Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," August 28th, 1963.
Published: August 23, 2013
August 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech in front of the Lincoln memorial in Washington, D.C., when, at the close of the March on Washington, he spoke of his dream for racial harmony and economic equality in America. In this special episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed, and Brian place that march, and King’s speech, in a broader, and deeper historical perspective.
They look to the roots of the march in the radical labor politics of the 1940s, and even further back to the Emancipation Proclamation – the 100th anniversary year of which the march was timed to coincide with. With guests who helped organize or attended the march, Peter, Ed, and Brian consider the anxieties felt by many in Washington in the days leading up to it, and get personal perspectives on the events and impact of the day. And they reflect on that impact in the long-run. Have we achieved the marchers’ aims for “jobs and freedom,” or has the economic part faded from view? What impact has Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech had on race relations in the United States? Is King’s plea for action in the “fierce urgency of now” as necessary today as it was 50 years ago?
Brian talks with historian Tom Jackson about the Kennedy administration’s efforts to manage the march, and Peter, Ed, and Brian consider the international implications of the images coming out of the march – raising difficulties in the Cold War battle for ideas, but also playing into a global conversation about decolonization and liberation.
Historian David Blight talks with Ed about the continuing impact of the Civil War in shaping the context within which the march took place, and the particular importance of the Emancipation Proclamation in King’s speech, which had been issued 100 years before.
Ed sits down with Hank Thomas, a veteran freedom rider and participant in the march, and hears how that day, and the civil rights struggle, shaped his life.
***LANGUAGE ADVISORY*** In this segment, the interviewee – a 72-year old African-American man – uses a racial epithet, in the context of describing his experiences as an Army medic in Vietnam, and the changed level of respect he was accorded by white soldiers.
Ed continues his conversation with historian David Blight, who reveals an important part of the backstory to the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech: King’s efforts to persuade President John F. Kennedy to issue a “Second Emancipation Proclamation,” and outlaw segregation by executive order.
***Read more about King’s campaign for a second proclamation on our blog.***
To listen to more of the conversation between President Kennedy and the march organizers, mentioned on the show, see this page, from the University of Virginia Miller Center‘s Presidential Recordings program.
ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. In 1941, African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph started planning a march on Washington. He hoped that it would help pressure the government to ban employment discrimination. President Franklin Roosevelt was less than pleased.
WILLIAM P. JONES: He said, you cannot have this march. We are preparing for a war. It’s dangerous. It’s going to lead to violence. And Randolph always said, no, we’re going to keep marching until you actually meet our demands.
ED: Randolph and his allies did keep marching for change. And more than two decades later, their efforts culminated in the 1963 March on Washington, and another confrontation at the White House.
THOMAS JACKSON: Kennedy, like Roosevelt, saw that this was coming and that he needed to make concessions. So he decided to help out, but also to try to shape its meaning.
ED: Today on BackStory, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 50 years later.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American History Guys.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf.
NED BROOKS: Our guests today on Meet the Press are the heads of the two major groups participating in the March on Washington this Wednesday, Mr. Roy Wilkins and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
ED: On August 25, 1963, a panel of journalists sat down with the two most famous organizers of the upcoming March on Washington. The newsmen wasted no time in getting to the question that was on a lot of people’s minds.
LAWRENCE SPIVAK: Now, Mr. Wilkins, there are a great many people, as I’m sure you know, who believe that it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly riot. What do you see as the effect on the just cause of the Negro if you do have any incidents, if you do have any rioting?
ROY WILKINS: I don’t think there will be any rioting.
BRIAN: Wilkins patiently told this journalist, Lawrence Spivak, that he didn’t expect any rioting. And he pointed out there had been large crowds in the capital before. And so the journalists moved on– to other questions about violence.
LAWRENCE SPIVAK: Mr. Wilkins, there are an increasing number of people who are saying that if the president’s full civil rights program is not passed by this Congress that there is going to be large-scale violence in this country. Do you think that?
ED: The journalists weren’t the only ones nervous about tens of thousands of black people descending on the capital. One congressman took to the House floor to remind his colleagues about the mob violence taking place in Congo and South Vietnam. Another said he would be closing his office to keep it safe from mass lawlessness.
PETER: City officials were taking no chances. They announced that on the day of the march they would ban sales of alcoholic beverages, something that hadn’t happened since Prohibition. Hospitals made room for casualties by postponing elective surgery. Thousands of National Guard members were called in, and the Pentagon readied thousands of additional combat troops in the suburbs. Merely contemplating the possibilities for trouble, wrote Life magazine, has given Washington officialdom its worst case of invasion jitters since the first Battle of Bull Run.
LAWRENCE SPIVAK: One more question. What are your latest estimates of the crowd that you expect on Wednesday?
ROY WILKINS: Well, I’m contenting myself with saying more than 100,000. I’m unable to say whether it will be 110,000, 145,000, or 190,000, but I will say it will be more than 100,000.
BRIAN: The official crowd estimate at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was 250,000, more than 3/4 of them African-American. It was the largest mass rally Washington had ever seen, and by all reports it couldn’t have gone more smoothly or more peacefully.
ED: Of course, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. For years, civil rights activists had made it clear that their struggle was a non-violent one. The violence came from their opponents, white supremacists and police.
PETER: These anxieties remind us there was a whole lot going on under the surface of that moment that we tend to remember simply as the setting for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And so today on the show we’re marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by considering some of the things we’ve forgotten about that day. We’ll look at the demonstration’s labor movement roots, go behind the scenes of John Kennedy’s White House, and reflect on what civil rights had to do with a civil war.
The Televised March
BRIAN: But first, let’s consider how the March on Washington looked to Americans who were not in DC that day, Americans who were watching at home. Since earlier that spring, they had seen images of fierce, sometimes violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement playing out on their TV screens.
MALE SPEAKER: On Tuesday, the Negroes gave vivid evidence that they would no longer accept the patterns of the last 100 years. This was a day–
BRIAN: This is a CBS News report from May 7, when protests against segregation in Birmingham’s public spaces were reaching their climax.
MALE SPEAKER: The crowds surged into the downtown business district. They gave meaning to Dr. King’s statement that the Negro is shedding himself of fear, and my real worry is how we will keep this fearlessness from rising to violent proportions.
ANIKO BODROGHKOZY: We have the Birmingham campaign in May of ’63, which, of course, everybody remembers the dogs, the fire hoses, confrontations in the streets, particularly with schoolchildren.
ED: This is Aniko Bodroghkozy, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia.
ANIKO BODROGHKOZY: What we don’t remember as much is throughout the rest of the summer of 1963 leading up to the march there were other civil rights kind of flash points, particularly in the northern South. So Cambridge, Maryland, was a major civil rights battleground that got a lot of coverage. And there was a lot of violence, again not by the African-American civil rights protesters.
But the way that campaigns like this tended to get covered was newsmen– and they were all men– tended to often go into the passive voice. So it was never really clear, at least in the way they were narrating news stories, who was perpetuating the violence. So this news frame of, is violence inevitable, gets attached to the coverage leading up to the March on Washington.
ED: Now, TV is still a pretty new thing in 1963. And how did all three networks, if people can imagine such a situation, how did they plan to cover the March on Washington?
ANIKO BODROGHKOZY: Covering something as big as what the March on Washington was presumed to be was a big job. And so the networks actually pooled their resources. One network had a pool of cameras in one place, another at the Lincoln Memorial.
And, of course, what nobody realized in August of 1963 is that three months later they would basically be doing something very, very similar with a lot less lead time because they were going to be covering the funeral of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy. So this is something that the networks had some experience doing, particularly with things like presidential inaugurations. But they had never done anything like this for a protest march.
ED: And so what happens on the actual day?
ANIKO BODROGHKOZY: Well, we know what happens on the actual day. I mean, we’ve all seen the images and the pictures. And they’ve come down to us 50 years later as these inspiring images of non-violent, dignified, purposeful protest.
But what’s interesting when you look at the coverage– and I looked at the coverage of both ABC and CBS. The television cameras seem to be very specifically looking both for crowd shots, but then there’s always this cutting in to what I like to call portraits of dignity. So individual marchers or small groups of marchers, inevitably well-dressed, the men in suits and ties, the women in their Sunday-best dresses, pearls. And then always this search for a few white marchers to insert among the African-American marchers.
You would think from looking at the television news coverage that whites made up about half of the 250,000 people who came to the March on Washington because the news directors seemed to be so insistently looking for white people to center their images on, surrounded by African-American marchers.
But we get this image of peaceful, dignified marching to the point that you get news commentators kind of over and over again suggesting, this is like a picnic. It’s a joyous occasion. Nothing like the concerns about violence being inevitable. Of course, it’s the exact opposite.
ED: That it was never inevitable in the first place. Never pay attention to what we were saying before.
ANIKO BODROGHKOZY: Yeah. Well, of course, if the news personnel had really kind of dug a little bit deeper and looked at the way that Bayard Rustin, who was the main organizer of the march, and the SCLC, which was Martin Luther King’s organization, and the other civil rights organizations that came together to plan the march, had they actually covered the strategies that the civil rights organizations were using to ensure that things remained nonviolent, that news peg just would never have materialized. Because everything about the organizing was to ensure that people who came to the march knew what they were coming for.
And they had been given their marching orders. They were told to dress well. They were quite explicitly told, the eyes of the nation, the eyes of the world, are going to be on you.
ED: So we can’t imagine that the TV reporters just allowed themselves to show hour after hour of this footage without saying something critical about it. What kind of commentary that would sort of add some narrative tension to this did they lay down?
ANIKO BODROGHKOZY: Well, when the journalists start to kind of reassert their position as journalists– because they don’t want to spend too much time celebrating just how wonderful this is, because that’s not being a journalist– the “violence is inevitable” news peg, that, of course, has disappeared.
And what ends up happening is the new news peg tends to be, well, this won’t have any impact on Congress. So you get congressmen being trotted out. Some of the news coverage that I saw, we had Strom Thurmond, who, of course, was the Dixiecrat arch-segregationist. Obviously he would say this will have no impact, but I think it was CBS also trotted out a liberal Democrat who was very supportive of the Civil Rights Movement also saying, no, this won’t have any impact.
So here we have all three networks expending a huge amount of their resources, time, and effort to cover this march. And then they kind of end up coming to the conclusion that the march is not what is going to change any minds or influence Congress because that’s not where politics happens. Politics happens in the voting booth. Politics happens in discussions with your congressman. Politics is not what happens when people are marching in the street.
ED: Aniko Bodroghkozy is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. She’s the author of Equal Time, Television and the Civil Rights Movement.
BRIAN: We’re going to take short break. When we get back, why the first March on Washington remained only a dream.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.
[MUSIC – JAN KACZMAREK, “LOOKING AT THE LIBERTY STATUE”]
A March for Jobs and Freedom
PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. This week on the show, we’re marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with a closer look at what we’ve forgotten about that momentous event.
BRIAN: One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize about the 1963 march is that its story begins more than two decades earlier, in 1941. Franklin Roosevelt was just starting his third term. The US hadn’t yet entered World War II, but it was supplying equipment to the Allies. And that meant American factories were cranking out trucks, tanks, and aircraft, fueling an economic boom that helped pull the country out of the Great Depression.
ED: But that boom didn’t reach everyone. Black workers were largely denied these new manufacturing jobs, so a group of black union leaders started organizing for change. And they had two main demands. Number one, ban employment discrimination by government contractors. And number two, integrate the armed forces. And the tactic they devised to achieve these two goals was, you guessed it, a march on Washington.
BRIAN: Historian William Jones has written about this first March on Washington. He says the idea was spearheaded by longtime labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who would go on to lead the 1963 march. I asked Jones what exactly Randolph had in mind back in 1941.
WILLIAM P. JONES: He initially said the march would be 10,000 people. He emphasized that this would be African-Americans from all walks of life. And this was a really critical part of A. Philip Randolph’s sort of political strategy, that he saw mass mobilization as an effective way of changing political policy and law.
The original plan was to meet at the Capitol Building and then walk down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House, past the War Department, which had not yet moved out to the Pentagon, and then end at the Lincoln Memorial. And the symbolism of ending at the memorial to the Great Emancipator really began at that 1941 march.
He, over the course of several months, expanded his expectations dramatically. And by the summer of 1941, he was saying that 100,000 people would be there.
BRIAN: And how many people showed up?
WILLIAM P. JONES: Well, nobody showed up because–
BRIAN: Trick question. I’m glad you’re still awake, Will.
WILLIAM P. JONES: President Roosevelt insisted from the beginning that he would not negotiate with Randolph unless Randolph called the march off first. He said, you cannot have this march. We are preparing for a war. It’s dangerous. It’s going to lead to violence. If you cancel the march, then I’ll talk to you. And Randolph always said, no, we’re going to keep marching until you actually meet our demands.
And at the last minute, Roosevelt called Randolph into the White House, and he issued an executive order banning discrimination by defense contractors. And in exchange for that, Randolph called off the march just a week before it was supposed to take part.
Now, this didn’t meet all of the demands. He did not integrate the armed forces or eliminate discrimination in the armed forces.
BRIAN: So what was different about 1963? Why does the march get put back on the front burner in that year?
WILLIAM P. JONES: Well, there’s a number of things. One is the movement in the South and the importance of this tremendous mass movement emerging in the most conservative part of the country in the 1950s, an incredibly conservative time when much of the labor movement and the civil rights movement that had emerged in the 1940s was really on its back. And the Cold War, the sort of suspicion of radicalism.
And so the importance of the movement in the South was that it demonstrated that by taking these direct action tactics, these mass mobilization strategies, they could actually effectively break the tide of this conservative period. So that was one really important difference that emerged in the late 1950s.
The other was that the movement against employment discrimination that Randolph had really taken up through this 1941 march had intensified, particularly with the growth of organized labor in the post-war period. In 1955, the AFL and the CIO, the two major labor federations, merged.
And the concern on the part of many African-Americans within the union movement was that the more conservative wing of this movement, which was the AFL, would dominate that new federation and allow segregation. There were some unions that explicitly barred African-Americans from membership. And their concern was that this would really sort of seal the fate of trying to integrate and trying to change organized labor.
And the initial thrust for reviving the March on Washington actually came from black union activists, who initially actually planned to march on the Washington headquarters of the AFL-CIO and demand integration and an end to discrimination within organized labor.
So those two sort of emerging really grassroots movements, a largely northern black labor movement and the southern civil rights movement, created a situation in which the March on Washington could be revived and very successful in the early 1960s.
BRIAN: So I have to ask you, most Americans, if you ask them about the “I Have a Dream” speech today, would not talk about jobs.
WILLIAM P. JONES: Right. Yeah. The story about Martin Luther King’s speech and the way in which it was delivered I think is important for understanding how we remember the march.
King’s speech was the 10th speech at the end of the day. He was tense because he was known as a tremendous speaker, and he was being counted on to really uplift a crowd that had been there for an entire day, standing in the sun. Many of them had traveled overnight on buses and trains to get there the day before. They were by that time really worn out. And his job was to uplift them.
BRIAN: He was the headliner.
WILLIAM P. JONES: He was. He was the follow-up, really. I mean, he was the end to really hit it out of the park. And everybody knew that he could hit it out of the park at the end.
But by the time he got on stage, everybody who was listening to him would have been very familiar about the full list of demands for jobs and freedom. There was no chance that anybody could have missed that after hearing nine speeches in which they went over and over and over again, this is jobs and freedom. We cannot achieve racial equality unless we have economic justice.
And I actually think that by the time King got on, he might have thought people hadn’t talked enough about the freedom part of it, that people hadn’t really emphasized the importance of integration, the importance of interracial cooperation, the importance of voting rights, and the issues that were really central to the movement out of which he came and that were really closest to his heart.
So I think he did emphasize those in the speech. But it was also a speech that was not aimed at being specific about making demands. It was an uplifting speech. And in that sense, it was tremendously successful. It was the perfect way to end this day of very intense, very specific political demands.
And then Bayard Rustin, in case anybody missed it, came back on stage after King’s speech and read the full list of demands. And A. Philip Randolph led everybody in a pledge to go home into their communities and uphold those demands to ensure that they were fulfilled.
So one of the important reasons that we’ve forgotten about the full spectrum of the objectives of the march is that we’ve focused only on King’s speech, which was the least specific of the 10, and allowed that speech to stand in for the entirety, not just of the March on Washington but I think the civil rights movement itself has come to be seen as encapsulated by the “I Have a Dream” speech.
BRIAN: William Jones is an historian at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. His new book is The March on Washington– Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotton History of Civil Rights.
The World Watches
PETER: In addition to Randolph, Rustin, and the other civil rights leaders who organized the March on Washington, there was one more key figure who had a stake in its success, President John F. Kennedy. Back in June, Kennedy had called a meeting with the march organizers. After saying hello and shaking hands, the president got straight to the point. He wanted the march canceled.
BRIAN: It might have seemed like a strange request coming from Kennedy. Just a week earlier, he had gone on TV to deliver an impassioned speech about race relations. For all its hopes and all its boasts, he said, America will not fully be free until all its citizens are free. And he announced he was introducing comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress, legislation that would, among other things, ban discrimination in public accommodations.
PETER: But behind the scenes, Kennedy and his advisers knew the civil rights bill would be met with fierce resistance in Congress, especially from Southerners in his own party. And he feared that a mass protest by African-Americans would only hurt the bill’s chances.
BRIAN: Randolph and the others refused to cancel the march, and so Kennedy went to work behind the scenes to make the best of the situation. Here’s historian Thomas Jackson, who has written about what happened next.
THOMAS JACKSON: He and his brother deputized John R. Riley.
BRIAN: His brother, Robert Kennedy, the attorney general.
THOMAS JACKSON: That’s right, the attorney general, yeah. Deputized a man named John R. Riley, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, to coordinate logistics with the DC police, to coordinate with the military Operation Steep Hill, which had 4,000 troops outside of the capital ready to invade and control, should this get out of hand.
He did some pretty zany things too. He made sure that the Army Signal Corps had control over the sound system so that, open quote, “can we cut it off?” close quote, in his own notes.
THOMAS JACKSON: Yes.
BRIAN: Did they have a technical difficulties announcement prepared?
THOMAS JACKSON: He had an unopened record of Mahalia Jackson that he intended to put on, should some crazy or, quote unquote, “commie or Muslim” commandeer the microphone, stir up the crowd to the point of revolt.
BRIAN: The march ends up going very smoothly, and you’d think Kennedy’s off the hook. He’s certainly pleased with what has gone on. But the leaders of the march want to meet with him right after the march. Now, of course, Kennedy’s already proposed landmark legislation to end discrimination in public accommodations. What else were those civil rights leaders looking for?
THOMAS JACKSON: It’s such an interesting exchange. Sure, they wanted passage of a strong piece of legislation that would make Illegal the discrimination against blacks and others in public accommodations in the South. But beyond that, they wanted provisions that would reflect and benefit the safety of civil rights workers and the daily needs of blacks.
So they all wanted a fair employment practices commission, which was not in the bill. Eventually it would be in the bill after Kennedy’s assassination. Fair employment practices, Philip Randolph said, wouldn’t cure everything, but they would definitely open up the field for employment.
There had been three recessions since the 1956 election. Black unemployment was now double that of white. They wanted a raise in the minimum wage from $1.15 to $2 an hour. They wanted to extend the minimum wage to excluded workers, which meant domestics and farm workers.
BRIAN: Which were disproportionately black.
THOMAS JACKSON: Who were disproportionately black and female. So there were a whole set of concrete demands that would improve the daily lives of ordinary blacks, North and South. So Kennedy listens to and absorbs this. He doesn’t exactly stonewall, but he doesn’t engage the leadership.
The one thing he says after they make a series of presentations is that, well, this is kind of off-topic, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to urge black families to support their children’s education more, even though the family might be, quote unquote, “broken and all that,” end quote. So he’s trying to, in a way in the conversation, deflect some of the demands and to focus them on voluntary efforts in the black community.
BRIAN: Right. So if we take care of what goes on in public, it’s really up to black families themselves to deal with this so-called poverty issue.
THOMAS JACKSON: That’s right. Kennedy and his strategic advisers had decided that public accommodations was going to be the centerpiece. And that’s what they were going to push for.
BRIAN: Why do you think that is?
THOMAS JACKSON: I think it’s complicated, but they pretty much thought of race and racial inequality as a Southern problem. They thought that here was a glaring injustice that had now been made visible to the world, and that if you were going to align American ideals with American image of Free World leadership, that this kind of oppression that had given rise to such widespread protests, and such visible protests in the South, needed to be ended.
I think too he didn’t want to issue any housing orders they might alienate his Democratic Party base in the North.
BRIAN: So presumably Kennedy didn’t stop trying to control things once the march was done. Did he do anything to control the spin, as we would say today?
THOMAS JACKSON: His public statements very much spoke to this as an international advertisement for American democracy. He described it as an interracial vindication of American democracy, the freedom of assembly. And he said, this couldn’t happen elsewhere in the world. So he very much described it as a democratic achievement rather than a protest against the lack of democracy in America.
BRIAN: Thomas Jackson is an historian at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He’s the author of From Civil Rights to Human Rights– Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice. You’ll be happy to know that there was a tape recorder rolling during the post-march meeting between JFK and the march organizers. You can listen to what that meeting sounded like on our website, backstoryradio.org.
ED: So Brian, did the world buy Kennedy’s spin on this? Pay no attention to the last 100 years of segregation and injustice, but look at this one march that other people organized. I mean, did the world buy it?
BRIAN: I think it depends on what part of the world you’re talking about. Certainly the Soviet Union did not buy it for a moment. They continued to emphasize the heinous examples of discrimination in the United States, focusing on the issue of hypocrisy.
But Kennedy didn’t hope to win over the hearts and minds of the Soviet Union. He was hoping to win over the hearts and minds of non-aligned nations. And many of those nations in Asia and Africa were filled with black and brown peoples. And they actually were watching what was going on, and I think willing to keep a relatively open mind about the possibility of the United States changing.
PETER: And Brian, it’s not just that the world is watching what’s happening in Washington. There’s a worldwide movement going on of decolonization. All of the colonies in Africa, in Asia, across the world, had been subordinate to the great European empires for a long time. And after World War II, there’s this last surge, a last episode in the history of peeling away of these empires and the emergence of new nations.
And Americans are watching these developments. I mean, African-Americans particularly are identifying with the freedom movements in Africa. And I think a lot of the energy in the summer of 1963 comes from the recognition of that worldwide movement. And I think there’s a sense that this is a real juncture, a real historic juncture in American history.
What kind of country is this going to be? Is the United States going to be another white imperial power resisting these great changes around the world? Or will it take the lead? Will it redeem the promise of its revolution? Will this be a nation of many peoples and many races, not simply another bastion of white European privilege and power?
ED: And, of course, it takes on even deeper resonance, Peter, because the very inspiration for King and his tactics and the Southern movement had been drawn on the decolonization movement in the first place. They had looked at Gandhi in India and had seen how you could bring down the most powerful empire in the world. So it is a wonderful, really rich conversation in which now the United States seems to be learning from the rest of the world and maybe giving back some inspiration to it.
[MUSIC – NINA SIMONE, “I WISH I KNEW HOW IT WOULD FEEL TO BE FREE”]
PETER: It’s time for another break. When we get back, the part of the “I Have a Dream” speech that we don’t learn about in school.
ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
Let Freedom Ring!
PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re devoting today’s show to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place 50 years ago this week.
PETER: Among the crowd in DC that day was a 22-year-old from Florida named Hank Thomas. He was a veteran of the 1961 Freedom Rides across the South and had volunteered to be a security marshal in the march. And he said the excitement in the air was palpable as the lineup of speakers neared its end.
HANK THOMAS: Everyone there, while we had great speeches– my fellow Freedom Rider, John Lewis, Congressman Lewis now, made an outstanding speech. But it was just building up the crescendo to the main event. And everybody knew what that main event was, and that was Dr. King. And he did not disappoint anyone. Even though I was there, but when I hear recordings of that speech today, I still get chill bumps.
A. PHILIP RANDOLPH: I have the pleasure to present to you Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
ED: You’d be hard-pressed today to find someone who doesn’t recognize the phrase, “I have a dream.” But it’s worth noting that those four words, I have a dream, didn’t come until the very end of King’s speech that day. David Blight is a historian at Yale University, and he says the first 14 minutes of this speech were all about the past, not the future. And he says it’s important to remember that the very same time that King gave his speech, the nation was marking the centennial of the Civil War.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
DAVID BLIGHT: Of course, he starts with five score because he’s drawing off the famous four score of the Gettysburg Address. He’s reminding the country that this was 1963, the 100th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, and that, as he says four times as a refrain in the first paragraph of the Dream speech, and the Negro is not free. And the Negro is not free.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: The Negro still is not free. 100 years later–
DAVID BLIGHT: He’s there asking the United States to live up to its creeds. And, of course, those creeds are stated in the Declaration of Independence, which he draws on. And then it’s restated, reinvented in a way, in the Emancipation Proclamation and the constitutional amendments that came out of the Civil War.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note.
DAVID BLIGHT: In the second paragraph, he draws on what he called the promissory note, which had come back, he says, labeled insufficient funds in the bank of American justice. That’s an unforgettable, powerful metaphor.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.
ED: Did people think about the civil rights struggle and think about the centennial of the Civil War at the same time? I mean, we look back on it, and of course those two things happening exactly 100 years apart, the irony strikes us now. What did people at the time think about that?
DAVID BLIGHT: The truth is, the huge public commemoration that we know as the Civil War centennial, which had a national commission with large budgets– there were state commissions in virtually every state, especially Southern states. There were lots of reenactments. There were all kinds of commemorations of the Blue and the Grey, and the glory enough to be spread around in the kind of national reconciliation of the Civil War.
But that Civil War centennial in all of its popular cultural manifestations and the civil rights movement, this growing, huge civil disobedience movement in the streets of the United States in which people were risking their lives and dying, the two never actually occupied the same space very often. It’s what makes that moment at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the March on Washington and that particular speech, so poignant because King brought the two together.
And he’s saying to the country, to the world, look, we’re having this huge– “celebration” was the word often used– of a civil war, a vast civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people had died, the country all but destroyed and then preserved and reinvented. Slavery ended, followed by a regime of segregation that still existed. The two stories were so intimately tied, but not in the popular imagination.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
DAVID BLIGHT: King is not just challenging Southern segregationists in this moment. I mean, he is, but that’s not all he’s challenging. He’s challenging the whole nation. He’s challenging the whole idea of a grand national narrative of who we are. He’s saying, we’re having this anniversary of the Civil War, but we’re forgetting what it was about. And that’s why we’re here today. That’s why we’re here. We’re marching on the government because the promises that that civil war brought about are utterly unfulfilled.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
ED: Why in our own memory have we edited out the great majority of the “I Have a Dream” speech for just that last part? Why have we edited out the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation in our memory?
DAVID BLIGHT: Well, terrific question. I suppose it’s because it’s much easier to teach young children the last three minutes of that speech. That’s about a dream of racial cooperation. It’s about a dream of integration. It’s about a dream of brotherhood and sisterhood.
I remember there’s a wonderful passage by James Baldwin, who was, of course, at the march. And then afterward he wrote, among other things about it– he said, it was a day when we could see our heritage. We could see our inheritance. It was like you could see your history. You could feel your history.
But I don’t think you were feeling the history just from the last three minutes about the dream. You were feeling it as King took you through that litany of its denial.
ED: And that’s part of your answer, isn’t it. People don’t want to hear about denial and betrayal, right?
DAVID BLIGHT: No, we don’t. We like the end, and not the story of how we got there. Every year on King’s birthday and then throughout the year, we sometimes endlessly hear about keeping the dream alive, keeping the dream alive. Well, of course we all want to keep the dream alive. But sometimes I think that very language gets in the way of what we’re actually talking about.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: 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 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–
ED: David Blight is a professor of history at Yale.
[MUSIC – EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY, “HUMAN QUALITIES”]
BRIAN: Ed, we all admire that lofty language at the end of King’s speech. But David Blight correctly, I think, is a little critical that this is all we remember. But it seems to me that it’s those very lofty words that create the promissory note that King refers to in the body of this speech, the promise to deliver on the Declaration of Independence, the promise to deliver on the Emancipation Proclamation. And it’s that lofty finish that really is the call to action. Pay up, is what King is saying.
ED: Yeah, Brian, I think that what King is doing here is evoking a lot of the great American speeches that have worked on the same theme of debt and obligation and possibility. And I think about the Gettysburg Address where Abraham Lincoln not only thinks about four score and seven years ago but he’s saying, we need to fight this war so our ideals will not perish from the face of the earth in the future.
Then you think about, close in time to the “I Have a Dream” speech, of John F. Kennedy asking people to think about what they owe the nation as well as what the nation owes them. So I think that King is speaking not only from the perspective of the civil rights struggle, not only from the perspective of African-American history, but from the perspective of American history, calling us to our highest ideals.
PETER: And Ed, I agree. There’s a lot of resonance in King’s speech and those others that you cite that look to the future and that focus on the unfulfilled promises of the American Revolution, of American independence. But I think it’s in tension with another way of thinking about history.
And that is to cherish the past, what you might call heritage, an idea that, well, hey, we achieved greatness with a kind of virgin birth. The new United States announces new principles of government that have inspired the world ever since. And I think that idea is in tension with the notion that, well, maybe we haven’t fulfilled those promises.
And this is what the Civil Rights Movement is saying. In effect, it’s challenging Americans to rethink their past at the very moment when we’re celebrating. White Americans particularly are looking back and celebrating the reconciliation of that great rift in the 19th century between North and South. Having healed those wounds, that restored American greatness. Well, maybe it didn’t. Maybe there’s more work to be done.
BRIAN: And that’s the point. Both are looking at the long history, with the progressives saying, it’s been too long, and with those advocating heritage saying, look at all we’ve done over our history.
ED: We’re going to close the show today with a little more from my conversation with Hank Thomas. He’s the man we heard a few minutes ago describing the anticipation in the crowd when Martin Luther King, Jr. approached the podium. As we mentioned, Mr. Thomas was also one of the original Freedom Riders a couple of years earlier.
HANK THOMAS: I am so fortunate to have not only witnessed tremendous changes in this country but to have played a small part in that. I’m 72 years old now, and I kind of every once in awhile sit down in my library. And I’ve got lots of books on the Civil Rights Movement, and, of course, the Freedom Rides.
And I have to kind of smile a little bit and say that I was a part of it. And what a great honor. I drag out all of the trite expressions that were ever written and say, man, it was a good time to be alive.
ED: What was your involvement in the struggle after that day? Did it continue to be an important part of your life?
HANK THOMAS: Yeah. I was inducted into the Army in October of ’63. But I knew prior to the march that I was in trouble with the draft board. So when they are combing their records to fill their quotas in a particular area and you’ve got these black folks who’ve been causing problems in the Civil Rights Movement, so you move to the head of the list when it comes down to drafting people.
I didn’t want to go into the infantry. Everybody knew that if you volunteered, then you can get a choice of perhaps assignments or jobs in the military, at least I thought. So I decided, well, if I’m going to go in, I’ll become a medic. Little did I know that the place where they need medics is right out there with the infantry is. And I thought I’d be assigned to a hospital, and I was assigned to a infantry unit.
ED: You served– you were in Vietnam?
HANK THOMAS: Yes. I served as a medic in Vietnam. And part of the irony is the first soldier I treated, I came upon, I think he was a 18-year-old white boy from Alabama. He was very badly wounded. And when he saw me, he didn’t call me nigger. He said, doc. Doc, can you help me?
As a black man, I have followed in the footsteps of my father, who served in World War II, and my grandfather, who served in World War I, and we’re all Buffalo Soldiers. And a Buffalo Soldier is any black man or woman who served his or her country and could not eat in a restaurant, could not get a room at a hotel. We are Buffalo Soldiers.
ED: So let me ask you this, if I might. You live in Atlanta.
HANK THOMAS: Yes.
ED: So you went back to the South. Looks like it would have been tempting to have said goodbye to the South and headed to New York or Chicago or Los Angeles.
HANK THOMAS: I got out of the Army in ’66, and I had never had a desire to live in New York or Philadelphia or Detroit. I knew about the kind of racism that existed in the North. And with the changing of the South, I knew that the South would be the place to live. I was correct. Life is much better for black people in the South. And certainly opportunities, if you have an education, are much greater in the South for black people than any other part of the country.
ED: It’s often seemed to me that Dr. King did more for the economic development of the South than anybody else before, because you can’t really have all these transnational corporations and national corporate headquarters and stuff in the segregated South.
HANK THOMAS: No doubt about it. The Civil Rights Movement has lifted the living standards of everyone in the South. And certainly let’s say the white lower middle class has benefited from the Civil Rights Movement, especially women have benefited from the Civil Rights Movement as much as blacks. And so the country today is in a much better place, not only in terms of socially but economically. It’s in a much better place than it was 50 years ago.
And the fact that a person like myself, who at one time was refused service at a McDonald’s restaurant and has over a period of 25 years owned seven McDonald’s restaurants, a person like myself who could not get a room at a hotel and has owned four Marriott hotels, that has not taken anything away from that Southerner blue collar worker. The country is a much better place for everyone.
ED: That’s Hank Thomas. He served as a marshal at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and currently makes his home in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
[MUSIC – STAPLE SINGERS, “LONG WALK TO D.C.”]
BRIAN: That’s all the time we’ve got for today. As always, you can find more on today’s topic at backstoryradio.org. All of our shows are posted there along with a link to our free podcast.
PETER: We’ll be back next week with other deep dive into the mysterious world of the American past. In the meantime, don’t be a stranger.
ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, and Jesse Dukes. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Special thanks this week to Eleanor Holmes Norton and Gloria Richardson.
PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, the W.L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel– history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.