Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Looking back on the March on Washington after 60 years

people gather in front of a statue
A large group gathers to watch a wreath-laying ceremony at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Washington on Jan. 16.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Sixty years ago today, more than 250,000 people crowded the National Mall in Washington D.C. for the March on Washington. It went on to become one of the most famous rallies in U.S. history.

A portion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech from that day has been engrained in our collective memories. And he was just one of 10 people who spoke to the enormous crowd.

Yohuru Williams is the distinguished university chair, a professor of history, and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas. He joined MPR News guest host Tim Nelson to talk about a book he co-authored, “More Than a Dream: Sixty Years After the March on Washington,” which comes out Tuesday.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] INTERVIEWER: As you just heard from Sarah [? Taymor, ?] 60 years ago today, more than 250,000 people crowded the national mall in Washington, DC for the March on Washington. It went on to become one of the most famous rallies in US history.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

- So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.

- Yes.

- It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

[APPLAUSE]

[END PLAYBACK]

It's that portion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech that has been ingrained in our collective memories. But it's just a portion of a 16-minute speech King gave that day. And he was just one of 10 people who spoke to the enormous crowd. Professor Yohuru Williams is a distinguished university chair, professor of history, and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas. He's also the co-author of the book "More Than a Dream: 60 Years After the March on Washington," which comes out tomorrow. He joins us now. Good afternoon.

YOHURU WILLIAMS: Good afternoon, thank you for having me.

INTERVIEWER: Professor, you know, some people may not realize that what the full picture of the march, the full name of the march was. It was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. What was the bigger picture of this rally 60 years ago?

YOHURU WILLIAMS: Well, it really was about getting at issues not only of racial injustice but economic inequality deeply at the root of segregation in America. And, of course, when we think about Dr. King's legacy, beyond the march by 1968 and the Poor People's Campaign, they're expanding those themes of economic justice to include poor people across the board. But if we think about segregation and racial inequality in America, there's always been this economic component to it.

So this was a march for both jobs and freedom, for economic justice and for relief against the type of racial injustice in housing, education, access to places of public accommodation, and police brutality, which were rampant in 1963 and remained a problem for us in our contemporary moment.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you think we as americans focus on those final five minutes where King speaks about having a dream?

YOHURU WILLIAMS: For a couple of reasons. I think first and foremost, it's an incredibly hopeful message that King offers in that part that's become so iconic with most Americans. And it gives us the opportunity to reflect on the march as a turning point in the movement for civil rights. We hear that speech and then we think about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that followed. And that seems to be, for many people, the end of the story, King's kind of hopeful articulation of what the future could be.

The problem is that if you read the rest of the speech, you know, that the rest of the speech, King is anchoring that dialogue, that hopeful optimism that we hear at the end of the speech in a recitation of the reality of that moment, which was that the march had been conceived on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. And King begins by saying 100 years later, Black people in the United States still aren't free. They're still hampered by economic inequality, by police brutality, by racial injustice in housing and education and access to places of public accommodation.

So to kind of focus on the end of the speech and that hopeful part of the speech negates the fact that King from the very beginning is saying, this is about a blank check that's been delivered to the Black community that's been marked insufficient funds. And we believe-- he argues on that day-- that the government has a duty and responsibility, but also the means to make real those promises that were made in 1863, but had gone unfulfilled.

INTERVIEWER: Now, he touches on that at the very beginning of his speech. Let's hear a little bit of that right now.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

- Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And this momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. 100 years later, the life of the negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

[END PLAYBACK]

INTERVIEWER: Now, he mentions the Emancipation Proclamation there was 1863. The speech was in 1963, showcasing the slow-moving progress. Where are we now in 2023?

YOHURU WILLIAMS: It's such a great question. And, you know, when we think about this not only in terms of the national story, but in terms of the Minnesota story, we still have a long way to go in terms of achieving those things that King was talking about in 1963. And I'll point out that even though King is exalting the Emancipation Proclamation and in our contemporary moment, we celebrate Juneteenth. Even embedded in Juneteenth, in the Emancipation Proclamation were some troubling residual connections to slavery.

For example, if you look at Gordon Granger's field order from 1863, it commands that the slaves remain on their plantations and that they no longer seek out the US army for support. And so from the very beginning, to take a phrase from a very popular historian, the former slaves received nothing but freedom. And they were all always looking for confirmation of what that freedom meant in terms of legislation and opportunity to make the promises of American democracy real and concrete for them. And that's what King is meditating on in 1963 when he talks about, you know, this is happening in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln. That was an emancipatory moment. But it wasn't made real. Because there was nothing extended to the freedmen except freedmen-- freedom itself. And so in that moment, King is revisiting that history in a way to call out the responsibility of the government to make real the promises of freedom and democracy.

INTERVIEWER: I want to mention your book real quick here though too. Your book talks about some of the other lesser-known aspects of the march. Tell me a little more about what you talk about there.

YOHURU WILLIAMS: We wanted to capture the other speakers who spoke on that day. But we also wanted to give readers a sense of what compelled people, this 250,000 people who show up on Washington, DC, to come. We wanted to capture some of the angst that existed at that time, fears on the part of the Kennedy administration and the FBI about potential for violence, and to really anchor the story in this kind of longer history that connects that 1863 moment, that 1963 moment and our contemporary moment 2023, as we are still grappling with many of these issues that King and the other nine speakers talked about. Speakers that included, at that time, the head of the nation's largest union, Walter Reuther. John Lewis, who was the youngest speaker on that day. A. Philip Randolph, who was the kind of godfather of the civil rights movement and certainly someone who has a connection to Minnesota. At that time, Roy Wilkins, who was heading up the NAACP.

But also, in that moment, there are some troubling omissions, for example, there are no women who are invited to give remarks. There are two women who speak. But this is something that behind the scenes creates a tremendous amount of concern on the part of female activists like Pauli Murray and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who also has a Minnesota connection, who is part of the planning committee.

And what those women are arguing is if we don't tackle the issue of gender inequality in this moment, we're going to have to revisit these issues as well. So even this great moment in 1963 is hampered by the inability of the organizers at that time to take on in all of its scope what inequality looked like. Bayard Rustin, who was part of the LBGTQ+ community, was one of the principal organizers, but denied a more visible role in the march itself because of his sexuality. So it's an opportunity for us to celebrate what that moment represents, but to think about in concrete ways not only in terms of racial justice, but in terms of the LBGTQ+ community, in terms of gender equality how far we still need to go as a society and culture.

INTERVIEWER: Thank you so much. Professor Yohuru Williams is a distinguished university chair, professor of history and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas. He's also co-author of the book "More Than a Dream: 60 Years After the March on Washington," which comes out tomorrow.

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