- Gary Youngeauthor, broadcaster and award-winning columnist for The Guardian and The Nation. His book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream, has just been published. His previous books include No Place Like Home: A Black Briton’s Journey Through the American South, Who Are We—And Should It Matter in the 21st Century? and Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States.
- William P. Jonesprofessor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison specializing in civil rights and labor history. His new book is The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights. He’s also the author of The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South. His recent article for Dissent magazine is “The Forgotten Radical History of the March on Washington.”
- "The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights." By William Jones (W. W. Norton & Company)
- “The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream.” By Gary Younge (Haymarket Books)
- See Democracy Now! reports in the “March on Washington” Archive
- “The Forgotten Radical History of the March on Washington.” By William Jones (Dissent)
- Gary Younge’s Website
- Democracy Now! Special Page about the “March on Washington” Anniversary
One week out from the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — and just days away from a major march this Saturday commemorating the event — we spend the hour looking at much of its forgotten history. More than a quarter-million people came to the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963, to protest discrimination, joblessness and economic inequality faced by African Americans. Many now consider the march to be a key turning point in the civil rights movement. We explore the largely untold history behind the march and how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, like his own political legacy, remains widely misunderstood. “I think today, the way the speech and the march are understood is wrapped in the flag, and seen as one more example of American genius, when in fact it was a mass, multiracial, dissident act,” says Gary Younge, author of “The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream.” “The powers that be really did not want this [march] to happen. The march was policed like a military operation.” We also speak to historian William P. Jones, author of “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.” “It really had a very profound effect on shifting the national conversation, even within the civil rights movement itself, toward a major focus on the connections between racial equality and economic justice,” Jones says.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One week out from the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and just days away from a major march this Saturday commemorating the event, we spend the hour looking at much of its forgotten and even misunderstood history. More than a quarter-million people came to the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963, to protest discrimination, joblessness and economic inequality faced by African Americans. Many now consider the march to be a key turning point in the civil rights movement. It came in a pivotal year. In June, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his home in Mississippi. Less than a month after the march, four young girls were killed when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The next year saw the Civil Rights Act pass, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
AMY GOODMAN: The most famous speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was delivered by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been arrested that April during anti-segregation protests in Alabama and wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This is an excerpt from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 50 years later, we’re joined by two guests. In Madison, Wisconsin, William Jones is a professor at the University of Wisconsin specializing in civil rights and labor history. His new book is just out, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights. His recent piece for Dissent magazine is “The Forgotten [Radical] History of the March on Washington.”
And in Chicago, we’re joined by Gary Younge, an award-winning columnist for The Guardian and The Nation. His book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream, has also just been published.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Gary Younge, let’s begin with you in Chicago. What is most important to understand about this speech, that we will hear played certainly as we lead up to this March on Washington? What do we not know about the context of this speech?
GARY YOUNGE: Well, I guess the first thing to know is that it wasn’t as though most Americans at that time were in love with the speech, or even the March on Washington, that the March on Washington polls show was not a popular thing to be doing. Most white Americans certainly believed that the push to civil rights was moving too fast. And in that moment, civil rights as a concept, integration as a concept, was still somewhat controversial, and how America got there was not a foregone conclusion. And I think today the way the speech and the march is understand is wrapped in the flag and seen as one more example of American genius, when in fact it was a mass, multiracial, dissident—dissident act.
And just a couple of examples of things that took place around that time to show that people really—the powers that be really didn’t want this to happen, Kennedy tried to talk them out of the march. The march was policed like a military operation, literally—it was called Operation Steep Hill. And they had boxcars and helicopters ready to go. They stopped all elective surgery in Washington that weekend. They stopped the sale of alcohol, no baseball games, and said that the courts were going to run all night, thinking that there would be a large number of arrests, which there weren’t. But also, quite suddenly, on the day, the sound system had been tampered with by the Justice Department, and they had put a kill switch, because they feared that someone would take to the mic and call for mass insurrection—clearly not really listening to anything the civil rights leaders had been saying over the previous year. And if that were to take place, then the plan was to effect the kill switch, kill the mic and play a record of Mahalia Jackson singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and, Gary Younge, in that context, Martin Luther King wasn’t even a headline speaker at the event, was he? He wasn’t like the main draw. Could you talk about how his speech evolved then to become this iconic—this iconic pronouncement of the civil rights movement?
GARY YOUNGE: Well, yeah, it’s—I mean, it’s intriguing. I mean, King is the last speaker, and so, to that extent, one can say he’s the keynote. But that he delivers this speech—anybody who knew King well, who had seen him speak many times, you ask any of them, “So, did you think we would be talking about this speech in 50 years’ time?” and they say, “Really, no. I mean, it was a great speech, but great speeches was what he did.”
But here’s what I argue in the book, and here’s what I believe. I think there were two reasons why this speech became iconic. The first is that after '63 King gets the Nobel Peace Prize, he's the Man of the Year on Time, I think, but then his star begins to wane as he starts talking about class and poverty and government intervention to address issues of poverty. People say, “You know, you’re stepping off the reservation here. You stick to what you know, which is race and civil rights.” Then he starts to talk about Vietnam, and he opposes the Vietnam War, and after that, everything really gets tough for him. His unfavorability ratings, twice as many Americans have an unfavorable view of him than a favorable one. And if you think of how favorable African Americans viewed, then that’s a whole lot of white people at that time that really think he’s not a great guy. And then he’s assassinated.
Well, how do we remember this man then? And they did try to forget him, but they can’t forget him, so how do we remember him? Well, we can’t remember him as the man—nationally, as a national figure. He can’t be remembered as the man who said that America was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” because, arguably, America still is, and that issue has not been resolved. They can’t remember him as the man who railed against poverty and for further government intervention, because we’re still having that argument. So, none of those things raise him above the fray; they actually insert him into it. But they can remember him as the man who gave the most eloquent articulation of this superb moral moment in America’s history, I argue the last great moral act that America has achieved which is still a consensus, which is the end of segregation. And the end of segregation, this is the speech—it doesn’t—it’s not the speech that ends segregation, but as Andrew Young said when I interviewed him for the book, he said, “Imagine somebody got in the Arab—in Egypt a couple years ago and managed, in a 15-minute speech, to articulate what the Arab Spring was all about.” Americans didn’t understand it. King explained it. And we have it to listen to. And that’s really part of his power.
I think the other thing that it does is it—there was enough in the speech for everybody. It’s a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. It starts in the shadow of Lincoln and ends with a Negro spiritual and pays homage to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. You don’t get much more patriotic than that, if patriotism is what you’re after. It’s delivered in the black vernacular on this brilliant day at the March on Washington. Progressives love it. And conservatives usually take one line, “that my children will be judged, not by the color of their skin, by the content of their character,” and they use that one line. I’ve seen Glenn Beck do it, Ronald Reagan do it, opponents of affirmative action do it. They take that one line to say, “Here you go. Let’s ignore the legacy of racism. Let’s pretend to be colorblind. And let’s assume that racism is over, that the way to understand racism is to ignore its legacy.” So, depending on what you want to misunderstand or understand, there is something in that speech for everybody.
AMY GOODMAN: Gary, when he turned to his advisers the night before in Washington to get, you know, suggestions on what to talk about, isn’t it true that Wyatt Walker, one of his closest advisers, said, “Don’t talk about the dream, Martin”?
GARY YOUNGE: That’s right. That’s right. The night before this—the dream segment is not in the text of the speech. The night before, he’s casting around, looking for ideas, and Wyatt Tee Walker, one of his main aides, says, “Don’t do the 'I have a dream' thing. It’s trite. It’s cliché. You’ve used it many times before.” And King was aiming for a Gettysburg-type address. And he had indeed used the speech—that refrain many times before. That year alone, he had delivered 350 speeches, or around that. He’s not delivering a new speech each time. And he’s a preacher. Clarence Jones, when I interviewed him, he said he had this ability to cut and paste, even as he’s speaking, and, in the American Baptist tradition, to draw on the mood and the response of the crowd. And that’s what he’s—and that’s what he’s doing. So, he umms and ahs about whether he’s going to put it in it. He decides to leave it out. It’s not in the text.
When he gets to the podium, for the most part he’s quite faithful to the text. And if you listen to the speech—and I think it’s the most loved, least well-known speech that I can think of, so most people, they say they love it, but they’ve rarely listened to it. And I advise your viewers and listeners, just take 15 minutes out of your life in the next four or five days and give the speech a listen. If you listen to the speech, he’s winding down: “Go back to Mississippi. Go back to South Carolina.” And behind him is Mahalia Jackson, his favorite gospel singer. He used to call Mahalia Jackson when he was down and on the road and ask her to sing to him, so they had a very intimate connection. Mahalia Jackson shouts, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” because she had heard him give that speech in Detroit a few months earlier. King continues. Mahalia Jackson shouts again, “Tell them about the dream!” And then, just about that time, King—in the words of Clarence Jones, he puts the text to his left, and Clarence Jones says, in his body language, he shifted from a lecturer to a preacher. And then Jones turned to the person standing next to him and said, “Those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.” And then King starts on his “I have a dream” refrain.
Now, we don’t know for sure whether King heard Mahalia Jackson, though Clarence Jones said he must have done, because he heard [her] and he was 20 feet from both of them. King has never said that he did, but we do know that she said it, and we do know that around the time that she said it, that is the direction that he took the speech. And it’s within the tradition of the Baptist Church, a sermon or a speech is crafted—it’s drafted by the preacher, but then it’s crafted as you go along in response, call and response, to the crowd. And this was definitely not in the words that was written before him at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ve been talking to Gary Younge. He’s author of The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream. And we’re going to come back with Gary, as well as Will Jones, author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights, because, of course, this march didn’t just come out of that day or that year. In fact, William Jones takes this back decades to talk about the organizer of the March on Washington—there was Bayard Rustin, there was A. Philip Randolph—and his attempt to hold a march on Washington in the 1940s, and how he took on FDR. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with both men in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: “How I Got Over,” sung by Mahalia Jackson at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, that video taken from the documentary King: A Filmed Record_. You can see more from the film on our website at democracynow.org, along with related coverage of the civil rights movement, the March on Washington and the struggle for jobs and freedom, then and now, on our on”>special page. That’s democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests are William Jones, The March on Washington is his book; as well as Gary Younge, The Speech is his. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go to an excerpt of union leader A. Philip Randolph’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington. He was the first speaker after the archbishop of Washington delivered the invocation.
A. PHILIP RANDOLPH: We know that we have no future in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a fair employment practice act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was A. Philip Randolph, the first speaker at the March on Washington in 1963.
We’re also joined by Will Jones, who’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison specializing in civil rights and labor history. His new book, just out, is The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of [Civil Rights]. He’s also the author of The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South. His recent piece for Dissent magazine is “The Forgotten [Radical] History of the March on Washington.”
Well, William Jones, talk to us about the importance of A. Philip Randolph and some of the historical events and attempts of African Americans to organize a march on Washington decades before.
WILLIAM P. JONES: Right. Well, the roots of the march really go back 20 years earlier to a march that A. Philip Randolph called and then canceled at the last minute in 1941. The purpose of that march was to protest employment discrimination in the defense industries and also segregation and discrimination in the armed forces. This was actually the point before the U.S. actually entered the war. But President Roosevelt had called on the United States not to enter the war directly, but to serve as what he called an “arsenal of democracy.” And what he meant by that was that the U.S. had a special role in protecting democracy by providing weapons, equipment for the Allied governments in Europe and in Asia. And as part of that call to become an arsenal of democracy, President Roosevelt promised that in exchange for supporting the war effort, Americans could expect a more robust sense of social citizenship and economic citizenship. He famously said that Americans should be rewarded with what he called the four freedoms, which included a guarantee of a decent standard of living, decent wages, decent work.
And so, A. Philip Randolph and many other black leaders said, well, this is a great ideal, and we support this ideal of the arsenal of democracy and the four freedoms, but African Americans were almost completely shut out of jobs in the defense industries. And it’s important to remember that this was a moment when the mobilization for the war had really ended the Great Depression for many Americans. These were—this was the first time in which many working-class Americans in over a decade had access to decent paid, often unionized, jobs. These were jobs that the union movement rose very quickly in. And so, a number of civil rights activists, including A. Philip Randolph, said, “We really need—this is really a critical issue that we need to confront.” And they called on Roosevelt to ensure that African Americans could have access to these jobs. They also pointed to the fact that African Americans were being drafted into essentially a Jim Crow army. They were being forced to serve in an army that segregated them, excluded them from any officer positions. And so, they put a great deal of pressure on Roosevelt.
And Roosevelt really refused to deal with them at all. He just completely ignored their complaints—until this idea of a march on Washington emerged in 1941. It emerged at a mass meeting in Chicago, where A. Philip Randolph was the speaker, and was proposed by an anonymous black woman. We don’t know who she was, but she stood from the floor and proposed a march on Washington. Randolph really liked this idea, and he took it up. And by the spring of 1941, he estimated that 100,000 people were going to join him in meeting at the Capitol building and marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, past the War Department, which had not yet moved into the Pentagon, and ending, symbolically, at the Lincoln Memorial, where there would be a mass rally. And I think, you know, many of—all the listeners will recognize that this really formed the basis for the march that was called in 1963.
The 1941 march was called off because, at the very last minute, President Roosevelt finally relented. He called Randolph and other leaders to the White House, and he agreed to issue an executive order banning discrimination by defense contractors. This was not their whole demand, but A. Philip Randolph and many others considered this the most important demand. This executive order at the time was extremely important. It was compared, actually, to the Emancipation Proclamation as the first time since Reconstruction that the federal government had really intervened in a decisive way on behalf of African Americans.
And this really established—this victory really established A. Philip Randolph as the primary leader of the civil rights movement that would emerge in the postwar period. It also set off, in many ways framed the goals of that movement as this connection between, on one hand, attacking legal segregation, demanding legal equality, but then also insisting that none of that would be effective without access to decent paid job, without economic security. So the connection between economic justice and civil rights was really there from the beginning. And A. Philip Randolph was really there from the beginning and would emerge and remain at the center of the leadership. He was known as the “dean of black leadership” up until the—through the 1960s.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor Jones, one of the things that has gotten very little attention is the role of the press in stirring up hysteria to that—against that 1941 march. The Washington Post began a series of articles in the weeks before the march about crimes, a crime wave in Washington, D.C., obviously focused on African Americans, while the black press was the main instrument of mobilizing people to Washington. How does the role of the press play in, for instance, in the ’63 march that you document in your book?
WILLIAM P. JONES: Well, in many ways, it’s similar. I mean, there’s a lot of parallels, not just from the press, but the response from the White House, which is really alarm, the concern that having this many people—this many black people in Washington was inevitably going to lead to violence, to riots, and the idea that this was really a national emergency. The executive order that A. Philip Randolph called and—issued in 1941 was explicitly an emergency war order saying that ensuring equal access to these jobs, we need enough people to work in these plants, was essential to the mobilization for the military effort.
And so, there was this sort of military response that we saw again in 1963. If you look at the press coverage of the march leading up to the march, the headlines are all, you know, “Washington Gets Jittery over the March,” “Washington Is Preparing for an Assault,” the reports of the—as Gary talked about, the troops being staged across the river, on alert, ready to be flown in at the last minute, emptying the city jails. So this was really seen as, one reporter called it, a siege on the city.
I think one thing that’s really remarkable is the really dramatic shift just before and after the 1963 march, where after the march the press is sort of ecstatic at the fact that there wasn’t violence, that this was a successful march. And I think that actually—that really, I think, accounts for some of the power that the march had, the fear and then the sense of relief.
AMY GOODMAN: Will Jones, I wanted to go back for a minute to the '41 march and its cancellation. Didn't this lead to a big rift between A. Philip Randolph, the leading organizer, and Bayard Rustin? And these were the two organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. Bayard Rustin, who we just talked about in a previous show, a remarkable figure in the 20th century, he was gay, he was black, he was a pacifist, and he was the major organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, but split with Randolph 20 years before over canceling the march in ’41.
WILLIAM P. JONES: Yeah, there was a considerable controversy over Randolph’s decision to cancel the march. He accepted really half the demands, which was an end to discrimination in the defense industries. The executive order did nothing to address segregation and discrimination in the armed forces. The executive order was also extremely weak in two ways. The president provided very little money to actually enforce this issue, and, really, enforcement depended on the ability of civil rights activists to mobilize around hearings, to mobilize mass marches, to pressure defense contractors to live up to the executive order. So it was really more of a moral statement than a legal statement. The executive order also expired at the end of the war. So, immediately, people sort of wondered, how are we going to get something really substantial out of this?
A number, particularly young activists—actually, the most vocal critics of Randolph at the time were Adam Clayton Powell, who at the time was a young minister—he would later become a congressman from New York—and Richard Parrish, who was the leader of a black student organization in New York City that endorsed the march and did a lot of mobilization for the march, and he was really upset that he felt that Randolph had sort of unilaterally cancelled the march without consulting people who had put a lot of time and investment in it.
I’ve actually heard the story about Bayard Rustin and looked into that, and the only thing I could find was actually that Bayard Rustin was actually not in the United States during the first march. He was on a Quaker peace delegation in Puerto Rico. And he was involved in the mobilization—
AMY GOODMAN: Which is the U.S.
WILLIAM P. JONES: —but he was not actually directly involved with A. Philip Randolph until after the march, when he played a very important role in helping Randolph build what was known as the March on Washington Movement, which was a nonviolent civil disobedience movement that was aimed essentially at upholding this executive order. So the moment of Randolph and Rustin really coming together happens in 1942 after the march was called off. And that was—that formed a relationship that would remain really close over—really over a lifetime, and I think a partnership that was really essential to the emergence of the postwar civil rights movement.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Malcolm X into this discussion, or refer to where he was, and play a remarkable moment. It was, oh, a year and a half before the march, January 23rd, 1962. Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the March on Washington the next year, debated Malcolm X on the question of separation or integration at a church in New York City. This is an excerpt of that debate, featured in the film Brother Outsider. It begins with Bayard Rustin.
BAYARD RUSTIN: The problem can never be stated in terms of black and white. And any movement which begins by blocking out the active cooperation of the best minds, many of which are white as well as black, is fighting a losing battle.
MALCOLM X: South Africa doesn’t preach freedom. Russia doesn’t call itself the leader of the free world. It’s America that looks upon herself and represents herself as the leader of the free world, while she has 20 million black people here who aren’t even citizens. It is for this reason that America is doomed, and it is for this reason that we who follow the Honorable Elijah Muhammad feel that our only hope is not integration with a doomed society, but complete separation from a doomed society.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Malcolm X debating Bayard Rustin. Let’s bring Gary Younge back into the conversation, author of The Speech. Where was Malcolm X on August 28th, 1963, the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom?
GARY YOUNGE: Well, he was in—he was in D.C., and he was not at the march. He kind of—the night before, in particular, he kind of prowled the lobby of the Statler Hotel, I think—it may have been the Willard Hotel, but one of those two hotels—and he called it the “farce on Washington.” And he was kind of mocking people, kind of somewhat gently, but saying, you know, “You’re all going to this picnic. It’s going to be, you know, a big—it’s going to be a big waste of time,” talking to lots of reporters, and really kind of having quite a good time poking fun of the whole thing. But then, that night, Ossie Davis says, the night before the March, Malcolm X goes to his room, his hotel room, and says to him, “Regardless of what I’ve said, I’m there. If you need me, I’m going to be here. And call me,” and by which I think he was referring to, and certainly Ossie Davis understood it this way, if there is violence, then it could be that my voice may be able to quell some of the more militant elements in a way that King’s may not.
But there are two good things that come out of that that I think are quite important, because of the manner in which—the flawed manner, I think, in which King and Malcolm X are juxtaposed—one meek and mild, the other one bold and defiant. It was King that year who went to jail. It was King who led the protests. It was King who really put his life on the line that year, in a way that, I would argue, Malcolm X did not. So King was a militant. There’s no doubt about that. And he was an uncompromising, in many ways, an uncompromising activist. Malcolm X, on the other hand, is portrayed as this firebrand who only knows black and white. And in that interchange with Ossie Davis, in the fact that he’s in D.C. but not at the march, you see that he’s far more strategic than people give him credit for. Malcolm X understands that the March on Washington, if it fails on its own terms, that’s bad for everybody. Even if he doesn’t agree with its central demand of integration, he understands that it can’t be seen to fail, and that if it succeeds, it succeeds for all black people—so, a far more complex character, actually, than people give him credit for.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Gary Younge, author of The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream, and, as well, Will Jones. He’s author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” by Marian Anderson at the March on Washington. You remember, the Justice Department had control of the mic, as Gary Younge, our guest, describes it, and they planned to shut down that mic, unbeknownst to the speakers, if there was a call for insurrection and play, not Marian Anderson singing, but Mahalia Jackson singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” a recording. As we continue today our conversation on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 50 years later, this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s turn to another clip from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the March on—in Washington on August 28th, 1963.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Gary Younge, this issue of the insufficient funds, the emphasis on jobs, not just freedom, could you talk about that aspect of not only King’s speech, but of the thrust of the march?
GARY YOUNGE: Yeah, I mean, because it’s interesting that it is known as the “I Have a Dream” speech and, for example, not the “Bad Check” speech. And that metaphor comes from a moment in Birmingham when a large number of young kids, some as young as six, are in jail for protesting, and a segregationist judge raises the bail money, and the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, don’t have the money. Via Harry Belafonte, Clarence Jones gets a call from Rockefeller, the New York governor, I think, at the time, Nelson Rockefeller. And he goes to his bank vault, and there’s Clarence Jones, Rockefeller, a bank functionary and a security guard. He hands over a huge amount of cash, and he says, “You must sign this promissory note.” And Clarence Jones says, “I don’t have that money. We don’t have that money.” He says, “No, you’ve got to sign it to take it out of the vault. Everything’s going to be fine.” Clarence Jones signs it, takes the money down to Birmingham, the kids are bailed out. He comes back to New York. A messenger comes, and on the promissory note it’s stamped “paid.” And Clarence Jones gets to thinking, where there’s a will, America could do this. America has the money. It has the resources. It’s the most powerful country in the world. If America wanted to make this happen, if the political culture wanted to make this happen, it would happen. There are the means; there is not the will. And so, he writes this refrain, which King sticks to very faithfully.
What’s interesting about that is that the dream segment—which I do love, because I think that it’s important to dream. I think it’s important. King could have gotten up there and said, “I have a 10-point plan for how we get from here to somewhere else in, you know, the most reasonable manner.” But he didn’t. He stands in the middle of the most vile racism, and he dreams of a world where racism no longer exists. And I think it’s very important for progressives to have those dreams, to keep in mind—we talk about immigration reform—this dream of a land with no borders, for example. And so, I like that section. But it allows people to step out of the now and to get very airy-fairy about it.
And what the cashed check does, or the bad check, is it brings it back to brass tacks and says, “Look, we have to make good on the promise of this nation.” And there is—when people ask—you know, it’s one of the least interesting questions about the speech, I think, is, “Do you think his dream’s been realized?” And I think the likelihood that King would come back, look at our jails, look at our schools, look at Congress, and say, “My work here was done,” is very unlikely. That check is still a bad check, and it still needs to be—it still needs to be honored. And so, in many ways, it brings those issues back to light.
Black unemployment is still twice the rate of white unemployment, as it was in '63. The disparities in median income, still very similar. Look around at Trayvon Martin or the Zimmerman case, look at the attempt to gut the Civil Rights Act, and you can see ways in which this moment and the victories of this moment are being shelled out and being gutted and how the history of that moment is being rewritten, not as a victory against codified segregation, which it was, but as a victory against racism as though racism is something of the past, not a live, real thing, but a discrete, historical moment that America has actually overcome, which clearly it hasn't. And in that nature, the speech is not—is misunderstood as an artifact instead of what it is, which is a living, breathing document that still speaks to the realities of today.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Will Jones, this—the issue that you’ve raised in your book that the March on Washington in 1963 was one of the culminating moments of the American left and of the issues of economic injustice being raised on a national scale—could you talk about that and also the lessons for today of what a movement means in terms of addressing some of the issues that Gary Younge raised?
WILLIAM P. JONES: Yeah. Well, I guess, picking up on Gary’s comments, I think another thing that’s important to remember about King’s speech is that it was the last speech. And there’s a — The New York Times’ coverage, actually, pointed this out the next day. It said, you know, it’s ironic that King, who, as Gary pointed out, had actually suffered the most of all—he was the one who had been in jail, who had been beaten, he had been really in the trenches—he was the most optimistic and uplifting of the speeches. And as The New York Times pointed out, the other speakers really focused and concentrated on the struggle at hand, and they were—they spoke in “tough language,” was the language of The New York Times. So, I think we need to remember that by the time Martin Luther King came on stage, there had been nine other speeches that were very specific, over and over and over again, particularly, I would say, about the importance of economic justice.
And I actually think it’s possible that by the time Martin Luther King got on stage, he felt that the struggle in the South against legal segregation had actually been ignored a bit, that people had downplayed the significance of it. A lot of the—a lot of the speakers, like Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Walter Reuther, they all said, “Well, it’s important to deal with legal segregation, but if we don’t deal with the jobs issue, none of that matters.” And I think King might have actually felt that he had to bring the attention back to the importance of fighting segregation, fighting for voting rights in the South. And if anybody had sort of gotten caught up in King’s speech and forgotten the specifics of the struggle, A. Philip Randolph came back right immediately and listed the full—read the full list of demands, and then Bayard Rustin led everybody in a mass pledge to go home to their communities and uphold them.
So, I think we’ve often forgotten the economic issues that were really central to the march, in hindsight. But at the time, they were—they were really unavoidable. So I think that’s something that we need to remember as we remember this march, that it really was—and I think had a very profound effect on shifting the national conversation, even within the civil rights movement itself, toward a major focus on the connections between racial equality and economic justice.
I think, also, as we remember this, we need to remember that it was a product of, really, over two decades of organizing, starting with the labor movement in the 1930s, gaining very important support from the women’s movement, particularly black women’s clubs who had been really fighting on the front lines of fighting poverty in black communities since the 19th century. The importance of the movement that Martin Luther King led in the South in terms of sort of legitimizing mass protests, demonstrating the effectiveness of Gandhian nonviolence, and the way in which the march really brought those various strands of black radicalism, which I think the left really needs to claim as its own—I mean, it’s really an indigenous American leftism that I think—
AMY GOODMAN: And voting rights—
WILLIAM P. JONES: —has been lost to many.
AMY GOODMAN: Will Jones, I mean, of course, after this march, you had—Kennedy assassinated in November, but then the Civil Rights Act was passed, the Voting Rights Act was passed. Where this fits in, especially Section 7, very quickly?
WILLIAM P. JONES: Well, a central demand of the march was to limit congressional representation in any state where citizens were deprived the right to vote. I think the important thrust of the march was actually not to make a moral statement about the superiority of racial integration or racial equality, but to call for strong federal programs aimed at upholding that ideal. And in the most recent Supreme Court case, we saw exactly that. We saw an affirmation of the validity of racial quality, but then a stepping back from the enforcement measures, which I think was really the issue in 1963, and I think it’s the issue we face today.
AMY GOODMAN: Final comments, Gary Younge, as we go out of this discussion about this day and what wasn’t understood about August 28th, 1963? Of course, the Life magazine cover after was not a picture of King, but a picture of the organizers, A. Philip Randolph, the great labor organizer, and Bayard Rustin.
GARY YOUNGE: I think two things are important. The first is to rescue this speech and this moment from those who would argue that this is just one more example of America’s relentless move towards progress. Large numbers of people—the majority of Americans, in fact—did not want this march or this speech to happen. It was a mass act of dissidence, one that spoke to people around—around the world. I was born and raised in Britain. My parents are from Barbados. I knew about the speech as a young child and heard it at school in England at the age of 12 or 13. This is a world speech.
And it’s, secondly, America’s favorite speech. This is America’s favorite speech, alongside the Gettysburg Address, was delivered by a black man, a preacher, who was calling for racial equality and who was assassinated for making those demands. That is, in a sense, is the achievement. The achievement is that through the—through the forward march—
AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.
GARY YOUNGE: —of the push for civil rights and racial equality in this country, this speech has been kind of forced into the mainstream and is now America’s favorite speech.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for joining us.
GARY YOUNGE: That tells you a lot about the speech and a lot about how far we’ve come, even if—
AMY GOODMAN: Gary Younge, author of The Speech; Will Jones, as well, the author of The March on Washington.