Having just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, where Nobel laureate Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream…” speech, New African talked with the Photo-journalist Dan Budnik who covered that event and many of the seminal civil rights marches in the USA.
When you called at the newsstand to buy a copy of New African last month, you might also have been tempted to purchase the special commemorative edition of Time magazine that carried a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. on its cover. It was to mark the 50th anniversary, on 28 August, of the March on Washington – when a quarter of a million people assembled in the US capital. Dan Budnik took that photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. moments after Dr. King ended his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Budnik describes the atmosphere of that hot summer’s day in Washington as “exciting”. “It was much more than a ‘freedom march’; the official title was ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” Budnik states. “But you had to be there to have any idea of what it was like,” he adds.
The March on Washington, whatever its description, was a seminal event for African-Americans in their ongoing struggle for equality. As the TV networks broadcast the event live, and watched by President John F. Kennedy in the White House, people gathered – ostensibly to demonstrate for human rights – but a good many just to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak.
Budnik says he took a big gamble to get the photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. used for Time magazine’s cover. “I made the decision not to be at the sides of the podium, or at the front, where all the photographers were. But I figured that he would have to go back up the steps after the speech to get out, so I positioned myself by those steps behind him, and I took the photograph as he was exiting, having made his speech.”
Dr. King was the last of the day’s speakers. Introduced to the podium on the Lincoln Memorial as “America’s moral leader”, he began reading the speech that he had worked on until 4am that morning. In the prepared speech, there was no mention of “The Dream”. Then Mahalia Jackson, his favourite gospel singer, spoke out from behind him. “Martin, Martin. Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream …” she pleaded. It was a theme that he had used in prior speeches. But, in fact, Clarence B Jones, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speechwriter, had advised him to omit the dream reference from his address.
Budnik observed that Martin Luther King, Jr. pushed the pages of his speech aside and continued to extemporise, speaking from the heart. Here is an extract from what he was to tell the crowd packing the National Mall before him:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…
“I have a dream today!
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little
white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
“… 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 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, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last’.”
It was, in Budnik’s opinion “…the greatest speech Martin Luther King, Jr. was to make in his life. It is so poignant, it reached around the world. The freedom movement came to a head a couple of years later in 1965 with the Selma to Montgomery March. Yes, that speech was his greatest speech, but the Selma to Montgomery March was Dr. King’s greatest achievement.”
The Selma to Montgomery March was extraordinary. It took five days for the marchers to travel the 54-mile distance and involved 3,900 soldiers and guardsmen as well as FBI agents and US Marshalls to protect the marchers. There were strong concerns that diehard white “segregationists” would attack them. It culminated in a huge festival just outside Montgomery featuring entertainers such as Harry Belafonte; Dick Gregory; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; Sammy Davis, Jr.; Johnny Mathis; and Alan King.
The march was concerned with voting rights. In 1954, when Martin Luther King, Jr. became the Minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (now the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church) Montgomery’s population was around 120,000. A third of the population were African-Americans – but few of them were registered to vote. This made voting rights an ongoing and imperative issue. Without the right to vote there was no way African-Americans could be empowered.
They were given ridiculous ‘intelligence’ tests before they could register to vote, like being asked how many bubbles a bar of soap made. Budnik explains, “But the dynamics, the demographics of the South changed after President Johnson pushed through the National Voting Rights Act in 1965.” It is clear that Budnik believes the civil rights’ marches made the difference and convinced US politicians to create the laws that would end segregation and discrimination.
As US former President Bill Clinton said at the March on Washington commemoration event in August 2013, without the voter rights’ changes, he would never have been elected, nor Democratic Party Presidents such as Jimmy Carter before him, nor Barack Obama after him. Essentially, the black vote goes overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party in the US.
In the early 1960s, most of the South of the US was still in the grip of overt racism and segregation. It was remarkably similar to apartheid South Africa. Black people had to use different and generally inferior public facilities such as lavatories as well as drinking fountains, as well as separate schools and restaurants. They were forced to sit on different public benches and sit at the back of buses – where white passengers had preferential rights and blacks would be forced off the vehicle so the white passengers could board.
But by the late 1960s, there was a huge groundswell of opposition to the “Jim Crow” state and local laws that enforced a segregation of the races. Segregation was most obvious in the Southern States (the old Confederate States where the plantation culture had taken hold).
But it was clear that racism also blighted the rest of the country; it is simply that it was never legislated for but existed de facto with opportunities being denied to black people, or very severely limited, in terms of housing and jobs.
The US Supreme Court declared state-sponsored school segregation unconstitutional in 1954 (in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling). Generally, the remaining “Jim Crow” laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but many of the Southern States prolonged the tension by dragging their feet in enacting this legislation – eventually to no avail.