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Where the march for civil rights stands today

Martin Luther King Jr.'s struggle for Americans' civil rights -- and his assassination 50 years ago in Memphis -- changed the world. Judy Woodruff sits down with civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, syndicated columnist Connie Schultz, Vann Newkirk of The Atlantic and Brittany Packnett, co-founder of Campaign Zero, to discuss the lessons King passed down to today’s activists and citizens.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For a closer look at Dr. King’s work and its impact, I sat down yesterday with four people who have lived it, written about it, and been inspired by it.

    I’m joined by Vernon Jordan, a lawyer and civil rights activist who has worked with the NAACP and the National Urban League. He was its president. He also served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton. Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and journalism professor at Kent State University. Her essay “Coming to Terms With My Father’s Racism” was published in “The Atlantic” magazine.

    Brittany Packnett is an activist and educator. She’s the co-founder of Campaign Zero, a police reform initiative associated with Black Lives Matter. She also served as a member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. And Vann Newkirk is a writer at “The Atlantic” covering politics and policy. Vann played a leading role in the creation of “The Atlantic”‘s special commemorative issue “King.” The issue features a collection of stories about the nuances of Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

    And we thank all of you for being with us.

    Vernon Jordan, I’m going to start with you.

    And let’s start with the assassination itself. By my calculation, you were 32 years old at the time of his death, and you were heavily involved in the civil rights movement working with the Voter Education Project.

    You were not in Memphis when he died. But how did the news of his death affect you and the people around you?

  • Vernon Jordan:

    I was on my way that evening to speak at the NAACP Membership Campaign. I was a keynote speaker.

    And when I was tying my tie to get ready to go, the news came on that Martin had been shot in Memphis. And instead of going directly to the YWCA, I went to my office and got a poem by Claude McKay of Baltimore which said, if we must die, let it not be like hogs.

    And I put it in my pocket and went to the dinner. And at the dinner, it was announced that Martin was dead. I read that poem, and we all went home.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It’s just an impossible thing for all of us to remember. I was in college at the time, a senior in college, and I remember it was as if time had stopped.

    Connie Schultz, you were a young girl…

  • Connie Schultz:

    I was.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … living in Ohio.

  • Connie Schultz:

    Mm-hmm.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how did his death, how did it come to your family, to you, and how do you think it affected the people around you after that?

  • Connie Schultz:

    Well, as you mentioned, I wrote about my father’s racism

    And I did that in part because I come from the white working class. I was the first in my family to go to college. And I felt — had been feeling so strongly that racism is not hereditary, that you make decisions as an adult.

    And I do remember my father’s rage often about African-Americans. But the problem for my father is, half my class was black all the way growing up in Ashtabula, Ohio, so I knew a different reality.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating.

    Vann Newkirk, you have looked at Martin Luther King as a journalist. You have looked at what he meant at the time he was alive and what he’s meant since then, how he’s seen through the lens of time.

    What do you think you have learned from that?

  • Vann Newkirk:

    So, I think the biggest thing I have learned is, looking back at the 50 years since his assassination, I see how useful his memory has been in forgetting, how useful — people sort of have picked apart and taken pieces of King’s legacy that don’t challenge them, that may not push people toward King’s actual policy positions, but make people feel good about themselves.

    He makes people think, we did overcome, a certain vision that has been created of him. And I think it’s actually — one thing I like to say now, after having studied it, is, on April 4, King the man was assassinated. On April 4, King the myth was born.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, picking up on that, Brittany Packnett, and getting back to what Connie said about organizing, you have been very involved in organizing the civil rights movement of today with Black Lives Matter, with the organization called Campaign Zero around police-black relations.

    How do you — how does the legacy, the meaning of Dr. King inform what you’re doing?

  • Brittany Packnett:

    There are so many ways, especially as we look at the greater truth we have been exposed to about Dr. King through writings like yours and others.

    But I think there are three central things I think about in terms of Dr. King’s legacy. One is to remember that freedom work will always be more important than it is popular. Dr. King was terribly unpopular when he was actually performing his work, despite the conversation that we have about him now.

    And so dedicating ourselves to something that is bigger than ourselves is something that is rooted in the tradition that is far older than us. And Dr. King helped show us that.

    The second is really about what it means to create a crisis. I go often back to “The Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” when people are saying, slow down, wait, wait for the time to negotiate.

    And he’s reminding folks that are of the cloth, just like him, that, actually, if we wait, it usually means never, and that we actually have to create a crisis to force you to negotiate with us. And so that’s what our protest does, that’s what our writings do, that’s what our conversations do. It forces America to reckon with itself and say, you actually can’t continue business as usual if we’re being treated this way.

    Lastly, I just think about all the ways in which we have to commit to longevity, that this was about Dr. King and thousands of other people who were willing to blaze trails that other people were not.

    So, when he talked about the Vietnam War, when he forged the Poor People’s Campaign, when he stood aside sanitation workers in Memphis, these were conversations that people were unwilling to have.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Vernon Jordan, you have been listening carefully to what Brittany has been saying. How much harder did it become to move ahead — to get ahead with this movement after he was gone?

  • Vernon Jordan:

    Well, let me just remind your audience of a name that nobody remembers.

    And that’s the name of E.D. Nixon. When Rosa Parks was arrested, she didn’t call Martin, who was the new pastor at Dexter Church. She called E.D. Nixon, the president of the local NAACP in Montgomery, and an A. Philip Randolph labor man.

  • And it was E.D. Nixon who called Dr. King and said:

    “Dr. King, this bus thing is more than I can handle. I’m not educated enough, I’m not smart enough. We need you to come be our leader.”

    And Martin said to him, “Well, E.D. Nixon, I will think about it.”

  • And Nixon said, “Well, Reverend, you best have thought about it by 7:

    00, because the meeting is in your church.”

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Vernon Jordan:

    And so the meeting took place.

    And it was there, thanks to E.D. Nixon, that King accepted the challenge of being the leader. So, we do have to remember Martin. And we do. But we ought not to forget E.D. Nixon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The others who were around who played an important role as well.

  • Vernon Jordan:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Connie Schultz, I’m not asking you to speak for all white people.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Connie Schultz:

    And they will assure you I don’t.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But do you think most of us get what the civil rights movement is?

  • Connie Schultz:

    I’m sad to say no.

    And I will tell you what makes me think of that more than anything else in recent years, was the shooting death of Tamir Rice.

    When I went to the funeral, we kept talking about how this was a horrible thing that happened to this boy in our community, but I could count on one hand in that crowded church the number of white people who were there.

    When we talk about our community as white people, too often, we talk about the black community and our community. Until we need to call it all our community, and that Tamir Rice is our son, our boy in that community, we’re not going to make the progress we need. It is really a head game.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I’m tempted to ask, what is the civil rights movement today? It belongs to all of us, doesn’t it?

  • Vann Newkirk:

    Right.

    I Connie actually hit the nail on the head there talking about the black and the white communities. I think there’s a difference in the ability to wall oneself off. There are folks who can have a white community.

    They can go to work. They can never interact with black people. They can go home and never see black people.

    Black people don’t really have that luxury. When black people go to work, they go to work mostly to work for white folks. They have to figure out how to exist in integrated spaces.

    And while segregation is still heavy in housing and school, there is still just a difference in that ability. And I think that filters in our understanding of the civil rights movement.

    If you asked, I imagine, a sample of 10 white Americans and 10 black Americans who the civil rights movement was for, you get differing answers on whether it was for America or for black people.

    It was for America. And it was always framed by the leaders of the civil rights movements as being for America, for black folks, for laborers, for workers, for people in the lower class. King spoke a lot more — about a lot more than just black people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Brittany Packnett, how do you see your mission, your role today?

    I mean, certainly, there is the legacy of Dr. King, and you spoke about that a moment ago. But how is what you do today different from what he was doing?

  • Brittany Packnett:

    Often, folks look at people like me and other activists in our communities and say that, when we are challenging the status quo, that we’re actually not espousing the kind of love that Dr. King talked about.

    Well, quite the opposite is true. We love ourselves, one another and our communities enough to be committed to this work. And we’re trying to get to the beloved community that he talks about and actually leverage the power that we have to shake the table and to challenge the status quo, so that everyone can actually experience a full life and live that life well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Vernon Jordan, what about what Brittany is saying? And is what’s going on today a continuation of what Dr. King was working on or is it something altogether different?

  • Vernon Jordan:

    I think there’s a misunderstanding of what the 1960s, as opposed to the 70’s, was about.

    The ’60s was about defining and conferring rights and bringing down the walls of segregation. But when we brought the walls down, thanks largely to Martin, that created debris. And the debris was more difficult to deal with.

    We assured the right to check in, but the next stage was the wherewithal to check out. And white America never bought into the wherewithal, and that’s part of the problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you mean?

  • Vernon Jordan:

    That, before you can check out, you have to have a good job, so you can pay the bills. To get a good job, you have to have a good education.

    White America just thought, if we drop the walls, they could go on and do what they were doing before.

  • Connie Schultz:

    I listen to Vernon, and I — it’s very hard for me to disagree with any of that.

    And I remain optimistic. I will tell you what reached people about Tamir Rice, the white community, and this is what gave me hope.

    When I interviewed his mother, Samaria Rice, a year later, one oft first things she told me — there was that video of Tamir Rice being killed.

  • And she said:

    “I watch that video all the time.”

    And I looked at her, mother to mother, and I said, why would you do that?

    And she said -“I keep looking for some sign that he knew what was coming,” because she said, “He was so friendly with everyone. And I just want to say to him, Tamir, did you know what was about to happen?”

    I get so emotional thinking about it.

    “Did you know you were about to die?”

    That was a breakthrough moment for an awful lot of white readers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there finally a message for the whole country, that what the rest of us need to know about where you and others, young African-Americans who want to see some of the same goals that Martin Luther King had, but want to see them realized in your vision, in the way you see what he was talking about?

  • Vann Newkirk:

    Well, I think if you take stock of where the country is now, if you look at all the economic indicators of progress, of the fact that schools are still segregated in most places, the fact that homeownership and total wealth between blacks and whites are actually more disparate in some places than they were in 1968, I think we’re now at a place where we have learned quite a bit from 1968, quite a bit from the civil rights movement, quite a bit from activists who are on the ground.

    And it’s time now for people to say, OK, we have done that. We can put into it practice. We know how to talk to white folks now. We know how to tell them that, OK, this opioid epidemic that is gripping our country is actually a relic of drug policy that is built against black Americans.

    So, we can bring people together on this axis of, like you say, conferring rights and equal access. And that’s where I think the conversation can turn today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you both celebrate the good that’s come from all the work that’s been done, but inspire people to keep going?

  • Brittany Packnett:

    I think we inspire people through our action.

    Like Dr. King, I’m a person of faith, and I believe in praying with my feet, as we often say. And so the more we see young people, like the Parkland teens and Chicago activists and Baltimore activists, who have been working on issues of gun violence, to young people who are trying to get living wages in their communities, the more we actually pay attention to what’s happening in our communities every single day that gives us hope, we can understand some basic things.

    That being pro-me doesn’t me mean being anti-you, that being pro-black doesn’t mean being anti-white, and that we don’t actually have to operate in a scarcity model where, just because I have enough to lead a good life means that I will be taking from you.

    We can operate with that hope, we can operate with that vision, and we can do so when we pray with our feet with one another and get to work.

  • Vernon Jordan:

    I think it can be summed up with two sentences – We have come a long, long way. And we still have a long, long way to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Vernon Jordan, Connie Schultz, Brittany Packnett, Vann Newkirk, thank you all very much.

  • Brittany Packnett:

    Thank you.

  • Connie Shultz:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Vernon Jordan:

    Thank you.

    And our series 50 Years Later continues over the next two days with reflections from people who worked closely with Dr. King.

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