Recalling King's speech ... 50 years later
Editor's note: The civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s involved numerous boycotts, sit-ins, marches and other protests carried out by various groups over more than a decade, often in the face of threatened and real violence. It's easy, however, to see the movement encapsulated in a single speech, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered 50 years ago (Aug. 28, 1963) to 200,000 or more gathered peacefully for the March on Washington. Sundiata Cha-Jua, a professor of history and of African American studies at the University of Illinois, spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about the movement, the march and King's speech.
Q: Can you set the stage for the March on Washington? What was happening 50 years ago?
A: The year 1963 was the most pivotal year in the history of the civil rights movement, and perhaps in the modern black liberation movement. 1963 was the centennial anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. That weighed heavily on African-Americans and provided urgency to their struggle for freedom, self-determination and social transformation. Moreover, the march took place in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.
Also, many things collided explosively in 1963 to put the civil rights movement and racial oppression at center stage. An estimated 15,000 protesters were arrested in 1,000 anti-apartheid demonstrations in 100 towns and cities across the South, the most important of those in Birmingham (Alabama) during the spring and summer of 1963. There, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference challenged white supremacy in the country's most racially violent city. King was arrested as part of that and wrote the civil rights movement's most important rationale, "Letter From Birmingham Jail."
It was also there that "Bull" Connor, Birmingham's ironically titled director of public safety, unleashed police dogs and high pressure fire hoses on defenseless school-age children, producing some of the most iconic images from the civil rights movement.
A rapid series of events over two days in June also explains why 1963 is riveted into American historical consciousness. On June 11, Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocked two students from enrolling at the University of Alabama (one of them the sister-in-law of current U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder). President John F. Kennedy then federalized the Alabama National Guard and gave a transformative televised speech that night. Then the prominent civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated the next day in Mississippi.
Evers' assassination and the murder of four young girls in the September bombing of a Birmingham church are the most publicized incidents of violence during 1963, but it was a particularly violent year, with racist attacks on blacks across the South. African-American retaliatory violence also occurred in several towns in response to Evers' assassination.
Nonetheless, the initial call for the march had begun earlier. Concerned with economic inequality due to continuing racial discrimination, Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph had proposed a march to elevate economic issues on the movement's agenda. Their emphasis on economic issues rather than constitutional rights suggests one of the fissures within the movement. Violence during the spring forced the organizers to move up the march's time frame.
Q: We can hear King's speech today and imagine much of the country was behind him and the movement at that point. But was that the case?
A: Public opinion polls and surveys conducted during the early 1960s sharply contradict that. A survey four months after the march showed 47 percent of Northern whites and 63 percent of white Southerners believed the civil rights movement had been "generally more violent than peaceful." And 59 percent of Northern whites and 78 percent of Southern whites "generally" disapproved of the actions blacks used to acquire their civil rights.
The March on Washington, especially popular excerpts from King's speech, created a broad-based liberal coalition that for at least two years supported King and the mainstream civil rights movement. Before that, King was regularly vilified in the mainstream press. Kennedy had not been actively supportive until the crisis at the University of Alabama. And King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail," written to liberal white religious leaders, best reveals the paucity of white support before the march.
One common perception is that the March on Washington represented the high point of a unified and nonviolent civil rights movement, led solely by King, which would be eclipsed in coming years by the Black Power movement.
It is true that the march was the high point of the civil rights movement, but even so, it barely masked the strategic and ideological divisions within the movement. It is probably best to think of King during these years as the dominant but contested leader. The ultimate slogan for the march, "Jobs and Justice," reflected a compromise between those focused on economic justice and those focused on public accommodations and voting. The desire to present a united front moved militants and radicals to compromise with moderates. Malcolm X criticized the march as a Kennedy administration-directed "picnic."
Nevertheless, the civil rights movement was superseded by Black Power for both positive and negative reasons. On the one hand, after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it had achieved much of its agenda, at least the agenda that was able to hold a large coalition together, including substantial white support. Moreover, once access to public accommodations and voting rights were won, the thornier economic, psychological and educational issues became clearer.
Black Power was as complex as it was transformative. It was a river with many currents. At its core were the principles of self-determination, racial pride and self-defense. The central practice involved building independent black-controlled institutions. The election of black political representatives; the creation of newspapers, journals and presses; the building of African-American cultural centers and museums, political parties, caucuses and professional associations, businesses, and black studies programs were all initiated through the philosophy of Black Power. Some approaches to Black Power were radical, others were moderate, and still others were conservative.
Q: What should we see as the legacy of the march and of King's "Dream"?
A: For many years, the March on Washington was the largest political rally ever held in the nation's capital. In terms of policy, it led directly to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and indirectly to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Its actual history serves to remind us of the relationship between race and class — of the centrality of the demand for economic justice and the continuing need for a massive jobs program and a living wage. These issues resonate as loudly today as they did in 1963.
King's speech was masterfully delivered but in many ways its soaring oratory and eloquent rhetoric overshadowed important and harder-hitting speeches that day by A. Phillip Randolph and John Lewis. At the center of the speech is a vision, an injunction to transformative action. We have to remind people that in the wake of escalating economic inequality and a resurgence of racial oppression, Dr. King's words remain relevant. Not the rhythmic "I Have a Dream" refrain, but the call to struggle at the heart of the speech. There Dr. King contended that "America has defaulted on its promissory note," that fighters for justice must not be seduced by the "tranquilizing drug of gradualism," and that "legitimate discontent" demands the unleashing of "whirlwinds of revolt" that "shake the foundations" of America "until the bright day of justice emerges."
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Illinois.