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Can America Fulfill the Demands Made by Those Who Marched on Washington?

August 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Fifty years after the March on Washington, African-Americans still confront high rates of unemployment, segregation in education and race-based partisan gridlock. In what areas have we seen progress? Gwen Ifill discusses the advances and what's left to be done with historian Taylor Branch and filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we wrap up our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

First, longtime civil rights activist Linda Chapin of Orlando, Fla., recalls coming to the Capitol as a 22-year-old.

LINDA CHAPIN, civil rights activist: It was, as much as anything — for my group of friends who met up in Washington the day before, it was exciting. It was passionate. It was fun, all of those things.


LINDA CHAPIN: And we didn’t know that it would come together to be one of the largest protests in the history of the United States.

And another thing that interests me greatly is that the organizers didn’t all have the same goal. Some of them were there to support President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act. Some of them were going there to say, no, we don’t support that; it’s not strong enough. Some of them were there to say something different.

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And, yet, it all came together in this incredibly symbolic and historic event.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was Linda Chapin of Orlando, Fla. You can find her story and other firsthand accounts at Memories of the March on the PBS Web site Black Culture Connection.

And now Gwen Ifill has the final installment of her series of conversations on the march.

GWEN IFILL: From James Madison’s condemnation of slavery in 1813, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863, to Woodrow Wilson’s endorsement of segregation in 1913, and to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s words at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, key moments in America’s journey toward freedom have played out in what historian Taylor Branch describes as 50-year blinks.

But 50 years after King talked about his dream, has America fulfilled the demands made by those who marched on Washington? A new documentary Web series The March @ 50 explores this question in five parts on the PBS Web site Black Culture Connection.

Shukree Tilghman is the director of that series, and he joins us now, along with Taylor Branch, author of the new book “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Welcome to you both.

We’re here to talk, I guess, about unfinished business 50 years after the march.

You were born, Shukree, in 1979.

SHUKREE TILGHMAN, director: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: So this wasn’t even part of your growing up.


GWEN IFILL: But you did learn about the demands that were made that day. Do you think they were met?

SHUKREE TILGHMAN: Fifty years later, we can look at the unemployment rate among African-Americans, which is stubborn, consistently twice that of their white counterparts.

That’s one demand we could argue that has not been met. Also, segregation in public schools, for example, we have gotten a trend now because of sort of lack of desegregation and overturning of desegregation plans in the ’90s, we have got a place now where our in our public schools we’re re-segregating along racial and ethnic lines, and also sort of along class lines.

GWEN IFILL: Sixty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, which was supposed to ensure this integrated school system, has it failed?

SHUKREE TILGHMAN: I think it would be tough to say that it failed.

One of the experts we talked to, Gary Orfield from the Civil Rights Projects at UCLA, talks a lot about this in the series. We are at a place where around 80 percent of black and Latino students go to schools that are majority non-white. Around 15 percent of black and Latino students go to schools which Orfield calls apartheid schools. That means they are 98 percent or 99 percent all black or all Latino, non-white, only within a couple of percentage points away from if there was a law that made them be segregated by race and class.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about mass incarceration, another of the topics.


GWEN IFILL: One in nine African-Americans are in the prison system in some manner. Is that also a failure?


GWEN IFILL: Or let’s say an unkept promise.


In some ways. You know, incarceration really started to increase in the early ’70s. So this was well after the March on Washington. But when you think of notions, the second part of the march, freedom, it’s hard to think about freedom when we have that many people who don’t have their freedom who are locked up.

GWEN IFILL: Taylor Branch, he was born in 1979. I won’t ask when you were born. But you do write that you grew up fearfully oblivious to race, and yet you ended up dedicating so much of your career to writing about the civil rights movement. How did that come to be?

TAYLOR BRANCH, author:  Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement”: I think that it was an accident of my cohort.

My formative years were all the civil rights movement. The Brown decision, I was in first grade. I was a senior in college when Martin Luther King was killed in the spring of ’68. All in between, the movement was just relentless. And it ultimately changed direction of my life’s interest, against my will. I grew up in a nonpolitical family, but by the time I was in college, I was just stupefied by this movement for what I called — what Dr. King called equal souls and equal votes that went very deep.

GWEN IFILL: Many people never heard a full Martin Luther King Jr. speech, other than that day at the Lincoln Memorial. But he never planned to talk about the dream in that speech, did he?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Not a word of the “I Have a Dream” refrains that are familiar was in the carefully prepared speech that he really labored over.

But he got toward the end of it. It was pretty stiff. It was labored. It was a speech of grievance. And he threw it away for his common refrains of a broader sense, a broader dream, with a lot of anguish in it. But it reached a larger audience.

GWEN IFILL: And, as a result, did that redefine the way America viewed the civil rights movement and what the progress in fact of the movement was?

TAYLOR BRANCH: I think that that was part of the great function of the March on Washington, was that it showed America that African-Americans could present grievances and that they could frame them in a way that everybody could relate to that was really even larger than race.

They were centered in race, but they grew larger, which is why so many good things came out of the civil rights era that affected women and disabled and many, many other groups beyond strictly black and white.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. King also wrote famously in the letter from a Birmingham jail about the need for African-Americans to be on tiptoe stance, especially leaders, especially leaders of the movement, and especially our first black president.

Is he on tiptoe stance in comparison to the careful path that Martin Luther King Jr. had to tread as well?

TAYLOR BRANCH: I’m afraid so.

What Dr. King was saying is that, if you grow up black, you have to be on tiptoe stance because you never know in a white world how people are going to take things, but you have to watch out for that. And what he’s saying is that we’re a healthier society if everybody is looking out and wondering and reaching across lines to think how they’re doing.

I think we’re still in a situation now where most white Americans expect the black president to be black on their terms and not talk about being black. So he has to stay on a tiptoe stance, and it’s very controversial if he mentions his own experience.

GWEN IFILL: So should he be talking more about race than he has so far?

TAYLOR BRANCH: I think he should.

I think he should because race has always been the key defining point in American freedom and what we mean by it. That’s what I meant by the 50-year blinks from Madison forward.

GWEN IFILL: In one of our earlier conversations about — leading up to the march anniversary, I talked to Bakari Sellers, who is a state representative in South Carolina and the son of a famous civil rights activist in South Carolina, and he said he now takes the 50,000-foot view, where he

looks in a more broad way at what black, white, race, accomplishment, equality, availability, accessibility — all those things he looks — he has the luxury to look at the big picture.

As you look at the big picture, Shukree, are you optimistic or pessimistic about where we are 50 years after the march?

SHUKREE TILGHMAN: Well, I’m naturally an optimist, so I’m going to say that I’m optimistic, of course.

GWEN IFILL: You didn’t sound optimistic.


SHUKREE TILGHMAN: Even — but that’s the beauty of the thing, that even given all of the statistics and everything, there’s been enormous progress.

You’re not a student of history if you don’t recognize that we do not live in the same world that we lived in, in 1963. But the best way to honor those people who marched and the leaders of that march is to recognize the work that still has to be done.

That’s what we try to do with the series, and I think that’s what people who care should try to do.


TAYLOR BRANCH: I think that we have an imbalance.

I think the 50-year blink, we have stupendous progress, for not only black people, for the white South, for women, for all kinds of groups, but that our politics has atrophied and we’re paralyzed. We don’t see that.

We have this, in my view, race-based partisan gridlock that denies the possibilities that America can do what we proved that we could do in the ’60s, which is tackle our toughest problem.

GWEN IFILL: You think the partisan gridlock is race-based?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Oh, absolutely. There’s no question that, even by the numbers, it’s race-based.

The average Republican district has 50 percent more white people. The average Democratic district in the Congress has twice as many non-whites. Partisan gridlock is racial. The biggest unexamined question in American politics is why and what we’re going to do about it. We just accept partisan gridlock as part of our cynical inheritance.

But we shouldn’t do that. We should say, is it racial, and if so, why, and how can we get around it? And I blame both sides. I think both sides don’t — our gridlock right now is basically saying the only solution is for the other side to drop dead. And that’s not going to happen.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I’m glad at least you two are talking and thinking about it.


GWEN IFILL: Shukree Tilghman, Taylor Branch, thank you so much.