Commentary By Dan Rather: My Question for Dr. King 1964 and Today

Editor's Note: The following guest column was written by Dan Rather, right, following Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky's address to a Joint Meeting to the U.S. Congress on dan rather steady logoWednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

dan rather 2017Rather first published the column in his near-daily column "Steady," which he so named to urge readers to stay balanced during our troubled times. This editor is a subscriber to the columns, which are published in collaboration with Elliot Kirschner and benefit from Rather's experience and blunt, colorful style. Rather, whose 91st birthday was Oct. 31, is currently based in his native Texas. The iconic author and journalist worked for many years as the CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor.

-- Andrew Kreig, Justice Integrity Project editor

 

 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to thousands during his

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to thousands during his "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 23, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (Associated Press Photo)

 

My Question for Dr. King 1964 and Today

By Dan Rather with Elliot Kirschner

The phone rang today from friends and family watching this week’s edition of the CBS News program “Face The Nation” on Jan. 15.

Apparently, I had made an appearance on my former network in the form of archival footage — a flashback to an episode of that same program from nearly 60 years ago. Wow. How time flies. 

The guest on that Sunday’s “Face the Nation” in 1964 was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was in Washington at the time to lobby for passage of the Civil Rights Act. I remember the moment but didn’t recall what I had asked Dr. King until I recently rewatched the clip. As I reflect today on my question and his answer, I can’t help but ponder the passage of these many years and the winding and far-from-finished journey we as a nation and a people have taken on civil rights. 

The clip was featured in a segment (shared below) about growing diversity among members of Congress. In 2023, most people of color and women in Congress are Democrats. Making note of this political divide echoed the exchange I had with Dr. King way back in 1964. At that time, I was curious what he thought of the direction the Republican Party (the so-called “Party of Lincoln”) had taken on race relations. 

“Do you think there’s a real danger of the Republican Party becoming the ‘white man’s’ party in this country?” I asked. 

“I think this is a real danger,” he answered in his measured voice. “I’ve talked with some Negro Republicans who are very concerned about this. I see trends and developments which will reveal that unless the liberals of the Republican Party take a much more … decisive role in leadership positions, this will become a white man’s party. And I think this will be tragic for that Republican Party as well as tragic for the nation.”

Here’s the “Face the Nation” clip:

The record shows that in the decades that followed, the grim scenario Dr. King lamented in our exchange largely came to pass. In 1968, Richard Nixon used dog whistle appeals to racism in his euphemistic “Southern Strategy” to win the White House. In the ensuing years, what had been a “Solid South” for Democrats tracing back to the Civil War became a wall of red states that helped propel Republicans to power. From Ronald Reagan's demonizing “welfare queens” to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad, Republicans had concocted a playbook of racist appeals in order to win the white vote. With Trump, dog whistles became bullhorns.

 

Both Sides

To be sure, Democrats have also sometimes used racist subtexts to appeal to white voters. And despite Trump’s toxic and xenophobic rhetoric, he performed better with minority voters than previous Republicans had. Furthermore, we have seen more prominent Black Republicans seeking, and winning, elected office. These trend lines suggest we should avoid the most simplistic narratives around race and politics.

We have made a lot of progress since 1964. While significant overt racism still exists in America, we are also at a point when even most self-described “conservative” Republicans embrace Black public officials who share their political ideology. Dividing lines between the races are not nearly as impervious or immutable as they were.

Some politicians and others point to these societal changes and say they prove that racism itself is over, along with the need for remedies to address it, such as voting rights laws and affirmative action. Sadly, this view is not supported by reality. Discrimination, while perhaps subtler or even subconscious, permeates our society from our neighborhoods to our schools to our jobs and to our health.

With all this context in mind, it is important to remember that Dr. King’s vision of America was one in which race was inextricably tied to power — and that power was built on a foundation of white supremacy. He preached that we, as a nation, would never reach the full potential of our founding until we reconciled this fact. 

As Dr. King stated in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:

“In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

In honor of Dr. King’s birthday, scores of politicians, companies, and organizations will issue comfortable statements praising his courage or quoting his memorable rhetoric. Far too few will acknowledge the continuing truth of what he said. That truth was widely viewed as “radical” at the time. To some swaths of America, it still is. 

As I tweeted this summer, undoubtedly inspired by some comment in the news at the time, “Make no mistake, if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he would be stigmatized as ‘woke’ and attacked accordingly.”

Everything Dr. King stood for is under attack in America today. You can see it in efforts to disenfranchise voters. You can find it in the whitewashing of history and the demonization of so-called “critical race theory.” Whether it’s the banning of books, attacks on labor rights, or the death knell of affirmative action, an America of ideas, engagement, and reckoning with our past is under siege. In the sneers at “wokeness,” one finds an effort by the privileged to hold onto the positions of power they feel they are owed. It is an insult to everything Dr. King hoped to achieve.

A significant proportion of today's Republican Party has been taken over by performative hatred, lies, and reactionary attempts to undermine American democracy. This dynamic presents new and unique challenges to our journey toward justice. Dr. King would have been fearless in denouncing these forces of hatred and autocracy. 

An important way to celebrate Dr. King is to recognize that he was human and thus subject to all the frailties and contradictions inherent to our species. Yes, he had his flaws. No, he was not perfect. But rather than deified, he should be studied as a leader and a visionary. To celebrate him in context is to recognize that he was deeply political, although not in a simple party line sense. Rather, he understood how to amass the power of the people to shift the levers of government — even subtly. Small changes, he knew, can lead to big results. 

Today, Dr. King’s work remains far from finished. To continue to bend the “arc of the moral universe” toward justice, there is a need to recognize the role politics will invariably play. At the same time, Dr. King understood that political divisions could exacerbate social ones. The business of mending what tears us apart, while remaining firmly rooted in a foundation of justice, is a mission each generation must adopt. 

Beginning in 1962, as a young, new correspondent for CBS News, I covered Dr. King and his then fledgling movement throughout the Deep South. He was struggling to gain traction and garner news coverage. He faced constant danger but was determined not to give up, never to give in.

By 1964, I had become the network's chief White House correspondent. As such, I had a front row seat as Dr. King’s efforts helped drive historic civil rights legislation through Congress and into federal law. By then, he could see clearly how much remained to be done and how many perils lay ahead. He pressed on, although an early death would be his destiny. 

In his victories, may we find hope.  

In all that remains to be done, may we summon his inspiration to continue to forge a path of progress. Steady.

 

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washington post logoWashington Post, Editorial: What MLK Day recalls in Washington, Editorial Board, Jan. 16, 2023. The third Monday of January is a day when we usually revisit the scenes of seminal events in the long, often bloody struggle for human equality in America: a bus boycott in Alabama, a boy’s lynching in Mississippi, the murderous attacks on Freedom Riders in the Deep South, the children being cursed and spat on as they were conducted into all-White public schools under court order.

Today we’d like to bring remembrance closer to home, to the city and the counties in and around D.C., a region that is something more than the focus for the national government; it is also a cluster of communities in constant flux: growing, generally prospering, open to change and progress.

But a good many people who live here, mostly of a certain advanced age, can still honestly say: “I grew up in the segregated South,” by which they mean places such as Fairfax and Arlington counties, Alexandria, Prince George’s, even Montgomery County. It wasn’t Alabama, but at times it might have seemed a bit like it to Black people.

  • Washington Post, Black WWII soldiers asked a White woman for doughnuts. They were shot, Justin Wm. Moyer, Jan. 16, 2023.

Steady, Commentary: My Question for Dr. King: 1964 and today, Dan Rather, right, with Elliot Kirschner, Jan. 15, 2023. The phone rang today from friends and family watching this week’s edition of the CBS News program “Face The Nation.” Apparently, I had made an appearance on my former network in the form of dan rather 2017archival footage — a flashback to an episode of that same program from nearly 60 years ago. Wow. How time flies. 

dan rather steady logoThe guest on that Sunday’s “Face the Nation” in 1964 was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was in Washington at the time to lobby for passage of the Civil Rights Act. I remember the moment but didn’t recall what I had asked Dr. King until I recently rewatched the clip. As I reflect today on my question and his answer, I can’t help but ponder the passage of these many years and the winding and far-from-finished journey we as a nation and a people have taken on civil rights. 

The clip was featured in a segment (shared below) about growing diversity among members of Congress. In 2023, most people of color and women in Congress are Democrats. Making note of this political divide echoed the exchange I had with Dr. King way back in 1964. At that time, I was curious what he thought of the direction the Republican Party (the so-called “Party of Lincoln”) had taken on race relations. 

washington post logoWashington Post, Biden returns to Georgia to honor MLK and tout ‘the time to choose,’ Yasmeen Abutaleb, Jan. 16, 2023 (print ed.). The state is crucial for Democrats ahead of the 2024 election.

President Biden returned to Georgia on Sunday and used a speech commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to reiterate some of the themes of his 2020 campaign in a possible preview of 2024, marking his first visit to the state in more than a year.

Although the visit was not a political event and was aimed at commemorating the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend, it marked an important moment for Biden, who steered clear of Georgia during the midterm elections and the bitterly fought December runoff election that ultimately propelled Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) to a full six-year term in the Senate.

The speech came amid the political fallout from the discovery of classified documents at Biden’s think tank in D.C. and at his personal residence in Wilmington, Del. On Saturday, Biden’s lawyer said five additional pages with classified markings were discovered at the president’s Wilmington home.

In December, Georgia got further attention when Biden proposed moving up the Southern swing state in the 2024 Democratic presidential primary calendar to make it one of a handful of early nominating contests before Super Tuesday on March 7. The state was key to Biden’s 2020 victory, where strong voter turnout — particularly among Black voters — helped him win the traditionally Republican state by less than 12,000 votes.

But Georgia officials have cast doubt on Biden’s plan, leaving it unclear whether it will come to pass.

While Biden spoke generously of King’s legacy, calling the civil rights leader one of his two heroes, the president also returned to some of the themes of his 2020 campaign and talked about the enormous work the country still has in protecting democracy, voting rights and economic justice in a potential preview of the issues that could drive a 2024 presidential run.

washington post logoWashington Post, Two states still observe King-Lee Day, honoring Robert E. Lee with MLK, Meena Venkataramanan, Jan. 16, 2023. Alabama and Mississippi jointly celebrate the civil rights hero and the Confederate general.

As the country celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, two states will observe a different holiday: King-Lee Day, which commemorates both King and Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

The two men’s birthdays fall just four days apart, but their legacies couldn’t be more different. King gave his life to the cause of racial equality; Lee fought in the Civil War to keep Black people enslaved.

Nonetheless, Mississippi and Alabama will both mark King-Lee Day as a state holiday. Until recently, they had company: Arkansas celebrated King-Lee Day until 2018, and Virginia observed Lee-Jackson-King Day, also honoring Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, until 2000. (Virginia subsequently observed a separate Lee-Jackson Day the Friday before MLK Day until 2021.) Texas still celebrates Confederate Heroes Day on Lee’s actual birthday, Jan. 19, and its state employees can take a paid holiday on both days.

washington post logoWashington Post, 9 facts about King that may surprise you, Adela Suliman, Jan. 16, 2023. As the United States marks the holiday honoring the civil rights icon, here are some things you may not know about him, including a previous assassination attempt and his Grammy win.

washington post logoWashington Post, After MLK’s home was bombed, he refused to back down: ‘This movement will not stop,’ DeNeen L. Brown, Jan. 18, 2021, republished Jan. 15, 2023. Minutes after 9 p.m., on the night of Jan. 30, 1956, a segregationist parked his car in front of the modest white clapboard parsonage home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. In the shadows, the man walked up five steps leading to the front door and planted a stick of dynamite on the porch.

King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and a fellow Dexter Avenue Baptist Church member, Mary Lucy Williams, had been in the living room when they heard noise on the porch, according to a Jan. 31, 1956, report in the Montgomery Advertiser. The two women ran to a backroom of the house, where the Kings’ newborn baby daughter, Yolanda, was asleep.

Seconds later, the dynamite exploded, blasting out windows, tearing a hole in the porch, shredding floor boards and ripping through a porch pillar holding up the house that sat on a quiet Alabama street.

At the time of the bombing, King had just celebrated his 27th birthday. He’d been the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery for 19 months. And he’d started leading the Montgomery bus boycott, a movement organized after the Dec. 1, 1955, arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to vacate her bus seat to a White man.

The story of how Michael King Jr. became Martin Luther King Jr.

In his 1958 memoir, “Stride Toward Freedom,” King described Parks as “ideal for the role assigned to her by history” because “her character was impeccable,” and she was “one of the most respected people in the Negro community.”

Days after Parks’s arrest, King and others created the Montgomery Improvement Association to organize the bus boycott, which became a seminal event in the civil rights movement. Together, Black people in Montgomery would refuse to continue to ride segregated city buses, where they were subjected to discrimination and racism.

washington post logoWashington Post, It’s true, Martin Luther King Jr. paid the hospital bill when actress Julia Roberts was born, Sydney Page, Oct. 31, 2022, republished Jan. 15, 2023. Roberts’s parents were friends with the civil rights activists, and welcomed the King children into their theater school. When actress Julia Roberts was born 55 years ago in Smyrna, Ga., a couple swooped in and paid her parents’ hospital bill. It was Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

The story, not widely known, recently resurfaced on social media. A retweet of a video compilation of Roberts from a fan on Oct. 21 read: “Martin Luther King Jr paying for her birth is still a little known fact that sends me.”

The collective jaw of the internet hit the floor.

While countless people were touched, others wondered whether it was even true.

“It sounds like fake news,” someone wrote in response to the tweet.