversary which in itself is monumental.
SESNOWhat do you want them to say?
WILKERSONI can't speak to what I would like them to say. I'm thinking about the history and I'm thinking about all of the people who are gathered there hopeful and wanting to recognize what this country has gone through.
WILKERSONTo recognize the history and to make that come alive for people and to recognize that we still have a very long way to go in this country. As far as we have come we still have a long way to go.
SESNODavid Garrow, you're a professor of history and law, what should the president say?
GARROWFrank, I hope the president very energetically addresses the fact that we still have two America's and it's America's not defined by race but by opportunity often economic opportunity but also educational opportunity.
GARROWI spend a lot of time presently in Chicago and the tourist Chicago that people see is lovely but there are neighborhoods in Chicago neighborhoods that the president himself once worked in back in the late 1980s where young people almost heavily African American, where young people do not have access to good schools.
GARROWWhere families do not have access to public transit, where families don't have good job opportunities. That's the sort of inequality in America I hope President Obama takes on.
SESNOAnthony Cook, Dan Balz of The Washington Post wrote the following, "Obama's speech will be closely examined for how he interprets the meaning of the march and how he deals with problems that most afflict African Americans without appealing for solutions considered racially based."
COOKYou know, Martin Luther King Jr. was brilliant I think in being able to carry forth two distinct narratives and to integrate them quite nicely. One narrative was the narrative of the American dream how all individuals needed to have access to it and constructing the Civil Rights Movement as an American movement that was about the task of trying to close the gap between the rhetoric, the ideals and values of America and the realities of cast, right.
COOKSo in many ways, the African American story, the black story was a story that was the American story, quintessentially so, and he made Americans of all races and ethnic groups feel as though that a victory for black people with regard to civil rights was going to be a victory for America as well.
COOKThat is a very, very difficult kind of path to navigate in many ways and he was very brilliant at doing so. We fail to remember sometimes that in 1963 while he's making that "I Have A Dream" speech he was also writing about the need for black reparations and how the particular history of white supremacy through slavery and segregation had really created a kind of cultural homicide against a community in culture of black people.
COOKAnd how black people needed to be made whole restitutional-ly through reparations for that history that had created all kinds of disparities with regard to income and wealth and education and opportunity so forth and so on.
COOKWell, President Obama needs to be able to develop that skill set I think as well. To be able to very lucidly and forcefully articulate the particularity and specificity of the black experience and the inequality and the disproportion impact that blacks have in society but at the same time making that part of the American story that we all are better off if the least among us if the weakest among us are strengthened. That there is no "I" without "thou" that we are all intertwined in this common fabric of density as King used to say.
SESNOHas he done that throughout his administration?
COOKI don't think so. Not enough not to my liking. I mean, he has very strong statements at times with regard to the crisis concerning Jeremiah Wright, with regard to the Trayvon Martin incident where at first he made the statement that, you know, this could be my kid and my kid could be Trayvon Martin and then comes around and says, you know, I'm Trayvon Martin as well.
COOKThere are moments like that, right, where he shows the ability to make those connections and to weave the specific story of black history and experiences into this broader story and narrative. But he doesn't do it systematically enough. He doesn't do it enough so that it becomes, you know, part of, you know, who he is and how he presents himself to the American public.
SESNODavid Garrow, Isabel Wilkerson, you're historians. Take us back, take us back 50 years to that moment to that context, to what people thought at the time and what they thought at that time was not about a march for jobs and freedom beyond those who were participating. They worried more about the chaos and the violence that was supposed to happen. But set the stage for us.
WILKERSONThis march came as the culmination of a very high stress year. It started out with a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation which of course we celebrate the sesquicentennial of that this year.
WILKERSONIt also was followed later in that year by the campaign in Birmingham in which he wrote his historic letter from a Birmingham jail and which he began to call to the sort of moral decency of in some ways the indifferent. The people who had been watching but not involved in it.
WILKERSONAnd then there came the assassination of Medgar Evers. So this came at a time of great welling up of both pressure, violence and frankly, quite a sense of discontentment and frustration on the part of people.
WILKERSONAnd absolutely fear. On top of that the world as it existed at that time is not really often recognized by us today. It was within the lifespan of people today that we had a caste system that determined what people could do based on what they looked like.
SESNODavid Garrow, I'm going to come to you in a minute but before I do, I want to play a clip of coverage from this day 50 years ago by this radio station, WAMU. Here's what it sounded like.
MR. AL HOLLSONThe people are still coming in toward the memorial, but at a very, very slow pace, the proverbial snail's pace. But as far back I can see in any direction in front of the memorial, there are nothing but people. Overhead, many helicopters are still flying.
MR. AL HOLLSONThese are the police helicopters, the traffic control people and in some cases the newsmen. It does seem to be becoming a little bit hazy here but I don't think there's any sign of any rain. George, the dignitaries are virtually all on the stage. We can hardly see them, however, with the crowd of newsmen around here.
MR. AL HOLLSONIt seems like the delay is being caused solely by the news people. Cameras everywhere, microphones everywhere and as we heard earlier from the press secretary, this is probably the biggest news coverage of any event that ever took place in Washington.
SESNODavid, that was reporter Al Hollson (sp?) describing the scene on the National Mall just steps from the Lincoln Memorial just before the ceremony began.
GARROWThe 1963 March is such a huge success, I think in large part, Isabel touched on this, because the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Al. in May of 1963 five months earlier had not just a huge impact on John Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, moving them to finally put forward civil rights legislation.
GARROWBut the Birmingham protests had energized tens of thousands of people all across the United States to actively get behind racial equality. And so there were people all over America ready for an opportunity to do something.
GARROWA. Phillip Randolph, the black labor leader who called for the march, Mr. Randolph had threatened just such a march on Washington in 1941. Indeed the first time that Dr. King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial was on a previous little remembered event called the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957 on the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.
GARROWSo black America had a history of going to Washington of going to the Lincoln Memorial but 1963 is different because so much of America, many white people as well as the African American community, were finally ready to really put the civil rights agenda and congressional legislation advancing racial equality at the front of the agenda and on the front pages and the radio and TV networks.
SESNOAnd Isabel, play on that for just a moment. We talked about the concerns among white America certainly white Washington that this could lead to violence and chaos. What were the expectations among black America that this race, that this march 50 years ago would have?
WILKERSONFor African Americans, we have to take ourselves back to what it was like to be African American in 1963. A lot of us, it's shocking to think that if anyone was born before 1965 you weren't born in a democracy because a good portion of all African Americans were not in states where they could legally vote.
WILKERSONAnd so these people were coming from a world in which it was actually such a stark caste system that it was against the law for a black person and white person to merely play checkers together in Birmingham.
SESNOComing up, more on the March on Washington on "The Diane Rehm Show."
SESNOAnd welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane today. Our discussion, this historic March on Washington 50 years ago today. I'm joined by Anthony Cook. He's a professor of law -- excuse me -- at Georgetown University. He teaches courses in constitutional law, civil rights and African American critical thought. Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Isabel Wilkerson, author of "The Warmth of Other Suns," which was a selection of Barack Obama's to read -- summer reading in, what was it...
SESNO...2011. And from a studio WQED in Pittsburgh, David Garrow. He's a research professor of history and law at the University of Pittsburgh, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference." Thanks again to you all.
SESNOI had an opportunity last night, folks, to attend a remarkable conversation at the National Press Club. The esteemed Marvin Kalb led the conversation. He covered this even 50 years ago. Among his guests were Andrew Young and Julian Bond and Dorothy Gilliam and John Lewis, who at 23 years old is the only remaining surviving -- the only surviving speaker from the podium that day. And John Wilson, who's the president of Morehouse College.
SESNOIt was an incredible conversation. And one of the things that emerged from it was a sense of just how dynamic and difficult it was to put that march together. There were many in the civil rights movement who felt the march could be seen as a distraction, that the real action was in the protests in Birmingham and elsewhere through the South, and the very disciplined protests that were taking place there. Others who wanted to speak out more forcefully, and John Lewis talks about that, that he actually had the word revolution in his speech and he was talked out of that. He said what John F. Kennedy was doing with civil rights was too little too late.
SESNOAnthony, give us your sense of what it took to put that march together and what they came up with.
COOKIt took a whole lot of patience, a whole lot of understanding and a whole lot of, I think, you know, very pointed conversations, right, that spilled over to being very angry conversations at points in time. You didn't know if it was going to be pulled off. I mean, there were ideological riffs during this period of time that sometimes are swept under the rug when we look back on the March. But you had an increasingly radicalized SNCC, Students for Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who had been on the front lines dealing with these issues. And had been pushed into jails and had cattle prods and all kinds of things being used against them in a very abusive way.
COOKAnd their radicalization had called them to -- caused them to really move to a position where they wanted action now and wanted to make some serious demands on the country and on the president.
SESNOYou know, Julian Bond talked about that because he was one of the founders of SNCC.
SESNOAnd he said, yes we were militant and that we were using that word, but militant didn't mean violent in our case.
COOKRight. That's right exactly. You know, militant meant you know, ideological militancy for Julian Bond, for John Lewis and for a certain group of members in SNCC. For others, you know, it did mean violence. It did mean a move away from King's philosophy of nonviolence and not taking violent responses off the table. But, you know, the demands that were being made during that time though were very similar with regard to dealing with the questions of injustice that America was -- that the blacks were facing.
COOKThey wanted an end to Jim Crow segregation. They wanted an answer to joblessness in America. they wanted an answer to the problems of police brutality against black people in America. And when you look back on it now, we are addressing many of the same issues today. The demands that were really quite similar was the incarceration of black people with the increasing poverty rates and the disparate ways in which poverty affects black people. And with regard to education in America that a lot of the issues are pretty much the same.
WILKERSONYes. And I'll also say that in spite of all of the internal conflicts between what was the best way to proceed with this, I think it's important to look back at this moment and recognize with awe in some ways the transcendent nature of what ended up happening. To have a quarter of a million people and a fourth of them being actually white Americans to converge on the nation's capital, many of these people -- most of these people who were African Americans were the descendants of people who had been enslaved in this country and we're looking upon the 100 years since putative emancipation, and saying the country has not lived up to its creed.
SESNOGwen Ifill was also at this conversation last night and she made the observation that 50 years ago at that march, there were virtually no women on that stage, virtually no women of color or otherwise involved in the organization. Explain that.
WILKERSONYeah, well, there was an interesting -- when you look at a program you see that there's an interesting tribute to the women who were behind the scenes. But so many women, you know, Ella Baker, you know, foremost among them, who actually were the driving force behind so much of this. And I think that if we were to scroll forward 50 years, obviously that would not happen. But...
SESNOWhy wasn't Rosa Parks a featured character?
WILKERSONIt's interesting, you know, how we look back now and we look back with a sense of completion of the history. But at the moment she was one of the ground troops, one of the people who was a part of this.
SESNOWe mentioned a moment ago John Lewis. John Lewis was there. Fifty years ago he spoke. He also led a march last weekend, sort of recreating this, and he had some comments there. I have that clip too. Let's roll that in.
MR. JOHN LEWISThe vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society and we got to use it. I gave my blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama for the right to vote. I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us.
SESNODavid Garrow, what's he talking about?
GARROWIt's ironic that the Civil Rights Bill, which the Kennedy Administration put forward in 1963 which became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, didn't really seriously address blacks' exclusion from registration and voting in the Deep South. That was finally confronted and dealt with only by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which passed after the civil rights protests in Selma, Alabama in the spring of 1965.
GARROWNow the preclearance regime -- to use the formal name -- the requirement that's existed ever since 1965 that covered jurisdictions, mainly but not entirely southern jurisdictions, that any changes they make in registration and voting practices, because of their suspect record -- suspect history, have to be pre-cleared generally by the U.S. Justice Department in Washington. That's been a bone of contention for believers in federalism, believers in state's rights, to use the old fashioned label. And that's at the crux of why the current majority on the Supreme Court believes that those portions of the voting rights act are constitutionally excessive.
SESNOAnd that's what they struck down just a few months ago.
GARROWAnd that's what happened earlier this summer.
SESNOAnthony Cook, you're a professor of law at Georgetown and you teach constitutional law and civil rights and other things. You heard what John Lewis said. We're not going to let the Supreme Court stand in the way of this. What alternatives does he have?
COOKWell, we have to petition congress and organize effectively to have congress basically reinstate Section 4 and Section 5, perhaps making it even stronger.
SESNOIs it even needed 50 years after this march?
COOKOh, it's very much needed. You remember that only a couple days after the Shelby Case, nine states of the various states that were covered pulled out their very restrictive and strenuous voter I.D. laws and other restrictions of voting rights. They were ready to go. Some of them had submitted those to the Justice Department for pre-clearance and had been denied. And as soon as the decision came down they reinstated those laws. It was a very clear sign, to me, that there was a need for Section 4 and for Section 5 and that it needed to be enforced with rigor.
SESNOYou're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join our conversation, 50 years to the day after the march on Washington, 1-800-433-8850, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Isabel, what is the influence on the march organizers by the Kennedy Administration? And we know that the Big Six, as they were called, met with the president. The president was very nervous about this but was very much a part of that conversation and other white liberals at the time?
WILKERSONWell, it's interesting that there was such nervousness in the capital at this time. If we were to scroll back 50 years, we would see that there were some 19,000 troops in the suburbs waiting for the potential for some violence or uprising. That there were preparations or fears that there would have to be more room made available in the jails for people who might be -- from mass arrests. There was a tremendous amount of nervousness about what this was going to mean.
WILKERSONThis march was the largest demonstration to that date in our country's history. And to have that many people coming from all over the country, people who were seeking redress and having to do with a history that had not yet been dealt with meant there was a tremendous amount of fear and trepidation for the authorities, you might say, and the Kennedy Administration as well.
SESNODavid Garrow, how forward-leaning was the Kennedy Administration?
GARROWIn that summer of 1963, Frank, the Kennedy brothers initially were frankly opposed to the idea of a march and politely tried to talk Mr. Randolph, Dr. King, the other leaders out of it. But when Randolph and King and the other leaders politely pushed aside the Kennedys' objections, then the administration accepted reality and endorsed the march. But they kept a very close eye on it and were quite worried about the potential for harmful impact, especially harmful impact in Congress.
GARROWThe Kennedys' focus at that time was, you know, what's the future for this Civil Rights Bill that we've got out on a political limb to introduce the bill that a year later becomes the 1964 Civil Rights Act? So President Kennedy ends up being extremely happy that the march has such a wonderful flavor, wonderful tone. He welcomes all ten of the named leaders, the African American Big Six plus four white co-leaders, three representing the major American religious faiths and labor leader Walter Ruther. President Kennedy welcomes all ten of them in the Oval Office.
GARROWSo it ends up being a wonderfully successful event, not just for the march organizers but for the Kennedy Administration as well.
SESNOAnd they had an ally of sorts in the Kennedy Administration going forward. I'm Frank Sesno. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to call us and join the conversation, 1-800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. I will get to your questions but we have so much to discuss and so much to share. And at this point I'd like very much for you to hear what is probably -- no, not probably -- for sure the high point of that march 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. from his "I Have a Dream Speech."
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners, will they be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
SESNOAnthony Cook, dream then and now we have 50 years have passed. Pew Research Center issued a poll not long ago that shows that fewer than half of all Americans say the country has made substantial progress towards racial equality. That 60 percent of whites in a Wall Street Journal NBC poll say America's achieved Dr. King's dream of a nation where people are not judged on the color of their skin but the content of their character, African Americans, 20 percent say we've reached that. How've we done?
COOKExcuse me, how...
SESNOHow have we done?
COOKIt's very much still a mixed bag, right. I mean, opportunities certainly have opened up for a certain segment of the black community. They were able to take advantages, I think, of the laws that were passed '64 Civil Right Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Housing Act, and we're in a position to gain the education and resources to move into an economy and to do well. It stratified the black community in many ways however because as opportunity increased for some, it decreased for others. It robbed many inner cities in many area of their indigenous leadership and left them kind of voiceless in the wake thereof.
COOKAnd it provided an overarching justification understanding among some people that we had overcome, that the mountaintop had been reached and left squandering in the doldrums of despair. So many millions of people who were structurally unemployed and who were, you know, caught in the vice grip, as it were, of continued legacies of slavery and segregation. So it's a very mixed bag as far as that's concerned, problematic.
SESNOIsabel Wilkerson, your book "The Warmth of Other Suns" tracked the great migration, which was a mass movement for opportunity. How's it turned out?
WILKERSONWell, the great migration, which occurred during the 20th century leading up in fact to the era of this march was in some ways a -- these people -- six million people, they were the advanced guard of what we are now commemorating today. They, by their actions, were defecting. They were fleeing the caste system, which we often call Jim Crow, but which until you -- once you think about what that really meant, these people were living in a world in which was against the law for them to do very basic things. Or even the Word of God, the Bible was segregated in court houses and where every four days an African American lost his life -- usually his life through a lynching.
WILKERSONSo this was a world in which there was a tremendous amount of violence and human rights abuses, which we don't often think of in that way. And so when these people arrived in this city 50 years ago today, they were carrying with them the weight and the hopes and the dreams of one day things getting better. And when you look at where we happen to be now, you're also reminded that things are better. An example is with college graduates who are African American. It was 4 percent around the time of the march and it's now more than 20 percent.
WILKERSONAnd yet unemployment has remained the same. People are still finding it difficult -- it's actually easier for -- the Princeton Study found that it was actually easier for a white felon to get a job than it was for a black person with no record. This was a double blind study out of Princeton University, a very well-known study. And so there are still many barriers based solely on a person's -- what a person looks like. The caste system, the residual effects of the caste system that this march was seeking to upend.
COOKFrank, it's important to point out that mass incarceration is a serious problem, right. We've got more people who are in jail and prison now than we had in slavery in 1850s.
SESNOWe will talk more about that, and we will take your calls for our wonderful guests on this 50th anniversary commemorating the March on Washington. I'm Frank Sesno. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
SESNOWelcome back. I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane Rehm today. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show," our conversation 50 years to the day after the march on Washington, its impact and its legacy in American and even world history. Our guests, Anthony Cook, professor of law at Georgetown University. He teaches courses in constitutional law, civil rights and African-American critical thought. Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize winning author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." And joining us from Pittsburgh, David Garrow, research professor of history and law at the University of Pittsburgh.
SESNOI want to go right to the phones now. We have a lot of callers who've been waiting very patiently to join us. Patrick, you're joining us from Washington, D.C. Go ahead with your question.
PATRICKYeah, I would just like for the panel to talk about the role of Bayard Rustin in organizing the march on Washington. And maybe talk about why he is not as well-known as other figures from that era.
COOKRustin was a very influential and important figure in King's life early on. He was both out of the communist party and was gay. What shows you I think King's openness and sensibilities during this period of time on issues of diversity that would've been addressed later, ideologically and both with regard to sexual orientation. There were members very close to King that urged him to distance himself and the movement from Rustin for fear that it would, you know, become a lightning rod and would disparage the movement and would, you know, keep it from achieving its gains and objectives, but...
SESNOBecause he was gay?
COOKYeah, because he was gay, and because he was communist as well. And in both of those, you know, King resisted and remained in contact with Rustin. And although Rustin did not play the role that he would have played, I think, had the culture been more accepting, it was still indicative of this man and his openness and his commitment to diversity that Rustin played an important role in his life.
SESNOOn this point, an email from Josh in Houston, he writes, "I'm pleased to hear the names of Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph on your show since these activities are often airbrushed out of history." He says, "They were among numerous secularists, socialists and communists who were the driving force behind the march on Washington. When can we have an honest discussion about socialists and communists within the movement?" David Garrow.
GARROWMr. Randolph had routes in socialism going back to the 1920's, 19 teens, indeed as you touched upon earlier, it was Mr. Randolph who stood up for John Lewis and allowed the word revolution to remain in John Lewis' remarks at the actual march. Bayard Rustin was a hugely important figure, both in King's life and especially in organizing the march. And the fact that Bayard was openly gay or bisexual was a tremendous private flashpoint at that time.
GARROWYounger people today, anyone who's grown up in this country the last 20 years probably can't really imagine how untouchable, how invisible gay people were as of 1963. To me as a historian, no change in America in my lifetime has been greater, more hugely welcome than the degree of public gay equality that we now have in this society.
COOKThe caller makes an interesting point about how the history has been airbrushed, but understand that King himself has been airbrushed by this history as well, right? He has been basically projected as a kind of dyed in the wool Liberal, who as Reagan said, we can all embrace because he showed us how great America could be. King made a statement in the mid '60s concerning wealth and equality in the country in which he said, you know, as clergymen, we are called upon to feed the beggars of the world, the 40 million poor people in our country.
COOKBut sooner or later we've got to start asking the question, why are there 40 million poor people in our country? And questions like this require us to ask other questions, questions like who owns the oil, who owns the iron or who owns the so-called scarce resources that are being distributed and creating the kind of stratifications of wealth that exist. King was a very deep thinker and a very complex thinker. And I think that we have superficialized him in so many ways, watered him down and done an injustice to the complexity of this man's thought in life.
SESNOYeah, who is the we who's done that watering down?
COOKI think in part it's the, you know, it's the media. It is we in the public who are very uncomfortable with a role model who thought as deeply and as complexly about issues as King did and was willing to give his life for them. The simpler that we can make him, the more like us that we can make him, then that's the responsibility we have to really be as true to his calling as he was.
SESNOBut I haven't heard very many people who were there that day or who are recollecting his memory talking about communism and socialism, Isabel.
WILKERSONI think that as he explained so well, the -- in some ways the commercial appropriation of his image and of his words by definition, he's in advertisement, he's become in some ways a commodity. And his words have become a commodity. And that means it's a distilling down to the "I have a dream" and not really looking at what happened afterward. The poor people's march which would occur years later from the 1963 march. And his moving to Chicago and moving into a tenement on the west side of Chicago where in Chicago, not in Alabama, he said that he'd never seen such extreme hate as he'd experienced in the suburbs of Chicago.
WILKERSONAnd so he was, as you had indicated, so much deeper and so much more complex. That aspect of him has really truly been lost as we think about him today.
SESNOBack to the phones. James now from San Antonio, Texas. Hi, James.
SESNOGo ahead with your question, sir.
JAMESI don't have a question. I have a comment.
SESNOGo ahead with your comment.
JAMESI'd like to say I'm a happy black man.
SESNOI'm glad to hear that.
JAMESThanks to President Roosevelt and President Truman. I served in the Armed Forces desegregated in the '50s. And they did a lot for me.
SESNOOkay. Thank you very much. Isabel, your comment.
WILKERSONWell, I think it speaks to the idea of, you know, one of the famous quotes of Dr. King about the arc of the moral universe being long, but bending toward justice. And this moment today that we're commemorating didn't happen overnight. This has been a long, long march that preceded the big march that we see that occurred in 1963.
SESNOSo what about Truman? What about Roosevelt? These were not -- these were not frontline warriors for civil rights. They may have made contributions and in fact, they did. How do you put them into context?
WILKERSONWell, in some ways, they were responding to the political changes around them. There's always the -- to the tension point between what the southern Democrats were wanting and what was happening in the north. That's how the Great Migration actually becomes critical, because these six million people who left the south without being able to vote, arriving in the northern cities and essentially helping to turn them blue by voting Democratic, meant that they were putting a tremendous pressure on the Democrats who were in a position to act. And Truman and Roosevelt were two that did.
SESNONow let's go back to the calls. Carol Anne (sp?) joins us now from Westport, Ct. Hi, Carol Anne.
CAROL ANNEHi, how are you. I understand that you were asking, have you accomplished what you thought you were going to accomplish. And it seems to me that you're saying it's kind of relative because the resistance has become more sophisticated and the people that are looking to the racial equality and the right to vote have become equally learned from the experience. And I know I agree with you. I don't want to make it simple. But you mention one thing, employment. And I'm desperate for you to talk about education as being used as a tool to destroy racial equality or to destroy the right to vote.
WILKERSONWell, education is one of the places in which the dream has not come to fulfillment. And part of it is because education segregation, there's an outgrowth of residential segregation which has become in some ways calcified throughout our country, and particularly in hyper-segregated places, ironically in the big cities in the Midwest and the North. And so that is an outgrowth of the residual effects of what these people 50 years ago were marching against and protesting and beseeching the country to pay attention to. And 50 years later we are not as far along as we should be and could be in reaching equality because people are so very segregated.
WILKERSONIt's also quite sad to realize the distances between what he hoped for with the children holding hands with different backgrounds, and yet if they're not living in similar cities -- similar residential neighborhoods, they're not going to the same schools. They don't have the opportunity to hold hands and see it helped.
SESNOAnthony Cook briefly.
COOKPart of the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement with regard to education was that it put us in a position in which in many ways advocates for civil rights and education were worse off than they were before the Brown case was decided. Because in cases like Milliken v. Bradley, we were told by the Supreme Court that we could not integrate with suburbs where whites had flown to after the '68 riots, so forth and so on, and therefore could not have an inter-district remedy without this inter-district violation.
COOKAnd then on the other hand with regard to cases like San Antonio v. Rodriguez, we could not put pressure on institutions to redistribute educational wealth so as to create better schools in those communities. So you had separate and unequal, which was worse than separate but equal. Because at least with separate and equal, you could make a claim that under the Constitution, it should be equal.
SESNOThere wasn't a lot of equality, though, in that sector.
COOKThere was not a lot of equality.
SESNOAn email from Luke and, David Garrow, I'd like you to take this one. Luke writes, "Maybe I'm way off here, but it seems to me that Mr. King, Dr. King, kind of made the switch that William Julius Wilson made a few years later in that class is the real limiting factor in America. I think if he would've lived, this would've been the focus of the movement he led."
GARROWExactly, Frank. We touched earlier, Isabel did, on how often the dream motif is used by the media. And again and again in the last few years of his life, Dr. King repeatedly used the phrase, spoke about how the dream he had had in Washington in 1963 had turned into a nightmare. Now, that's after he spends a lot of time in the segregated ghetto of the west side of Chicago. And he like so many people in the movement come to realize in 1966, 1967 that the outlawing of formal segregation and discrimination by the 1964 and 1965 acts is only a very small proportion of what needed to change in America for there to be real equality, real racial equality.
GARROWAnd so King in the last part of his life is very pessimistic about whether America, white America is really ready to go beyond the formal legal changes that the '64 and '65 acts did. And when we look now, for example, at the scale of gun violence in many deprived neighborhoods, things are worse than they were in 1963.
SESNOThey certainly are. I'm Frank Sesno. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have a few minutes remaining. I want to get one last caller in here. Abel, you've been waiting very patiently from Clemson, S.C. Go ahead.
ABELThank you so much for taking my call. My question or comment is this, one thing that people seem to miss out with this discussion about the dream is the check, the fact that King said, we've come here to cash a check. And as you look at the problems of 1963 and then look at the problems of 2013, my question is, has America ever cashed that check, the promise of equality for African-Americans going to the bank of justice? And I think with Trayvon Martin and the unemployment rate and other things, we have to ask ourselves a serious question, have we cashed that check?
SESNOHave we cashed that check? Isabel.
WILKERSONI think that beyond not even cashing the check is the acknowledgement that any kind of check of any kind is deserving. In other words, the country for all that it's been through. And when I speak of it, I'm speaking about human rights abuses that occurred within the lifespan of people alive today; the lynchings, the other extra-legal killings, the control of people and limits on everything they could do because they were living in a caste system, the effects of which we still live with today.
WILKERSONThere's not been an acknowledgement, truly an acknowledgment. There's been no truth in reconciliation in this country as there have been in other countries, say South Africa, for all that the United States has been through. So we've not come to an agreement about what even happened. We're not necessarily teaching fully at all grade levels, what's happened in our country. And there needs to be a truly deeper understanding, and a compassion and understanding of how we all got to where we are right now.
SESNOHere are the words of Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of Martin Luther King Jr. "This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration," he says, "Nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more." Anthony Cook, what more must be done?
COOKWe've got to address the ways in which class and race converge. That definitely has to be on the agenda. The fact is that adjusted for inflation wages still remain almost 14 percent below what they were 40 years ago, despite a doubling in productivity. Why is that the case? Because we have witnessed a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich with 1 percent controlling 40 percent of the wealth. The ratio of CEO to worker pay in 1950 was 20 to 1. In 1980, 42 to 1. And in 2013, it's 354 to 1. Disparities are rampant. And we can't comfortably talk about how race has been used as a way of continuing to stratify us along class lines.
SESNOFrom your comments and your numbers back 50 years ago to Martin Luther King Jr.
KING JR.So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Allegheny's of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
KING JR.And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.
SESNOAnd the bells will ring today at those places and others at 3:00 Eastern time in commemoration as the March on Washington acknowledges and commemorates 50 years on. Isabel Wilkerson, I'm going to give you the last word as an historian. Put all of this in perspective. An incredible journey, an African-American president, 50 years ago, unimaginable work yet to be done.
WILKERSONUnimaginable and miraculous at the same time. I would hope that it would be a reminder to all of us of how far we've come as a country, how far we have yet to go and to look deep within ourselves because his message was a personal one. It was of people taking hands with one another and seeing themselves as one.
SESNOPeople taking hands with one another. I'm Frank Sesno. It's been a great show, a great conversation. Thank you all very much.
Most Recent Shows
A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top national news stories.
The National Endowment for the Humanities turns 50 next year. William “Bro” Adams, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wants to make sure that the study of history, philosophy, and literature remains accessible to everyone. A conversation about his new "Common Good" initiative.
The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is earning more than $3 billion from its investment in a new drug. Other charitable organizations are hoping to follow a similar path. New opportunities and new questions for nonprofits.