In May 1967, NBC reporter Sander Vanocur conducted a candid interview with Martin Luther King, Jr., about the 1963 March on Washington, the civil rights movement, and the impromptu “I have a dream” segment that became an iconic part of the 20th Century’s soundtrack. Today, King’s 1963 speech is remembered and replayed as a testament to optimism for the future. Each January, a minority of scholars reminds us that King’s legacy was much more complex than that saccharine dream.
On Realism and Nonviolence
1967: Martin Luther King, Jr. is interviewed by Sander Vanocur.
[clip from 1963 March on Washington “I have a dream” speech on August 28, 1963]
MLK, 1963: …Because I have a dream. [crowd applauds] That my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today! [crowd roars]
[with Sander Vanocur]
MLK, 1967: I must confess that, uh, that dream that I had that day has in many points turned into a nightmare. Now I’m not one to lose hope; I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the last few years and I would say over the last few months I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching and agonizing moments and I’ve come to see that, uh, that we have many more difficult days ahead and some of the old optimism was a little bit superficial. And now it must be tempered with a solid realism, and I think the realistic fact is that we still have a long, long way to go, and that we are involved in a war on Asian soil, which if not checked and stopped can poison the very soul of our nation.
I’m not going to say that all of our problems would be solved if the war in Vietnam was ended, but I do say that the war makes it infinitely more difficult to deal with these problems. When a nation becomes obsessed with the guns of war, it loses its social perspective and programs of social uplift suffer. This is just a fact of history, so that we do face many more difficulties as a result of the war. It’s much more difficult to really arouse a conscience during a time of war.
There is something about a war like this that makes people insensitive. It dulls the conscience. It strengthens the forces of reaction and it brings into being bitterness, hatred, and violence.
I think that the biggest problem now is that we got our gains over the last 12 years at bargain rates, so to speak. It didn’t cost the nation anything. In fact it helped the economic side of the nation to integrate lunch counters and public accommodations. It didn’t cost the nation anything to get the vote to right established.
And now we are confronting issues that cannot be solved without costing the nation billions of dollars. Now I think this is where we are getting our greatest resistance. They may put it on many other things, but we can’t get rid of slums and poverty without it costing the nation something.
I feel that nonviolence is really the only way that we can follow because, uh, violence is just so self-defeating. A riot ends up creating many more problems for the Negro community than it solves. You can through violence burn down a building but you can’t establish justice. You can murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder through violence. You can murder a hater but you can’t murder hate. And what we’re trying to get rid of is hate and injustice and all of these other things that continue the long night of man’s inhumanity to man.
[cut back to the clip of the March on Washington “I have a dream” speech on August 28, 1963]
MLK, 1963: When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at Last [Yes!], free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” [crowd roars]
“I am a person who has never used violence himself. My present opinion is that people who have obtained the ballot should use it and solve their problems in that way. In the case of peoples who have not obtained the ballot, and who cannot control their states, I again find in my own mind a division of opinion, which is not logical, but purely a rough practical judgment. My own forefathers got their political freedom by violence; that is to say, they overthrew the British crown and made themselves a free Republic. Also by violence they put an end to the enslavement of the black race on this continent.” —Upton Sinclair, in an interview with Rene Fulop-Miller (March 24, 1923)
What do you think? Does nonviolence have limits? Who should determine when and who exercises it?