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Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Remembered

August 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Some perspective on the speech then and now. John Lewis was the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1963. He also spoke that day. He is now a Democratic congressman from Georgia. Roger Wilkins was marching. He now is a professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia. Also there, as a spectator, was journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them today is Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College in Atlanta.

Well, Congressman Lewis, a couple of hours after that thundering applause a delegation was going in to see President Kennedy and those buses were loading up about as fast as they had brought people into the city, they were taking them away.

Did you have any sense, right after this was over, when things were breaking up, that you had accomplished something, pulled something off that you’d be talking about decades later?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, 40 years later and when I look back, I must tell you we were glad and very happy that things had gone so well because so many people in Washington, especially in the administration were so afraid that there may be some violence or disorder or chaos.

But it was so orderly, it was so peaceful, and I recall very, very well, when we left the march and went to the White House and met President Kennedy, he stood in the door and he was beaming like a father. He was so proud and so happy that everything had gone so well. And he said, “Congratulations. You did a good job and got to Dr. King.” And he said, “and you had a dream.”

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the newspapers’ report that a couple of hours later, the city was quiet, there weren’t even ripples on the reflecting pool. Roger, as someone who was in the crowd, give us some of our remembrances of that day.

ROGER WILKINS: Well, the atmosphere before the march occurred in the city was very, very tense. The administration had put troops out on alert in case something went wrong.

Southern congressmen were saying to their white female employees, “Stay home. This will not be safe.” So when my wife and I walked from our house in southwest Washington over to the monument grounds, we didn’t know what to expect — but we didn’t expect what the administration expected.

What we found was a group of Americans who were mellow. It was like a church picnic. And earlier, in the day, people had worried that maybe there wouldn’t be enough of a crowd, but when we got there, the buses were just driving up and people were coming out. And I went there with a fellow named Cliff Alexander and his wife; Cliff later was secretary of the army under President Carter.

But some of the buses that were coming in when we got there were from New York. Cliff was from New York. And he went around shaking hands. I said, “What are you doing? Are you running for the mayor of this march?”

It was that kind of joy and happiness, and as the day progressed, when we got down to the Lincoln Memorial and you saw up there on the stage this incredible array of American moral leaders, not just the civil rights leaders, but ecumenically the leaders — Jewish leaders, Catholic cardinals and bishops, National Council of Churches, the Protestants, I mean labor leaders.

I mean here was a movement that had started when John was down in Nashville and they were trying to desegregate the lunch counters and things, the nation wasn’t paying any attention. This was a movement that wanted to pay attention and wanted to get into the core of politics and to see those people up there, that did it, you knew that this movement had achieved its purpose.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Haynes, The New York Times the next morning, the headline was “200,000 March for Civil Rights in Orderly Washington Rally. President Sees Gain for Negro.”

You had to read way, way down in that story to even get to a mention of the King speech.

HAYNES JOHNSON: If you looked at the Washington Post the next… that very morning of the reporting of the speech, you didn’t find Martin Luther King at all. It was a police story. It wasn’t violent and there were people proud about that and happy, but it was a police story.

You didn’t have this great sort of thing that Roger is talking about, this… the mellowness, the sense of a picnic, the sense of celebration — people felt that, absolutely felt that. And you cannot overstate, for those who weren’t there or don’t remember the period at all, how much fear there was in Washington.

There was a sense that a revolution was about to come and sweep the city. And if you went out that morning as roger will remember, there was nobody on the streets, the streets were completely empty, you didn’t see cars or so forth. It wasn’t just because of police barricades. People got away. They were afraid. And so the transformation, what took place, what we just watched was one of these moments that I think everybody saw — and then the country saw — was the hope, as he said that was the American dream, that you can do better than we were doing.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Guy-Sheftall, what has 40 years done to this event? When you listen to the King address, you hear some very tough, uncompromising language, a demand for payment on a check that’s been returned, “insufficient funds.

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship.” And yet we call this the “I have a dream” speech.

Has it been tamed by history?

BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL: The first thing I will say that 140 years later, we still have not free. And one of the subtexts of his speech that I think we forget is that he was talking also about lack of jobs and poverty and immense suffering. And I would say that we still are awaiting that check and probably I would say it is still saying “insufficient funds.”

RAY SUAREZ: Is there something comforting about the final passages of the speech that sort of leads us, as a country, to remember them so well and perhaps not pay as much attention to the earlier passages in this address?

BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL: I think there’s something very comforting about the end of the speech. It illustrates the improvisational and oratorical genius of African-American ministers. And we might be lulled into thinking that that’s the main part of the speech.

But I think that a lot of what King said before the end of the speech is what we need to remember and also need to try to bring about.

RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Lewis, it was a day of great speeches, wasn’t it?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, there were several speeches, but the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. was so inspiring, is so uplifting. When I listen to the speech and remember that day, Dr. King had the power, the ability and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a modern day pulpit. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.

RAY SUAREZ: Had you been pressured to tone down your own remarks? You said in part, “let’s not forget we’re involved in a serious social revolution.”

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, during that day, in my prepared text, I said “we are now involved in a serious revolution. The black masses are restless.”

Some people didn’t like for me to use the word “revolution.” But A. Philip Randolph who was a dean of the leadership and chair of the march, said, “there’s nothing wrong with the use of the word revolution. I use it myself sometimes.”

And then there were other parts of the speech are I said, “Listen, Mr. Kennedy, the president, listen members of Congress; you’re trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it in the courts. You tell us to wait, you tell us to be patient, and I said we cannot wait. We cannot be patient. We don’t want our freedom gradually. We want our freedom now.”

But in the end, near the end of the speech where some people objected to, and Roger will remember this, some people objected to a line near the end of the speech and it was a little rhetoric.

I said, “If we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day may come where we will not confine our marching on Washington, but we may would be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did — nonviolently.”

And it was A. Philip Randolph and others came to me and said, John, for the sake of unity, we’ve been together, can we change that? The archbishop of Washington, D.C. had threatened not to give an invocation if I didn’t delete that part from the speech, and we agreed to delete the reference to Sherman.

RAY SUAREZ: By taking America, the wider America’s view of what this great argument was about out of lunch counters, streets, fire hoses, German Shepherd dogs and policemen with clubs, if just for one day, by re-contextualizing civil rights, did it change the message somehow?

Was this a way to get out there and not say, this is a southern problem, this is a black thing, whatever it is?

HAYNES JOHNSON: The genius of that speech, and we just heard it again, talking about all Americans of all races, of all colors, of all backgrounds and he was challenging people to be true to the emblems of the country — the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the moral teachings and so forth that we can do better than that. And it was a nonviolent revolution.

There was a revolution going on, we fought a Civil War 100 years before, Emancipation was literally 100 years before, black slaves came here in 1619. So this is not a new phenomenon.

But he cast it in a way that everybody who responded to it could say, “yes, that’s right. He’s pricking our conscience.” It wasn’t just the content of your character, he is challenging the conscience of people to live up to what they said. That is the American dream. That was a genius.

RAY SUAREZ: Was that a crossover moment? Were people who were in places where they didn’t feel themselves personally implicated by this great debate suddenly brought in by the rhetoric, saying that, “yes, part of me isn’t free unless they’re free?”

BEVERLY GUY-SHEFTALL: Yeah, I think so. But I think that we also need to remember that less than… almost a month later, those four little girls were bombed in Birmingham. And I think that we also need to think about the fact that over the next four or five years, Dr. King became increasingly concerned about the war, about militarism, about poverty and about economic injustice.

So while that speech is extremely important, I think that I don’t want to box King into the end of that speech, the “I have a dream speech,” I want us to be aware of the fullness of Dr. King’s prophetic and radical vision of this country.

ROGER WILKINS: There’s another part of it. I agree with Beverly on that, but there’s another part of it. People call this Martin Luther King’s march. It really wasn’t Martin Luther King’s march.

John talked about A. Philip Randolph as the dean of the civil rights movement. It was his idea to have this march. He had tried to have the march in 1941. He had threatened President Roosevelt because the war material production was being gearing up and he wanted fair employment. And he said to the president, “you’ve got to sign an executive order requiring that.” And the president said, “no.” Randolph said, “If you don’t, I will lead a march on Washington.” The president was persuaded then to do that.

But Mr. Randolph, who was a man of great dignity and great moral force, remembered that for many years.

And so when the Kennedy administration was reluctant to move vigorously, as vigorously as all of us felt they needed to, it was Mr. Randolph who said, “we’ll have a march.” He was the only one who could get all of these people together and get them to agree. He put Byron Ruston in charge of organizing it. The labor movement, the NAACP, all kinds of people, and John and the work that he and SNC had done in the south, all of that added to this moment when the target, the audience was really John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his brother Robert.

And that was to get them to stop dealing with civil rights as a problem to be handled and, rather, as a crusade to vindicate the Constitution, as Martin’s speech indicated.

They were enormously successful. The president started that day without agreeing to see the leaders. It was only after the day turned out as we have described it that the president sent word that he would see the leaders, and that is what got us the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, Haynes, he was dead four months later.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah, Kennedy was killed and Robert Kennedy. Martin Luther King didn’t live five years longer. So you had the all the violence that occurred. But it did change the laws — segregation. Roger and I were in Selma. John Lewis was beaten almost to death in Selma.

And suddenly the old segregated society was gone legally, not in terms of personal relationships.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, good to talk to you all. Thank you.