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Historian Taylor Branch on the March on Washington and the Kennedys’ Aversion to Dr. King’s Struggle

StoryAugust 29, 2013
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As we continue our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we’re joined by the acclaimed chronicler of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Branch is best known for his landmark narrative history of the civil rights era, the “America in the King Years” trilogy. His new book is a collection from the trilogy that he has adapted for a college course, “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter and Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary, singing yesterday on the Mall. Fifty years ago, they also sang at the March on Washington. They were singing along with Trayvon Martin’s parents, as well as a father of a student in Newtown who was killed in the massacre there, singing “Blowing in the Wind.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, tens of thousands of people gathered on Washington’s National Mall on Wednesday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. President Obama spoke standing on the same steps where Dr. King spoke a half-century ago.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show in Baltimore, Maryland, where we’re joined by the acclaimed chronicler of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, best known for his landmark narrative history of the civil rights era, the America in the King Years trilogy. His new book is a collection from the trilogy that he’s adapted for a college course. It’s called The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

Taylor Branch, it’s great to have you with us. Talk about what most people don’t understand about 50 years ago. We’ve been speaking a lot on Democracy Now! about the background of the march. What we haven’t spoken as much about is President Kennedy’s relationship with Dr. King and whether he wanted this march to move forward, the effect the march had.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, President Kennedy was very nervous about the march and wished that it would not go forward. If it had been up to him, there wouldn’t have been a march. He had just proposed the Civil Rights Act in 19—in June of ’63 on national television, the best civil rights speech President Kennedy ever gave, the only one in which he addressed the race issue of segregation as a moral issue, as clear as the Constitution and as old as the Scriptures. But he was afraid that a march would lead to controversy and rioting and that sort of thing, and make it hard to get the bill through Congress. So he tried to talk them out of having the march and was immensely relieved, along with a lot of the rest of America, when the march turned out to be so peaceful.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also the impact—in your works, you’ve talked about the—what happened that year, in '63, especially in Birmingham, how the nation really began to change in terms of its view of the battle over civil rights as a result of the attacks on children by the Birmingham authorities. Could you talk about King's decision in Birmingham and how that helped to build this enormous march months later?

TAYLOR BRANCH: King’s career was—his great gamble in Birmingham had not worked. Nobody was interested in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” one iota. It was dismissed as another long-winded King sermon. He took a stupefying risk in Birmingham to allow not only high school students, but elementary school students, to take the place of a dwindling number of adult volunteers who were discouraged. And instead of 10 or 15, which is what the daily quota had finally dwindled down to be, they had over a thousand students march, downtown Birmingham, and were met with dogs and fire hoses on May 2nd and May 3rd. It was a stupefying gamble in his career.

Everybody was against it. Everybody, from Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X to George Wallace, condemned the use of schoolchildren. But it broke through America’s defenses on the race issue of saying it’s somebody else’s problem, it may be wrong, and finally it became everybody’s problem. And people raised questions, and it went all around the world. So, yes, it was an emotional breakthrough in the sense that people were asking questions.

And in that sense, it’s really critical for us today, because before that breakthrough, the sides were in gridlock over segregation in America. There was resentment on both sides, and each side said the world would be fine if everybody else dropped dead. After Birmingham, everybody was raising questions. Even food critics were writing about race after that. “What are we going to do about it?” And it’s that spirit of questioning and getting to fundamentals that is really what we need today, because we’re in another state of gridlock, but nobody is really asking to what degree it is driven by race and how we’re going to get out of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Given the surveillance society we live in, it isn’t new, clearly. The FBI kept Dr. King under constant surveillance. In PBS American Experience's Roads to Memphis, journalist Gerald Posner discusses the FBI's surveillance of Dr. King.

GERALD POSNER: … know from the documents released by the FBI, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had a pathological hatred of Martin Luther King, so much so that he directed his own agents to break the law repeatedly in going after King and taping King and having illegal surveillance on King.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s from PBS American Experience’s Roads to Memphis. Taylor Branch, if you could respond to not only Dr. King being put under surveillance, also Bayard Rustin comes back from the march to New York City. He is put under surveillance.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, that’s all going on at the same time. Because the civil rights movement finally rises into national prominence—it becomes the issue in national politics—J. Edgar Hoover is in a bind, because his FBI basically is all-white, and it defends an all-white view of the world. And he had—the only FBI agents he had who were black were his chauffeurs and his butlers. So it was a profound threat to his world view. And so, he was trying to force the Kennedy administration into wiretapping Dr. King. That was occurring at the same time that this was going on behind the scenes that summer. Bobby Kennedy turns down a request to wiretap Dr. King in the summer of 1963, and then, on the other side of the “I Have a Dream” speech, in October of 1963, he approved it—the attorney general of the United States. So this was a struggle going on behind the scenes over covert government, which is, you know, a profound—was and still is a challenge to the promise of open democracy in which the citizens are responsible for decisions. You can’t be responsible for decisions if you don’t know about them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Taylor Branch, yesterday, of course, President Obama gave a moving, I think one of the best speeches he’s ever given, in a speech on commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march. Yet he has often, throughout his years in the presidency, tiptoed around the issues of race and civil rights, and sought to be considered the post-racial president. Your assessment of his speech yesterday and his role in the White House in terms of dealing with the unfinished business of civil rights?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, I think we should all look into our hearts on this issue about race. Yes, he is—he is on tiptoe stance, as Dr. King said in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” about even mentioning race. He tends to get in trouble. But all of us are, to a large degree, in the sense of not—we have a partisan gridlock, but nobody in our politics—but nobody is even asking the question exactly how this came to be, and is it still true today, what’s the structure of the parties. You can’t get the Republicans to talk about race very much. If you did, I think they would have a—they would have a hard time. But, basically, we’re all locked in various positions of resentment in politics that are driven by race, but race is not discussed.

And President Obama saw it as a—you could see it in his speech yesterday. He was comfortable paying tribute to the march in 1963 and to its inheritance in confronting race and making it possible for him to be president, but then he shifted to economic issues, and the context of race dropped out of it. He didn’t say that we can’t face our economic issues today because the parties are locked in positions that are driven by race. We need to discuss this, both on the liberal side—quite frankly, in my view, today’s liberals are reluctant to discuss race. That’s why they call themselves progressives, because from—one of the legacies from the civil rights era is that liberals were not militant enough, including President Kennedy, for a lot of people. It has a bad taste for a lot of people who are progressive on race. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Taylor, we’re going to have to leave it there.


AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, best known for his landmark narrative history of the civil rights era, the America in the King Years trilogy. His latest book is a collection of the trilogy.

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Civil Rights Pioneer Gloria Richardson, 91, on How Women Were Silenced at 1963 March on Washington

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