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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.”

Dr. King added that we must still confront the fact that “we are at the bottom of the economic ladder. We must “confront the fact that the gap between the medium income of Negroes and whites is widening every day. We confront the fact that the Negro is still a victim of glaring and notorious conditions of segregation and discrimination. And, I think, instead of slowing up, we must push at this point and we must continue to move on and I am convinced that our moving on will not only help the Negro cause so to speak but the cause of the whole of America because the shape of the world today just does not permit the luxury of an anemic democracy.”

A follow-up from Wilson read an editorial from Freedom House in the New York Times that called for “moderation.” Dr. King had not read the editorial but responded:

If moderation means moving on toward the goal of justice with wise restraint and calm reasonableness, then we must pursue this path. But, if moderation means, slowing up at any point and capitulating to the undemocrtic practices to many of the forces that are against democracy, than I think it would be tragic and immoral to slow up at this point. I think that moderation must be moving on if it means anything with calm reasonableness.

Asked to address the “rowdyism” from the movement that, for example, “forced” a Negro minister off a Chicago platform and silenced that city’s mayor,” Dr. King stated, “I wouldn’t say that I condone every action that is taking place at this time. We are in the midst of a great social revolution in this nation and no social revolution can be neat and tidy at every point.” And, “The amazing thing is it has been as neat and tidy as it has been.”

Wilkins was committed to the March on Washington because of the possibility of pushing Congress to advance and pass civil rights laws. There had not been a civil rights law since 1957, according to Wilkins. This commitment, however, was questioned because it might create an expectation among the movement for something that could not be delivered. He was asked if there would be violence if objectives were not achieved.

When asked this, Wilkins said he suspected “people who keep harping at the point” were in a way “encouraging violence and planting the idea of violence.” Negroes, he said, had been disappointed before and not resorted to violence.

Would the civil rights movement give President John F. Kennedy’s program a “chance” if it passed? The country, Wilkins said, needed lots of things that were not in the president’s program, which was being offered. It would be “incumbent on the Negro population to keep asking for more because they have been deprived for so long.” They would be grateful for whatever passed but would not be “grateful for a sliver.”MacNeil essentially asked what equality would look like and Dr. King responded, “Equality is the ability of the individual in any society to achieve respect and dignity and all of the other things that any individual would receive without the barriers of laws standing before him saying that you can not go here.”

“All of the barriers of discrimination whether it is in housing conditions, whether it is in employment, where the Negro confronts a great deal of discrimination, whether it’s in the actual legal segregation for south in schools or de facto segregation in the northern schools. All of these barriers must be removed before the Negro can even begin moving up the highway of freedom in all of its dimensions,” Dr. King answered.

Dr. King said this removal of barriers would be a “starting point.” They would be “things that must be existing in order to begin the process of becoming full citizens in this nation.”

“I do feel that if we are truly Americans and citizens of this nation than we must not have any barriers standing before us on the basis of race,” King declared.

Pressed on the issue of social equality, Dr. King stated, “We must face the fact that in reality you cannot have economic and political equality without having some form of social equality. I think that this is inevitable and I don’t think this country will rise to its full maturity until we come to see that men are made to live together as brothers and we can have general intergroup interpersonal living and still be in the kind of society that we long to achieve.”

Fast forward to the present and it is evident that the nature of questions about movements in society are unchanged. If movement leaders are even invited on programs like “Meet the Press” and questioned at all, the questions are typically highly skeptical of what the leaders are trying to achieve and whether the vision for society is reasonable or not.

The edition of “Meet the Press” to mark the 50th anniversary featured people like Cory Booker, Bobby Jindal, Raul Labrador, Sheryl WuDunn, Al Sharpton, David Brooks and Doris Kearns Goodwin. People like Booker, Jindal and Labrador are politicians, whose articulations of equality and justice, are clever messages designed to make free market ideas or neoliberal reforms to society appealing, as if they will somehow benefit those at the bottom without disproportionately favoring those in the richest 1% of society first and foremost.

Also, the views of current host, David Gregory, are probably not so different from Spivak, when considering how he would have addressed th e rising civil rights movement. He would probably have asked similar questions about the threat of riots and what was on the minds of white business leaders and troubling the households of white Americans.

The Occupy movement is as close to a revival of grassroots activism not primarily fueled by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or foundations with deep ties to the two most prominent political parties in America—Democrats and Republicans. The direct action by groups that captured the attention of many around the nation never resulted in prominent members of the movement were going on “Meet the Press” (yet that may have something to do with the fact that the movement never coalesced to apply direct pressure to Congress for action).

When the views of people engaged in the Occupy movement were featured on establishment news programs, it was typical for the activists to have to answer whether their vision was reasonable. It was typical to have to address whether there would be riots or violence, even though violence was coming from police forces cracking down on protesters and press covering the movement.

Society for African-Americans remains a deeply unjust and, in many aspects of life, segregated society. Culturally, we are all more predisposed to support equality but in practice that predisposition has not led to the elimination of policies and even laws that entrench racism and inequality. (Michelle Alexander has demonstrated this through her work on “the New Jim Crow.“)

Yet, those deeply entrenched issues reinforced by the prison industrial-complex, the war on drugs and segregation in schools throughout the nation is not something at the forefront of any commemoration of the March on Washington. The extent to which the “war on terrorism” is something to be confronted because Dr. King spoke of the “evil triplets of militarism, materialism and racism” is entirely ignored.

Corporate forces have joined together with NGOs and special interest groups to co-opt the dream that Dr. King had and manipulate it into whatever they want it to be in order to advance their elite agendas.

Fifty years since the March on Washington, when two hundred thousand Americans came to Washington to further ignite the struggle for civil rights, grassroots activism and struggle is still necessary and can be vibrant. It can improve the nature of society yet the combination of actions by Congress, the White House, the media, politicians with celebrity personas and several civil rights action groups with deep ties to the Democratic Party ensures the powerful are not threatened by activism and struggle. It gives the powerful great ability to stifle and direct dissent when it immediately develops. It makes it possible to easily control the expectations of Americans and how Americans perceive their own history as it relates to what a future society could possibly be so societal shifts that increase equality and justice at their expense are rare and few.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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