Historian Taylor Branch: ‘King Would Be Disappointed by Partisan Gridlock’

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There wasn’t 500,000 people around Washington but they came.

Well, that’s true. The people who did come were apprehensive. I can’t tell you how many people that I interviewed who said that there parents told them not to come or that they were frightened to come. But they came anyway because it was such an important issue, the country was still segregated, right down to the rest stops and the public libraries. It’s hard to believe but there was no public official from Texas to the Atlantic Ocean who argued against segregation so to get rid of it was a consuming moral cause that brought people out in numbers.

If you see pictures of the March you notice one thing, they are all young people. How old was Dr. King at the time? He was 34 at the time. He was a very young man. He was only 39 when he was killed in 1968.

These were young people. These were young people who came out in great numbers, demonstrated there on the Mall against segregation and got America talking about race which has been the perennial issue of how democratic we’re going to be and it turned out to be the gateway to a lot of freedoms. Not only did we end segregation by race in the United States, it set into motion new freedoms for women, disable people and even gay people beyond the dream that day. A lot of good comes out when the United States faces up to its division.

You’re the definitive author on Dr. King. What do you think he would think about this anniversary? I think that we say that we have reaped enormous blessings from the time that we have really faced our divisions. That’s what it’s about. And in that sense we should be a beacon to the world. But I think he’d be very disappointed that we’re locked in partisan gridlock now and lack confidence that we can deal again with difficult problems. The single most unanswered question is to what degree is partisan gridlock driven by racial division still.

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