The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the three-part history of the civil rights movement and its most charismatic leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sets the frame for the 1963 march.
The March on Washington: 50th Anniversary – Historian Taylor Branch
Tavis: Joining us now to kick off these three nights of conversations about the March on Washington, this historic anniversary, and America in the King years is the author of “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement,” our dear friend Taylor Branch, who joins us tonight from Washington. Taylor, as always, good to have you back on this program.
Taylor Branch: Nice to be with you, Tavis. Thanks a lot.
Tavis: You’ve been busy the last couple of weeks. I’ve been trying to follow you around the dial, talking and getting the message out about America in the King years. This new book, out in paperback now, “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement,” does just that.
It lays out these monumental, these seminal moments during the King years. Let me start with the obvious question, then – how does the March on Washington fit into this narrative?
Branch: Well, it comes in the pivotal year of 1963, which is the year that, nine years after the Brown decision, the movement finally seized American politics by the throat – not because of the march, but because of the demonstrations in Birmingham earlier that spring, culminating the Freedom Rides and the sit-ins of the previous years.
When the dogs and fire hoses were loosed on small children, sympathy demonstrations broke out in hundreds of cities in May, leading President Kennedy to introduce the civil rights bill in June, and Dr. King and Philip Randolph to call for a march on behalf of that movement in August.
So ’63 was the year of the big breakthrough to put the civil rights movement at the forefront of American politics.
Tavis: I mentioned in the introduction to this conversation a factoid that you know very well, and that is the notion that President Kennedy did everything he could to convince the march organizers not to have this march. How does that history reflect on Camelot, that he didn’t want this to happen?
Branch: He didn’t want it to happen. I mean, we should – he didn’t have the great glow. The glow was overdone on Kennedy. On the other hand, he was right that to propose the civil rights bill was almost suicidal for a Democratic president, because Democratic presidents for a hundred years had depended on the solid South, and the solid South depended on segregation.
There was a solid wall of segregation from Texas to the Atlantic Ocean, and Kennedy was putting all of that in jeopardy when he proposed that bill in June. He knew it, and so he was very, very skittish and reluctant to associate himself with the movement.
Tavis: How do you read the fact, again, as I mentioned at the top of this conversation, that the president and other powers that be did not have enough confidence in King and A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and the others to pull together a march with that many people that would not be violent. If you’ve got that many Negroes together, it just has to be violent.
Branch: Part of the reason that the march has such a sunny reputation today is because there was immense relief when it happened that it was not Armageddon and violence. That’s what people feared.
The races were so separated in that day, when such a high percentage of Black people, certainly in the South, were maids and day laborers, that it was just assumed that if you got large numbers of Black people together there would be mayhem and riots.
Nobody wants to remember that the King administration posted 4,000 riot troops in the suburbs. The District of Columbia canceled liquor sales for the first time since Prohibition. The hospitals stockpiled plasma and canceled elective surgery.
This capital was scared. Most of the federal government told their employees to stay home, and Major League Baseball, which normally plays right through earthquakes and typhoons, canceled not one but two Washington Senators games a week ahead, they were so confident that there would be, that Washington would just not be fit for baseball.
Tavis: So what do we know, then, about how the president felt after the march had ended, it had been peaceful, all the speakers had been brilliant, Dr. King had just closed the show.
Then the president invites them down to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to come to the White House for the photo op, and he’s grinning and slapping people on the back and having a good time. But how do we read how he felt after this thing was concluded?
Branch: He was relieved that it wasn’t a disaster, but he was still pressuring Martin Luther King and anybody in the movement to get rid of anybody that J. Edgar Hoover didn’t think was 100 percent pure American.
He was worried about it. He had overcome a hurdle, he was relieved, but the bill was by no means passed. What he told Martin Luther King after, and John Lewis and the other leaders, was, “We want a bill to pass Congress, and Congress is stuck in gridlock. How can you help me pass this bill?”
Quite frankly, the bill most likely would not have passed had not President Kennedy been killed and changed the whole emotional tone of the country just a few months later.
Tavis: To your point of a moment ago, Taylor, that President Kennedy wanted Dr. King to get those persons out of the movement who Hoover didn’t think were 100 percent American, it occurs to me that that list would have started with the guy who he was talking to – Martin Luther King Jr., and as you well know, because you wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning text, the series, that is, after the march, King becomes known and regarded by Hoover as the most dangerous man in America, yes?
Branch: Yes. Sadly, he issued an edict the very day after the march, saying that King’s demagogic speech yesterday, after that we should mark him, if we haven’t already, as the most dangerous Negro in America, from the standpoint of security to this nation.
So it is a sad commentary to this day that people high in our government could take a look at the same speech we are celebrating today as the height of patriotism and say this is the most dangerous man in America. That’s a very sad commentary on somebody who was allowed to stay in a position of secret power for 50 years. As the Founders could have told us, it corrupted him.
Tavis: I suspect I’ll have this conversation with a number of our guests over the next two or three nights as we celebrate this moment and the King legacy, as we celebrate America in the King years.
But as you well know – again, you’ve written the text here – Dr. King lived five years after the March on Washington. That’s in ’63; he dies, he’s assassinated in ’68. By the time he dies in ’68, he really is regarded as the most dangerous man in America.
Indeed, beyond J. Edgar Hoover, the majority of Americans had fallen out of favor with Dr. King. The majority of Black Americans, the bourgeoisie elite were mad at him for angering the president with his stance against the Vietnam War.
Everyday Black folk were mad at him because they thought he was not aggressive enough. The Black Panthers were coming on. They saw Martin as passé.
So we celebrate him 50 years later, but to your point, by the time he died five years later was he not disregarded, was he not the most dangerous man in America?
Branch: Yes, I wouldn’t call him the most dangerous, but he was certainly the most isolated and most lonely. He was pledging renewed allegiance to nonviolence as being the hope for America right up to the end of his life.
Basically, America made a choice then that we’re still living with, which is basically are we going to continue the path toward trying to overcome our differences, which is what we want people to do in Syria and Egypt today, or are we going to take the path of trying to enforce them in Vietnam with violence?
That’s a big decision. I hope in the next five years of all these 50-year anniversaries we’ll have a more balanced view of the choices that we made, because we haven’t really made Dr. King’s choices.
Tavis: How subversive do you think King’s message would be today, were he alive and had an opportunity to get to that microphone at the march last Saturday or at the march this coming Wednesday?
You know full well – I wrote a piece about this the other day – that President Kennedy, as we mentioned earlier, did not come to the march. President Obama does not have to contend with a subversive Martin King this year because he ain’t alive, obviously.
But how dangerous might his message be today, given what he was concerned about at the time of his death?
Branch: Well, his message of nonviolence to the world in many respects has echoed outside the United States since his death more than here, in ending the Cold War and in South Africa and even in peace movements in China and Burma and Myanmar.
But we’re out of phase with it, and what we really need to do right now, for this 50th anniversary, is why is that? How do we figure out what that means, how do we get in better balance with it?
How can it be that we’ve made such amazing improvements across the board for women, for gay rights, for the disabled, for the environment, and have a Black president, and yet our politics are so crippled in partisan stalemate?
Everybody says we’re in a cynical age, but nobody asks why. I think we need to ask Martin Luther King why, or at least ask his message why.
Tavis: For a guy who has spent the better part of his life, certainly his professional career, chronicling America in the King years, on a personal note, how does it feel for you to see the guy you’ve spent more time with than anybody, I suspect, be so honored right about now?
Branch: It feels wonderful. I grew up in the same city, but awoke to the movement late. It took him 10 years to convince me to change the direction of my life’s interest. I never actually even met him in the flesh, even though I lived in Atlanta, where he did.
I was 16 in high school at this march, but it’s been an enthrallment to study this movement, and I just hope that we can begin to get in better balance with it. Some of the fault is the people who admire Dr. King, it’s on our side.
We’re responsible for some of the cynicism too, because a lot of us don’t want – want to talk only about race and not about the other things that it has helped, the larger context of freedom. Other people on our side don’t want to talk about race because they fear it’s a way to lose elections.
The other half of the partisan divide, on the Republican side, they’re trapped in language that basically has translated hostility across racial lines into hostility to the government. That’s basically their whole message, and they’re trapped in that.
The two sides are basically saying the only way forward is for the other side to drop dead. Neither of those is going to happen, so I’m hoping that on our side, the people who admire Dr. King, we can become to get in balance, that when you start talking about race it’s the gateway to larger freedoms. It’s a huge movement, and we should take credit and claim for the discipline and the example that he let loose in the world.
We only had a brief moment when we were actually being honest with each other about race, and it paid enormous dividends for women, the disabled, and a lot of other movements, including the white South, which turned into the Sun Belt once it got rid of segregation.
As Dr. King said, when Black people liberate themselves from segregation, one of the chief beneficiaries will be white Southerners. But they’re trapped in resenting something that in fact is a great blessing.
Tavis: That was perhaps the most erudite read I’ve ever heard on the political dichotomy in this country on race. Very, very nicely said, but then again, everything you put forth is usually nicely said, and that’s why we are always honored to have Taylor Branch on this program.
His book, out now in paperback, is called “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Taylor Branch, always, sir, again, delighted to have you on. Thank you for your life and your legacy.
Branch: Thank you, Tavis. Hope to see you again soon.
Tavis: I look forward to it.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor video]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.