Podcast transcript

Podcast transcript

The legacy of Martin Luther King

 Professor Tony Badger

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Sue McDonald

Hi, I’m Sue McDonald. I’m the Professor of Midwifery here at La Trobe and the Mercy Hospital for Women and you’re listening to a La Trobe University podcast.

... ‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these jewels to be self evident, that all men are created equal.’

Matt Smith

August 28, 1963, and 50 years have now passed since the march on Washington. This speech by Martin Luther King is seen as an iconic moment in the African-American civil rights movement. I'm Matt Smith and the guest in today’s La Trobe University podcast, like everyone else who sees it as important, but maybe not quite as important as everyone thinks. It’s historian Tony Badger.

Tony Badger

I'm Tony Badger. I'm the Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge, but I'm also Master of Clare College which is one of the oldest colleges in Cambridge. In my last year, I'm about to retire this time next year.

Matt Smith

Now lots of people remember milestone days in their life. I for one, remember when I heard that planes had hit the World Trade Centre. I was coming out of the cinemas from seeing Jurassic Park III, so I thought that would be a good point to start this interview with Tony, not ask him what he thought of Jurassic Park III, which, let’s be honest was better than the second, but nowhere near as good as the first. I asked him where he was when Martin Luther King told the world ‘I have a dream’.

Tony Badger

Although the British press did cover the civil rights movement fairly well, looking back, I was much more aware of where I was when Kennedy was shot, you know, two or three months later. And I'm not really sure that the march on Washington impinged on me as much as the passage of the 1964 and ’65 Civil Rights Acts, and then the assassination of King in 1968. But one’s acutely aware when one’s sometimes slightly lofty about, surely people knew and surely people ... I grew up in Bristol. I taught in both Newcastle and Cambridge about the civil rights movement, and the civil rights movement in the classic description of it, starts with the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, when Mrs Parks refuses to get off her seat and is arrested. And you have a year-long bus boycott by the black community, which thrust Martin Luther King into national leadership.

There was a bus boycott in Bristol in 1963 by West Indian bus drivers. I lived in Bristol. I was there in 1963. I had no knowledge of this at all until the 1990s. So one’s acutely aware that one’s own memories of these things are never quite as vivid as perhaps they should have been.

Matt Smith

And of course historical events are sometimes more significant for people in retrospect as well, and maybe not as they’re initially going on.

Tony Badger

I mean, in terms of the march on Washington, in a sense it became this great lobby for the Civil Rights bill which Kennedy had introduced earlier that summer, again, in response to the civil rights protests in the South. But of course, at that point, no one knew whether it was going to be successful and the Kennedy administration was extremely dubious about the wisdom of bringing so many people to Washington. In the first instance they thought if people came to Washington that there was a great danger of violence and that would damage the civil rights cause. And then when they realised that the thing was going to go ahead in any case, they worried that not enough people would turn up. And therefore the idea that there was this great demand for civil rights legislation would be weakened. In the end the Kennedy administration was extremely pleased by what happened.

Matt Smith

So what was the thinking behind it then? Why was the event planned and how did it come about?

Tony Badger

The march on Washington is very much seen in terms of King’s final speech and it’s very much seen in terms of the eventual passage the following year of the Civil Rights Bill. But at the time, A. Philip Randolph, a trade union leader in the black community, had organised in 1941, he’d organised a march on Washington to demand better employment opportunities for African-Americans in the defence industries and the armed services as America was gearing up for wartime mobilisation. He threatened this march on Washington and was organising it back in 1941 and eventually Roosevelt made concessions, not in order to buy off as it were the protestors. So Randolph had always had this vision of what could be achieved by a non-violent march on Washington. And the march on Washington in ’63 ostensibly was about jobs. It wasn’t really necessarily about the 1963 Civil Rights Bill, which does have some provision on employment discrimination, but it’s not its main ... it was primarily about jobs but it got transformed into this great sort of ... all these speakers talking about African-American rights.

Matt Smith

Yeah. How much did the events of the day get dwarfed by Martin Luther King’s speech in retrospect?

Tony Badger

Actually probably in retrospect, quite considerably, and it takes this sort of retrospective that we’ve got now on the 50th anniversary to redress the balance of that, to hear people like Peter, Paul and Mary singing during the day and things like that, and some of the great music that was going on and Harry Belafonte organising a sort of cultural side to this march. That comes into the equation much more now, but I think you’re right – that for many years ... I think what was very memorable about it was two things. One is the King speech, and the other is the fact that John Lewis, leader of the student non-violence co-ordinating committee, which was really the radical cutting edge of the civil rights movement in the South, and they were much more impatient than the traditional civil rights leaders, and they were conscious, and particularly in Mississippi, they were getting beaten up, and not necessarily with the same publicity that King and his campaigns got. But in small towns in Mississippi, voting rights workers were getting beat up by sheriffs, with nobody really paying much attention. And this sort of constant violence directed at the civil rights movement made them angry and Lewis was going to say in his speech that they were going to march through the South like Sherman had marched, in the Civil War, which of course was relatively inflammatory. It seems quite mild now, but actually at the time quite an inflammatory sort of comment. And the mainstream leaders worked very hard to persuade Lewis and the organisation he represented, the NCC, to turn that down, and in the end, I mean Lewis makes a more radical speech than some of the others, but he tones down some of that threat. Takes the threat away in quite that way.

Matt Smith

Yes, but still his thunder is essentially stolen by King in that march.

Tony Badger

And clearly, people say now that, you know, it had been the end of a long day. There had been all these speeches. All overrun. And we also know the fact that the ‘I have a dream’ element of the speech wasn’t in the original text. I mean, he started to preach as he was used to. And Mahalia Jackson and others were telling him to focus on that, to bring that in. Whereas at the time when they were drafting the original speech, people said all the dream stuff’s a bit hackneyed, and you know, you don’t need to do that. But when he got going, he brought it back in, with dramatic consequences. Kennedy and the administration were very pleased with it and it’s clear that it’s King’s speech that gets the attention.

But the fact that so many people came to Washington, very much a bi-racial, probably the last big really bi-racial civil rights demonstration. So it was remarkable and you’d have thought that it would have impressed people like Senator Fulbright, that is a relatively white Southern powerful figure with the Senate, very liberal on foreign policy and yet pretty well unmoved by the march on Washington. That was true I think of a lot of conservative white Southerners in Washington who you might have thought would have been impressed.

Matt Smith

Despite some muted response then to all of this, it had the desired effect didn’t it? How much did it kick the civil rights ...

Tony Badger

Well, I think that’s much harder to judge. And if one was being completely clear-eyed about it, the Kennedy administration was not doing very well in getting its Civil Rights Bill through. When Kennedy was shot, he was stymied on the two major issues that he’d staked a lot of prestige on. One was a tax cut, which was designed to stimulate the economy, and the second was the Civil Rights Bill. By November 1963 there’s a lot of speculation that the Kennedy administration was going to make compromises on the Civil Rights Bill. So, yes, the march on Washington may have just been part of that groundswell of general support for the Civil Rights Bill but in terms of really holding Kennedy’s feet to the flames, I don’t think it made that much difference and Kennedy was certainly considering weakening the bill, and ironically the area that he would have weakened, in order to get it through Congress, would have been the provision on employment, and moves against employment discrimination.

When Kennedy’s shot, Lyndon Johnson knows that not only does he have to get a Civil Rights Bill through if he’s going to win over Northern Liberals and the Democratic Party who were inherently suspicious of him, but he also knows he has to get it through in as pretty undiluted form as possible.

John Kennedy could afford to compromise on the Civil Rights Bill. Lyndon Johnson couldn’t, and so Johnson is going to push, as he does, for the full works on the Civil Rights Bill.

Matt Smith

So how much from the march on Washington’s intentions there are what they hoped to get out of it? How much remains unresolved?

Tony Badger

Well, I think people criticised King, both at the time and retrospectively, for emphasising civil rights rather than economic rights. I think that’s a misguided criticism in the sense that I think King understood that the voting rights and actual political power was a precondition of many other changes, and secondly, there’s no doubt that King was in fact quite radical on economic issues and had always been committed to the economic realities that there’s no point to have the right to go into a restaurant if you haven’t got the money to pay for a meal, that sort of issue, and he becomes particularly concerned about the plight of a black underclass in the Northern cities.

Having said all that, the Civil Rights Bills and the civil rights movement, in particular, the opening up of high quality higher education for African-Americans has led to what probably one of the most significant economic changes of the last fifty years in the United States, which is the growth of a powerful African-American middle class. It simply wasn’t there really, it was very tiny, in 1960 and it’s now a very significant element.

The question of whether that gain has trickled down to ordinary African-Americans, particularly in Northern cities, is much more problematic. If you look at the incarceration rates of the young African-Americans, it’s something like one-third of African-Americans between the age of 20 and 24, will at some point be in the prison system during their life. The number of African-Americans as a percentage of the population, a percentage of their own group who are incarcerated at the moment is something like three times higher than the number of Africans who were incarcerated in the last years of the apartheid regime in South Africa. And those discrepancies and the sheer scale of for instance, infant mortality rates in the black communities in Washington, in the capital of the nation, within blocks of Congress, they have these third world level infant mortality rates in a country which has potentially the best health care provision in the world. And just across the Potomac River in the white suburbs of Alexandria and indeed black middle class suburbs in Alexandria, perfect virtually infant mortality rates. So it’s those sorts of discrepancies which I think haven’t been eliminated and I think are unlikely to be eliminated. Economic growth isn’t going to produce the sorts of jobs the poor in the cities are going to be able to get.

Matt Smith

The march on Washington had 250,000 people there and despite how it was remembered, there was I think tens of thousands ... do you know the exact number who went on the 50th anniversary march?

Tony Badger

No, I think it’s well under 100,000.

Matt Smith

I read the number tens of thousands.

Tony Badger

Yeah, I'm sure that’s right.

Matt Smith

How do you think it’s remembered? Is it remembered accurately or is it ... we remember the speech, we remember Martin Luther King but we don’t remember why that happened? Or the significance of it?

Tony Badger

I think that’s an important point. Ever since the Depression, the Democrats in America have been looking for another Franklin Roosevelt. And they assume that a charismatic leader is going to be able to take the country with him and speak over the heads of Congress and get people to back him. And every Democratic leader since Franklin Roosevelt has been judged by that standard, and it’s a very unfair standard and almost all failed. I think every African-American leader since King has been judged by King’s standards. And it has been assumed that a charismatic leader ought to be successful. There’s this lament for the fact that they failed to find another Martin Luther King. When Obama came along, there was some thought – here we have another extraordinary charismatic and eloquent African-American and so maybe it would happen.

When you look at the actual rhetoric of what King was talking about in the 1960s, the ‘I have a dream’ speech is a very comfortable one from that point of view. There’s a lot more radical cutting edge to much of King’s rhetoric in the 1960s, which is much more angry, and it’s much more about ... it’s America’s duty, it owes people and that America needs to tackle the problems of massive poverty in the cities or the Vietnam War, and the rest of it, and people forget that. They have cocooned King into a rather sanitised, safe version that is highly acceptable to white Americans. Celebrating the march on Washington in a sense confirms that. I mean, it fits into that part of how they’re choosing to memorialise King and remembering that this is the King that is being celebrated in the national holiday, and what they forget is, first of all, how much criticism King got at the time from both whites and blacks, and secondly, how tough a battle it was, and third, the civil rights movement, to use one of the phrases of one of the historians, the civil rights movement didn’t simply out-pray and out-sing its opponents – it out-thought its opponents. And King’s strategy for creating crises that would provoke the federal government to intervene is a strategy that produced the Civil Rights Acts of ’64 and ’65, and people forget that sort of hard-nosed political strategy.

Matt Smith

Does Obama measure up to the shadow of King then, do you think?

Tony Badger

I think African-Americans tend to in a sense express disappointment or African-American leaders express great pride obviously in having Obama in the White House and they have access and the rest of it. I think they feel that he’s been too much of a President of all the people and not enough of the African-American community.

Matt Smith

I'd argue that that’s just being a good President though.

Tony Badger

Well, I think that’s a perfectly valid point. And I think the other side of it is that ... I mean, what are the issues that could really make a difference to the African-American community at the moment? Some of it is about Supreme Court decisions and about Supreme Court nominations and Obama has certainly made a difference there, even though the court is still controlled by conservatives. He’s made some very important decisions, particularly on the voting rights, which have been harmful to the civil rights cause. But in terms of legislation, there is no way at the moment that you’re going to get legislation that is going to make a significant difference to the poor in the United States. This is not a time when people are going to talk about redistributive taxation and the redistribution of resources, the sort of thing King was talking about in the ‘60s. And that would be the kiss of death to a politician in the United States at the moment. And in the absence of that, the opportunities for Obama, certainly in legislative terms, the opportunities for Obama are severely restricted, and so if people feel disappointed, they are judging him by a rather unfair standard.

Matt Smith

That’s Tony Badger, Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University, and Master of Clare College. He recently spoke at a history conference at La Trobe University which focused on United States history and there’s lots of lectures from that day which are now up on the La Trobe University on iTunes U in the United States history collection, or find them at our blog – that’s at podcast.blogs.latrobe.edu.au, where they’ll be linked to this podcast interview. I'm Matt Smith. As always, you’ve been fantastic and thanks for listening.

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