The British novelist L. P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” He got that right. Go back 50 years, to Martin Luther King’s appearance on Meet the Press, and see for yourself how the so-called “liberal media” did things.
It’s a wonder that he and civil rights ally Roy Wilkins were able to keep their cool, given how relentlessly the white-guy inquisitors sought to smear their movement. The date was Aug. 25, 1963 – yesterday was the half-century anniversary – and the topic was the impending March on Washington. King and Wilkins went on the air to tout the march as a grassroots push for congressional action on integration, but the press panelists pushed a different theme: Fear of Negroes. (As blacks were called in that distant era.)
Or, more specificially: Fear of Violent Communist-Controlled Negroes Who Want Too Much Too Fast.
And the show’s two guests had to spend all their time voicing denials.
Quaking in his shoes
The next time some troll recycles the “liberal media” canard, just cite this ’63 show. It began with Meet the Press mainstay Lawrence Spivak’s suggestion, to Roy Wilkins, that it might be “impossible to bring 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incident and possibly riot.” Wilkins says, “I don’t think there will be any rioting” – turns out, there wasn’t – but Spivak follows up by insisting “there are risks you are taking,” and when Wilkins again demurs, Spivak follows up again: “Do you have to take the risks you are taking?”
Wilkins apparently fails to calm Spivak’s fears, because, 15 minutes later, Spivak is still quaking in his shoes. He suggests to Wilkins that if Congress fails to enact civil rights legislation in 1963, “there will be large-scale violence in this country. Do you think that?”
Wilkins again says no, and finally shows a trace of annoyance: “I tend to suspect people who are harping on that point.” The truth, he says, is that “the Negro has been disappointed before – both in legislation and in other matters – and he has not resorted to violence.”
But the panel won’t let it go. Robert MacNeil of NBC News (and future PBS news icon) asks Wilkins whether it will be possible to control “the militancy of your followers after having brought them to such a pitch,” thus “making it difficult to keep them non-violent.”
Wilkins, yet again: “They’re not coming here to stage violence.”
Playing the commie card
Granted, it’s the role of the press to ask tough questions, to be institutionally adversarial. But to be so blind to what the civil rights movement was really about, to be so rooted in old prejudices…suffice it to say, this wasn’t one of the press’ finest hours. Especially when panelist Frank van der Linden, from the Nashville Banner, played the commie card, morphs into a mix of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover.
Van der Linden complains that one of King’s allies, March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin (a Quaker who would later be awarded posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom) is “a former member of the Young Communist League,” and had once attended a communist meeting “as an observer.” For those reasons, van der Linden asks King, “do you feel he’s qualified to lead this movement?”
King rightly notes that Rustin had fleeting communist sympathies “many many years ago” – a reference to the World War II era, when the Soviet Union was America’s ally and Nazi Germany’s enemy – but here in 1963, Rustin “is just part of a great movement (that is) in the deepest tradition of American democracy.” Moreover, says King, “I don’t think it’s quite fair to raise this issue.”
Van der Linden persists, citing a report from the House Committee on unAmerican Activities (in that era, a notorious red-baiting panel) that “the same Bayard Rustin” had also said stuff that might be construed as sympathetic to Fidel Castro’s Cuba. And, again, King has to spend his valuable air time playing defense and taking loyalty oaths. He again says that Rustin “has no connection to any communist organization….He’s as committed to American democracy as anyone at this time.”
Van der Linden still isn’t satisifed. Later in the show, he claims that the March on Washington will be “the launching pad for a new national all-Negro party,” to be chaired by “a Negro lawyer” who defends violent Puerto Rican nationalists. (The lawyer, Conrad Lynn, a civil rights activist who had protested segregated buses as early as 1947, defended one Puerto Rican nationalist in 1954.) Wilkins says the March is not a launching pad for any such party (it wasn’t), and that he doesnt believe in race-based parties anyway (the “all-Negro party” never happened).
Getting too pushy
OK, so maybe the civil rights movement isn’t a communist or extremist front. Nevertheless, according to these ambassadors from the “liberal media,” the movement seems to be asking too much of white America. Richard Wilson of the Cowles Newspapers tells King that a lot of (white) people think “the Negro has been pushing too hard and too fast.” Would King care to comment on that?
Yes, he would: “The Negro has been extremely patient. We have waited now for 345 years for our constitutional and God-given rights,” and America can no longer afford “the luxury of an anemic democracy.” (Not sure why King said “345 years” – he just as easily could’ve said 100 years since the Emancipation Proclamation – but still, point taken.)
But Cowles isn’t mollified by the notion that blacks have already waited too long. He wants to know why the civil rights movement refuses to embrace “moderation.” King insists in response that the movement is moderate, by his definition of the term: Pursuing “the goal of justice, with wise restraint and calm reasonableness.”
In the end, however, King gets the last word. He says, “We must not have any barriers standing before us on the basis of race.” He says that America won’t reach “full maturity” as a nation unless or until “men can live together as brothers.” The past may indeed be a foreign country – as evidenced by the ’63 ‘tude of the “liberal press” – but King’s challenge to us today is as timely as it was then.
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