Historian Taylor Branch has written several books, including a trilogy on Dr. King that begins with “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and “The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement” released earlier this year. His essay “Remembering the March” was excerpted in USA Today. Branch is obviously interested in the 50th Anniversary of the March On Washington and he joined the Tom Joyner Morning Show to talk about it. Here’s what he had to say.
TJMS: This was 1963 and Birmingham was blowing up. And not just Birmingham but Gadsen and all around that area of Alabama with Bull Connor and all the dogs and the hoses that pretty much set up the March on Washington, huh?
Taylor Branch: A breakthrough in Birmingham when police put dogs and fire hoses on small children was the emotional breaking point for America when people resisted talking about race but those pictures spread demonstrations and concern not only nationwide but worldwide. There were demonstrations in over 700 cities very quickly. It’s what the March was about that momentum and that reaction. TJMS: That’s why President Kennedy and everyone else was so afraid that this March on Washington was going to end really, really badly.
People forget that we were scared of the March on Washington. People were even scared of the first Obama inauguration a few years ago but that was nothing compared to the March on Washington. The thing that puts it most in perspective for me was that major league baseball cancelled two Washington Senators games – not just the day of the March but the next day for fear we’d still be cleaning up from the wreckage if Black people marched in numbers on the nation’s capitol. So we were afraid of it and that’s one reason why the March had such a wonderful image when it came away because people were relieved it was peaceful.
So why didn’t the Ku Klux Klan show up? There wasn’t that much KKK around Washington –
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.