On August 25, 1963, Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP, and Martin Luther King, Jr. sat down with a panel of interviewers on Meet the Press. NBC recently rebroadcasted the interview for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech.
I found it enlightening not only to hear what questions were asked and what language used, but also to see the manner of Wilkins and King. I was struck by how the two men patiently refuted allegations that they must have heard again and again over the years: militant Negroes, moving too fast for equality, the possibility of violence, condoning violence used by others.
I was surprised by the first set of questions that Dr. King faced, allegations about one organizer of the march, Bayard Rustin. How could King allow Rustin to help organize the march, the interviewer asked? Rustin had attended a Communist party meeting in 1957. And then, gasp, spoke at a meeting of the Medical Aid to Cuba Committee in 1962 about sending supplies to Cuba. Dr. King patiently refuted Rustin’s communist leanings and attested to Rustin’s support of democracy. The Red Scare supposedly ended in 1957, but it seems that old habits die hard. Anyone with communist leanings was suspect. And communist ideology was seen as a contagious disease.
Again and again both Wilkins and King had to emphasize that the movement was non-violent. There wouldn’t be violence simply because 100,000 black men and women were converging on the capital. (The actual numbers turned out to be more like 200,000 or 250,000.) There wouldn’t be violence if the civil rights legislation that the President was trying to push through Congress failed. And no, they do not condone violent actions used by other groups.
Wilkins and King were very reserved and patient. Unbelievably so, I thought. Calm and collected. Patiently answering questions. Doggedly pushing for equality. Thank goodness for their doggedness. They helped move mountains. As Dr. King put it, not just to help blacks but to help all Americans. His underlying sentiment was that equality, whether social or legal or economic, strengthens all of us. Thank you, Dr. King and Mr. Wilkins…and all of the people who marched on Washington August 28, 1963. Thank you. Your actions and words continue to reverberate today.