Wynton Marsalis on MLK speech 50th Anniversary: We must walk together

CBS News cultural correspondent Wynton Marsalis shares his deeply personal commentary on race relations and our progress on social issues across the U.S., 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington.


50th Anniversary of the March

50 years ago 250,000 Americans gathered on the mall of the Nation’s capital to peacefully request social and economic equality for our most oppressed group of citizens: the American Negro. It was the largest demonstration for social change the nation had ever seen.

More than 25 people from all walks of life spoke, played and sang that day, in an impressive tapestry of national leadership mobilized for jobs and freedom, and for redemption of the national soul.

The convener of the March, 74 year old A. Philip Randolph, spoke first. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 34, the charismatic focal point of the Civil Rights Movement, spoke last. Dr. King advocated for freedom through moral and legal justice. Mr. Randolph championed freedom through a structured Jobs program.

Dr. King’s oration was, upon delivery, a recognized masterpiece. His passionate refrain made the success of Civil Rights legislation seem inevitable. Over time, these words have become so well known that the March itself is reduced to one man’s dream. In fact, it was much much more. That day, everybody had a dream.

Mr. RANDOLPH ….. “this civil rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not.”
And RABBI JOACHIM PRINZ, President of the American Jewish Congress, reiterated the point, “all of America must speak up, and act….. not for the sake of the Negro [or]…. of a black community, but for the sake of….. the dream, the idea, and the aspiration of America itself.”

MR. WALTER REUTHER, President of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. said, “I am also for civil rights because I believe that freedom is an indivisible value; that no one can be free unto himself.”

SOME of the speakers had very practical ideas.

MR. RANDOLPH- “And we know that we have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty.

MR. REUTHER — “And so our slogan has got to be, “Fair employment, but fair employment within the framework of full employment, so that every American can have a job.”

And many were optimistic.
WHITNEY YOUNG, Executive Director of the National Urban League, observed, “Our march is a march for America. It is a march just begun.”

MR. REUTHER, “This rally is not the end, it’s the beginning. It’s the beginning of a great moral crusade to arouse America to the unfinished work of American democracy”

MR. RANDOLPH, “The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle, but a new beginning not only for the Negro, but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life.”

And it WAS the START of a more inclusive America. Dr. King’s case for freedom carried the day, but Mr. Randolph’s petition for jobs, largely forgotten, deserves a closer look. Yes, the March inspired a moral victory with broad social implications, but it provided no directives for tangible economic parity. And with the passage of time, a moral force without concrete works, dies on the vine.

How many of us today know that it was called the March on Washington for JOBS and freedom. I didn’t. And it is now clear that poor and working class Americans need to be an integral part of our economic system. This necessity transcends race. Race is a matter of physiology, discrimination is a matter of culture. And culture shapes public perception which influences political action.

Somewhere in the mid 1970’s, I began to notice black and white artists stereotyping black people as criminals, pimps and drug dealers and gradually adding more and more misogyny and violence in movies, videos and recording after recording. The constant glorification and reselling of this debauched imagery has corrupted both black’s and white’s understanding of Black America. Unfortunately, THAT shapes current public opinion much more than the memory of Dr. King’s dream.

This narrative of black pathology is a justification for every injustice against black folks be it job discrimination, everyday black neighborhood crime, or biased verdicts across the entire spectrum of our legal system. In a democracy, the minority loses. How can I be a minority in my own country?, a nation with an egalitarian credo.

Following the success of Civil Rights Legislation, many black folks erroneously thought that the election of mayors with their same skin color would lead to an increasing economic prosperity. Even the electing of a non-white President was misconstrued as the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. Let’s examine the unemployment, incarceration and education statistics for the black and white poor. These sobering facts compel us to act on the collective dream expressed 50 years ago. A sustainable victory for equality and employment will not come through a prophet, a president, or even the law. It must be the will and actions of the people, all the people, all the time.

DR.KING ended the March triumphantly. His ‘I Have a Dream’ refrain is rightfully known by all, but my favorite phrase drives home a profound human fundamental enacted by everyone in attendance that day: “WE CANNOT WALK ALONE.”

When we walk together, we are an infinite resource and can create unimagined possibilities. Separate, we are opposing tribes fighting over what we mistakenly perceive as ‘never enough’. Today is the perfect day to begin harvesting the endless promise in our way of life. Let’s walk together to claim our inheritance. It was earned 50 years ago on the mall of our nation’s capital, by a mosaic of high-minded leaders and 250,000 engaged activists. It’s out here for us.

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  1. Well done, friend. Walk together…yes.

    Kaaren Haldeman on Aug 29th, 2013 at 10:14pm

  2. AMEN, Dr.Wynton Marsalis!.
    Wise Words.
    We do love you!.

    MTSCR on Aug 28th, 2013 at 1:45pm