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Fifty Years Later, What Challenges Remain in the Way of a ‘Dream’ Democracy?

August 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Fifty years after the March on Washington, the vision of the civil rights movement has expanded beyond black and white, but what is left to be done? Gwen Ifill sits down with Peniel Joseph of Tufts University and filmmaker Bonnie Boswell Hamilton on how the goals of the March translate to the needs of today.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we turn to another in our continuing series of conversations and remembrances about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

First, Edith Lee-Payne of Detroit tells the story of one of the iconic pictures taken at the event.

EDITH LEE-PAYNE, March on Washington participant: One evening in October of 2008, I got a phone call from my cousin Marcia who lives in Baltimore, Md.

She had been browsing a category with some friends, and came across a 2009 black history calendar. On the front of this calendar were pictures of Dr. King, and Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Jesse Owens. And on the back of the calendar were these same people, but, also, there was a picture of me.

I, of course, immediately recalled being at the March on Washington, but I didn’t recall a picture being taken. It also happened to be my 12th birthday. That day in Washington was a very hot day. But it was a day where a lot of people from all over the country came together for a common goal, and that was to make the quality of life better for everyone.

So, it was very special to me to be there, to be one of the people present to make a difference in what Dr. King had brought to our attention.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: That was Edith Lee-Payne of Detroit. You can find her story and other firsthand accounts recorded for the Web series Memories of the March, produced by public television stations around the country. That’s on the PBS Web site Black Culture Connection.

We turn now to our own series of conversations on the march.

Gwen Ifill spoke recently with Peniel Joseph, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and a professor of history at Tufts University, and Bonnie Boswell Hamilton, executive producer of the PBS documentary “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights.”

Bonnie Hamilton, Peniel Joseph, thank you both for joining us.

I want to start by asking you to look back over the five decades, Peniel Joseph, and tell us, what’s your sense of how much has changed in that time?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Center for the Study of Race and Democracy: Well, I think that the aesthetics of our democracy changed after the March on Washington.

Barack Obama is probably the biggest example of that change. Fifty summers ago, we couldn’t have imagined an African-American president, commander in chief, when there was racial segregation, racial violence, when people tried to integrate school counters — or lunch counters in public schools.

So, I would say that the biggest change has been the fact that we have more black politicians, we have more black elected officials, we have more black celebrities, a thriving black middle class. So, the aesthetics of democracy have certainly transformed.

GWEN IFILL: Bonnie Hamilton, your uncle Whitney Young was for 10 years the head of the National Urban League, which was considered to be the kind of more pro-business, more moderate civil rights organization. If he looked at where we are now, was this what he intended?

BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON, “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights”: Well, I think he would say it’s kind of a mixed blessing, because certainly we have African-Americans in very great positions in corporate America right now, more blacks that are working in certain industries that were not accessible to them that many years ago.

But at the same time, we have unemployment still about the same level, and these are the kinds of concerns I think he would have, because I think the mission, the vision was to be able to have a society that was truly inclusive. And I don’t think that we have achieved that quite yet.

GWEN IFILL: Has the definition of civil rights broadened now? There were a lot of different groups who were speaking at the march — anniversary march last weekend, but also at the time, there was labor, there were gender groups. Is that what civil rights is now? Is it a broader definition than black and white which we got so used to?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Yes, it’s definitely broader.

Remember, 50 years ago, there was no woman scheduled to speak at the March on Washington. That’s something that’s outrageous. It was sexist, and that could never occur today. So, when we think about civil rights, we think about gays and lesbians, immigration issues. We think about Latinos. We think about women. So, civil rights has become really human rights in our contemporary context.

GWEN IFILL: But does that dilute the message?

BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: Well, you know, I think it’s really important to really understand that the message always was about the democracy.

The slogan of SCLC was to save the soul of America. And Whitney Young’s ideal was to have America live up to her ideals. So, I think the vision of those who planned the march, who were working behind was really always about inclusion. And so I think a lot of times, the media has narrowed the definition.

I worked with a man who said, don’t call it the civil rights movement. It was the justice movement. It was then, and it still is now.

GWEN IFILL: You know, your uncle was also a social worker by trade. Did that have anything to do with the way the march played out? People were prepared for violence. They were prepared for conflict. But that didn’t happen.

BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: It didn’t happen. And I think Whitney Young definitely played a role in being able to really create the kind of interracial march it was and peaceful one, because he stipulated that if the Urban League was going to become involved, it would have to become interracial, it would have to become nonviolent.

And he was able to negotiate this within the inner circle of people who were planning the march as a social worker. His skill set allowed him to really be able to play this mediating role within the inner circle. And I think that’s what contributed to the outcome.

GWEN IFILL: And yet, Peniel Joseph, 50 years later, the races are — still largely live apart. There is still residential segregation. They worship apart. They socialize apart. This is certainly not what was imagined at the time, or is it?

PENIEL JOSEPH: No. King talked about multicultural, multiracial democracy. He really thought that, after the March on Washington and the civil rights legislation, blacks, whites, Latinos, Native Americans, everybody would come together.

I think, in the ensuing years, our democracy has been transformed, but there’s been stubborn persistences of the old Jim Crow. Sometimes, people call it the new Jim Crow, when we think about mass incarceration, unemployment, but also just the fact that 40 percent of whites don’t have any friends who are outside of their own race. So, in some ways, we’re still as segregated as we were 50 years ago, and I think that King would be very concerned about that.

GWEN IFILL: So, is this something we have to re-imagine what our goals of equality are about, not just access, but also what happens after you get through the door?

BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: Absolutely.

I think it’s important for us to really, as citizens, claim the vision. A lot of times, what we want gets mediated through politicians or through the media. And I think that’s a mistake. I think that we, as American citizens, have to say, look, we — we all have a stake in the vision of America.

And so we have to not be manipulated by our own fears, which tends to happen, and that polarizes us.

GWEN IFILL: Did we spend too much time over this process, these five decades, being obsessed with the black-white narrative and not broadening it or focusing in a different way?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I think we have to both broaden it, but always the African-Americans are the best indicator of how our democracy is doing.

GWEN IFILL: Why do you say that?

(CROSSTALK)

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, because African-Americans historically are the people who have been here the longest, but yet have had the right to vote for the least amount of time.

So, historically, if the economy has a cold, African-Americans have pneumonia is the old saying. So when we think about African-Americans, the best way to gauge this democracy, are black people doing well? Are they in the middle class? Are they employed? Are they being treated fairly by the criminal justice system?

If they are, most people are going to be doing very, very well.

GWEN IFILL: Yet, another march, another protest. Are we past that, or should we be past that?

BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: Well, I think it’s important to raise our voices, to be in community.

But I think also we have to be able to find ways to do it in our own hometowns, in our schools. I mean, this fight happens in all kinds of ways, so I think we have to take responsibility for it. A lot of times, again, we abdicate responsibility to others. And I think that, if we’re going to have the kind of society that all of us want, we have to take more on our backs as individuals, and really be inclusive, and really care about what’s happening with poverty in general in America.

It’s not just about African-Americans, although I completely agree with you that we’re a harbinger of things that happen and things that are going to come. But we also have to look at what is going on in the society as a whole and really take responsibility for that.

GWEN IFILL: How much is class a greater issue than race as we have these discussions? That’s a continuing, roiling debate.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, race and class are intertwined.

And in 1963, the March on Washington was for jobs and freedom. And so, for African-Americans, jobs are always part of fulfilling the American dream. And we think about poverty. Poverty is both class, but the racial face of poverty is black because blacks are disproportionately represented.

So, when we think about race and class, they’re completely intertwined, but race becomes the face of American poverty because so many poor people in this country are disproportionately black and brown.

GWEN IFILL: But Whitney Young was the — one of the unsung heroes of the march, behind-the-scenes organizer. And he was known as being kind of aggressively middle-class.

He was raised by educated black people and he was running the business arm of the movement. So, I wonder what he — what his — what message about class he was bringing to this, and what of it resonates now.

BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: Well, I think, at the time, of course, Whitney was always about really being able to open up the borders for everybody.

And his father was an educator, for sure. But it was about being able to take that vision and open up a path for other people. So, it wasn’t about that I got mine, and, you know, the rest of you, too bad. It’s about, you know, let’s all come together.

So I think that the issue of, again, being able to have the true American ideal of diversity and also being able to be concerned about poverty, because, you know, as a social worker, as your point, that he was concerned about these issues that everybody be able to have the safety net, be able to have food on the table.

And right now, we’re seeing a situation in America where the income disparity is tremendous. We’re — you know, there are only three other countries that have a greater income disparity than we do.

GWEN IFILL: Do you see a discussion about this beginning, ending, or stalled?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, right now, I would say that the discussion is being renewed, is the best way I would describe it.

We have talked about these issues for decades and decades. There has been real, real progress. And I think that the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and all these 50ths, Birmingham, John Kennedy’s June 11 race speech, King’s letter from Birmingham jail, it’s a way to renew the spirit of American democracy that that march really exemplified. 

BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: I think that Whitney Young’s legacy for this march would be to be able to be bridge-builders. That’s what he did.

And I think that if we could all use that as an example to find the places where we may not agree with somebody, but find the points of commonality, I think that’s something we can draw from this moving forward.

GWEN IFILL: Bonnie Hamilton, Peniel Joseph, thank you both so much.

BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: Pleasure.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Thank you.