The March on Washington: 50th Anniversary – Marian Wright Edelman & Dr. Mary Frances Berry

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Two longtime activists—the Children’s Defense Fund founder and the former Civil Rights Commission chair—discuss the work being done to make the goals of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom a reality.

Marian Wright Edelman is known for her work on behalf of children and the disadvantaged. The first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, she directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, MS, worked with Dr. King as counsel for the Poor People's Campaign and founded a public interest law firm, which spawned the powerful lobby, the Children's Defense Fund. She also participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Dr. Mary Frances Berry has fought for justice and civil rights for over four decades. She has a distinguished career in public service, including serving as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She also became the first woman and African American to serve as chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder and has held several faculty appointments, including at the University of Pennsylvania, where she's a professor of history.


Tavis: Joining us now from Washington to talk about the work being done to bring jobs, justice, and freedom to all Americans, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, which advocates, of course, for children of all ethnicities, and Mary Frances Berry, the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and now a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

I am honored, as always, to have either of you, but much less both of you, on the program tonight. Dr. Berry, let me start with you, and I want to get right to it. Fifty years later, what do you think?

Dr. Mary Frances Berry: It’s one of those glass half-full, glass half-empty – I started to say that, but I don’t think it’s half full. I think it’s like a quarter full.

I think that a lot has been accomplished; some of it through the work that Marian does, and other people, and the work you’ve done, Tavis. But I think that we really aren’t anywhere near where we ought to be, and the most important measures that affect ordinary Black people, ordinary Black people, we have some major problems that don’t seem to be getting any better.

Everything from jobs to the kind of education their kids can get to the kind of healthcare they have access to and the criminal justice system and all of its problems.

So we are in, I think, deep trouble. Right after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, all the Black folks called it “the Negros’ hour.” That our hour had come and we were going to overcome.

Well, maybe after the civil rights movement we thought the Negroes’ hour had come…and we were going to overcome all of this. But I think we have a heck of a lot more to do.

Tavis: If I were to ask you, Dr. Berry, to divide up a blame pie – that is to say, to put the blame where it belongs 50 years later for that glass not even being half full, to your point, how do you sort out the blame for this?

Berry: One problem is that many people who were in the civil rights movement went into politics, they went into business enterprise. They took advantage of the opportunities that were available, especially middle class, educated folk.

Many of them went off and forgot about trying to do anything to help the masses of Black people get ahead. That’s, in fact, true. There are some who did but there are a lot who didn’t.

The other part of it is that we ceased making demands to hold politicians accountable. We love to vote, and they love for us to vote for them. (Laughter) But the main thing is that we forgot that one of the things you’re supposed to get out of voting is to make people be accountable.

That’s what other people do, so Black people, we forget about that. So we have not done what we should do. Part of it also is people just taking for granted that everything is going to be okay without doing anything, and the government, of course, not carrying out its responsibilities to promote the general welfare, including us.

Tavis: Marian Wright Edelman, you were there with Dr. King, working alongside him on the issue of poverty, so let me ask you, 50 years later, whether your heart now is happy with these celebrations, or heavy?

Marian Wright Edelman: Well they’re both, but more heavy, and really want to get on with what we’re going to do – to end child poverty and family poverty in the richest nation on Earth. I have no doubt that if Dr. King were here today he’d be calling for a poor people’s campaign. We’ve got 46 million poor people and when he died there were 35 million. We have 16.1 million poor children. When he died, we had 11.5.

Of course, the country’s population has grown, but on the other hand we are three times richer, our GDP. While the safety net has expanded over these years in good periods and 40 million people would be poor if we did not have those safety nets in place, the fact is today we are on the verge of going back in time, very worried that we’re sliding back to that post-Reconstruction era.

If I look at the poverty rates and one in three Black children who are under, in preschool children is poor, and one in four are poor. If you look at what has happened with poverty rates, with changes in families and more mothers trying to struggle to make ends meet in a one-earner family, look at the unemployment rates, you look at the young men who’ve never seen anybody working in their family and the unemployment rates are Depression levels.

If you look education, and we still have too many of our children in segregated and unequal schools, but 80 percent of Black children cannot read at grade level in fourth or eighth grade. If we look at that cradle-to-prison pipeline, which all these things feed into because it’s launched at that dangerous intersection of race and poverty.

We’re just feeding our children out of illiteracy – what are you going to do if you can’t read and compute in this globalizing world – into the juvenile justice system, into the criminal justice system? One in three Black boys who’s 12 today is going to go to prison if we don’t stand up and build a movement and say, “No, we’re not going to have it happen this way.”

We cannot let this happen to our children on our watch. The premise of the American dream and the hope of the civil rights movement is our children would do better than we do, and unless this community wakes up, this country wakes up and makes a big ruckus in saying we’re going to take care of our children, we’re all going to go down together.

Tavis: So let me ask you, then, since you and your husband, Peter Edelman, the great Peter Edelman, you all met doing this poverty work back in the civil rights era, give me some sense of how you think, then, since you made the point we need to get on with the work, and I agree.

How, then, do we get traction on a conversation about poverty for Americans across the board if we can’t even get a real conversation about the state of our children. We say we love our children, so if we can’t get a real conversation about that, how do we get a conversation writ large about eradicating poverty, Marian?

Edelman: Well, we’re going to have to keep at it and we’re going to have to make a lot of noise. Again, I just – one of the things we’re going to be doing is doing a lot of forums next year on race and poverty and whether we are slipping back into a second post-Reconstruction era.

We’re going to be taking people back to show them those hungry children today in Mississippi and in Marx and around, and retrace those steps. We’ve got to tell the stories. We’ve got to get the middle class Black and white folks to get out there and see what is happening, and we’ve got to get everybody to wake up.

To understand they may not like these poor Black children or these poor Brown children who are already the majority of our babies, but we’re going to need them if we’re going to be an economic revival country in the future with the greatest national security probably, which I say over and over like a broken record.

Tavis: Yup.

Edelman: It’s not from anybody without; it’s from what we’re failing to do in terms of preparing a future work force, a future military. If 75 percent of our kids can’t get into the military because they can’t read or compute and because they’ve had a prior record or they are obese, we’ve got a problem. So we need them, and we’ve just got to keep at it until they’re here.

Tavis: Dr. Berry – yeah, sure.

Berry: Tavis, our people are complacent about doing anything. We need everybody to use everything that comes to hand in the communities where they are –

Tavis: Right.

Berry: – as well as a sort of national policy picture. You tried to do some stuff on poverty, you and Cornel, to try to highlight that, and there were some people who got on board and some who did not.

The government and politicians don’t even talk about poverty very much. They talk about the middle class.

Tavis: Right.

Berry: Everybody is for the middle class. Everybody is for – but not about poverty. Until you deal with poverty, we will not deal with a lot of these problems that Marian’s talking about.

Tavis: You hit on something earlier about class. We are told that when the president gives his speech on Wednesday – in the same spot where Dr. King stood 50 years ago – as the first African American president, that he’s going to try to ride these two rails of race and class.

That’s what we’re told out of the White House that his speech is going to talk about. He may or may not go there; we will see. But I thought I heard you intimate in your first response to me that we have dropped the ball – my phrase, not yours – in our own community.

How much does class have to do with it? We’ve talked about race; talk to me about class, though, inside of Black America.

Berry: Right. Class has a lot to do with it. There are people who are so satisfied with their own situation, that they have made it, that in fact they don’t stop to realize how much they need to reach back to other people.

There are some who help out and so on, but other people, they’re just satisfied with denouncing people who are poor and who are in communities where there are problems and not doing what they ought to do, and feeling like they got ahead on their own. I’ve heard so many people say that lately.

That “I did what I needed to do by myself.” (Laughter) And “Here I am here, so these people, they can pick up and do what they need to do by themselves,” which they cannot. That’s totally unrealistic.

So there’s a class problem in the Black community as well as there being a class problem –

Tavis: Right.

Berry: – in the nation at large among all the people who live here.

Tavis: Marian Wright Edelman, tell me why you do not believe – and I take it that you don’t, given the work that you dedicate yourself to every day – but why do you not believe that Black children in particular and the Black community writ large has fallen so far behind that we ain’t never going to catch up, pardon my English? Why do you not believe that?

Edelman: We’re going to catch up. We’re going to catch up.

Tavis: Right.

Edelman: Because we’ve got to catch up. We’re investing our time in training the next generation of young servant leaders who are going to speak for themselves. The civil rights movement didn’t come out of the upper class Black folk; it came out of poor folk.

Tavis: That’s right.

Edelman: It came out of people who wanted a better life for their children, so we’re out organizing the poor and housing projects; we’re organizing that next generation of leaders to fight these zero-tolerance policies in our schools and to talk about the imprisonment that is absolutely destroying our community.

So we’re going to build a movement. I don’t care how long it takes or what it takes, and we need to remember what Dr. King said at the end, because he was pretty depressed.

Tavis: Yup.

Edelman: That we were integrating into a burning house, and that we really had to have transformative efforts to deal with the triplets of racism and materialism and militarism, and that’s still the agenda today.

Tavis: Sister Marian, what do you make of the fact right quick that we love and celebrate Martin today, but to your point, he lived five years after the March and he was persona non grata by the time he died? We love him 50 years later. What do you make of that dichotomy?

Edelman: Well, we love our prophets, but – we love the dream but we don’t like the bounced promissory note. We liked the Dr. King who was against violence, but we didn’t like the Dr. King who was for militant nonviolence.

We’ve sanitized and trivialized and romanticized Dr. King, and we need not just to celebrate him – we need to follow him. He told us what to do. We need to get about the business of doing and we need to sacrifice ourselves and understand that if our children go down, we’re going down as a nation with them.

Black folk – on our watch, we’ve let this happen. Shame on us.

Tavis: Yeah. Dr. Berry, Dr. King was famously under surveillance most of his life; certainly when he became the leader of our movement under surveillance all the time. Now it seems like all of us in America are under surveillance by this government.

Berry: Are under surveillance.

Tavis: I saw a poll the other day that so many Americans kind of shrug their shoulders about the government snooping and digging. What do you make of polls like that, that some Americans don’t even care about that?

Berry: Well, when you look at polls and you ask Americans about most questions, the disappointing thing is that they always give answers that make you wonder do they teach civics in school, or where do they think they are?

Because people say all the time, “Well, I’m not doing anything, so I don’t care if the government has me under surveillance, and if you’re complaining about it then that means that you have a problem.”

I just think it’s outrageous and that there needs to be more public education, awareness, or something, because we’re really going down the tubes.

Tavis: Marian Wright Edelman, last word. You are one of the most hopeful people I know, you and Mary Frances Berry –

Edelman: Determined. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, determined.

Edelman: Determined.

Tavis: All right. (Laughter) So say a word to me then as we close about how we need to stay determined.

Edelman: You’d better stay determined, because that’s how our ancestors got us where we are. I wear my Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman medallions every day to remind me that these women didn’t wait for anybody to free them. They freed themselves and then remembered it wasn’t just about themselves.

Tavis: Yeah.

Edelman: When Harriet Tubman went back to bring other folk along, and my favorite Sojourner thing, which I repeat all the time when she was heckled. When it seemed like it was crazy to think about slavery ending or having equal rights for women, she got heckled by an old white man one day who said he didn’t care anymore about her antislavery talk than for an old flea.

She said, “That’s all right. The Lord willing, I’m going to keep you scratching.” (Laughter) We just have to stop trying to be big dogs, because enough fleas can make the biggest dog uncomfortable.

When you look at the miracle of the civil rights movement, it came from a few people. All them people who say they walked with Dr. King, they didn’t walk with Dr. King.

Tavis: Yeah.

Edelman: It was a few people who put themselves out on the line, and we just need to get out there, determined to save our children and determined to make America America, and just be good, strategic fleas that don’t stop biting until we move this big dog of racism and poverty.

Tavis: These are two of my sheroes. They are authentic American sheroes. I think of American heroes and I’m always honored to be in their presence and to have them on this program. Marian Wright Edelman, you stay determined. Good to have you on this program, as always.

Edelman: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Dr. Berry, always an honor to be in conversation with you. Thank you for your insights.

Berry: All right, thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Please join us tomorrow night for a look at Dr. King’s legacy with Clayborne Carson, the director of the King Institute at Stanford, and two of Dr. King’s children: Martin III, and his daughter, Bernice King. Until then, good night, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: September 23, 2013 at 1:32 pm