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MLK Jr. on ‘Meet the Press’ Before March on Washington: How Little Views of Dissent Have Changed in Press

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*Note: Before Dr. King was assassinated, he called the United States in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Don’t forget that as you view the commercials and advertisements from military contractor, Boeing, which sponsored the re-airing of this historical edition of “Meet the Press” with Dr. King.

Three days before the March on Washington in 1963, the NBC news program, “Meet the Press,” had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and executive secretary of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, on the show to answer questions by a panel of white male journalists.

Washington Bureau Chief of the Nashville Banner, Frank van der Linden, NBC News White House correspondent Robert MacNeil, Cowles Newspaper Publications’ Richard Wilson and “Meet the Press” permanent member and co-creator Lawrence Spivak all appeared and neither of the panelists were supportive of the plans by civil rights groups to take action in a large-scale march in Washington, DC.

The program, re-aired by NBC to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, shows a focus on possible violence from the march, how the assembly could set back efforts to advance equality, how civil rights leaders might have been moving too fast, how the civil rights groups planned to maintain their “militancy,” whether Congress and the country already realized that there were issues that needed to be addressed, etc. There also were a couple questions by Van der linden directed at Dr. King, which were red-baiting questions, as they asked about civil rights leader Bayard Rustin’s support and ties to communists.

The first question on the program came from Spivak, who believed any effort to bring “one hundred thousand militant Negroes to DC” would likely result in violence and riots. He asked what affect “incidents of violence” or “any rioting” would have on the movement. Wilkins replied, “I don’t think a hundred thousand people just assembling is cause for apprehension about a riot. The city of Washington has accommodated much larger crowds and nobody has talked up in advance a possibility of violence. ”

Spivak then asked what the risk were if the civil rights movement took action and argued that Congress and the country was well aware of the situation:

You read the press today and you read about the demonstrations that have gone on for some time now all over the country. Don’t you think they have made Congress aware and the people of this country of the seriousness of the situation. Do you have to take the risks you’re going to take in order to emphasize it?

Wilkins disputed the idea that Congress had been responsive to the movement. “There is evidence that they still believe can do business on the civil rights front in the same old way,” he said.

The first questions for Dr. King came from Van der Linden, who suggested demonstrators may have motives more in line with Rustin, who had been a member of the Communist Youth League. Dr. King answered that Russtin had no sympathy for the communist philosophy and no involvement in the communist cause. He was also asked to respond to Rustin’s decision to speak on March 14, 1962, at a meeting of a committee Van der Linden said was committed to sending medical aid to Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Dr. King’s answer is remarkable because it shows he recognized that Rustin had this reputation of being a pariah. He assured Van der Linden that Rustin was not one of the chairman of the march.” He was not a chairman but a deputy director and “just a part of the brave movement.” Leaders at the time were uncomfortable with having Rustin’s name associated because of his homosexuality and communist activism and that comes through in Dr. King’s answer.

Wilson asked if whites would react to the march by suggesting that whites and even Negroes would suggest they were pushing too hard and too fast, Dr. King eloquently responded by saying, “I’m sure that many whites both north and south have the feeling we are pushing things too fast and should slow up for a while, cool off for a period. I cannot agree with this at all” because the Negro has been “extremely patient.” For 345 years, Negroes had been waiting for “basic constitutional and God-given rights to be granted.” [cont’d.]

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."