In the latest episode of the Kalb Report, “Remembering a March, a Movement and a Dream,” a panel of journalists, scholars and civil rights leaders discussed the impact of the March on Washington, how it was covered in the media and how its lessons can be applied 50 years later. The episode was filmed Tuesday at the National Press Club.
Marvin Kalb, the program’s host and discussion moderator, was on the ground as a reporter for Walter Cronkite and CBS News the day of the march and witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech. He recounted his experience with a panel that included Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the youngest speaker at the march; NAACP Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond; Ambassador Andrew Young; PBS NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill; Morehouse College President John Wilson; and journalist Dorothy Gilliam, the first African American woman hired as a reporter at the Washington Post in 1961. Ms. Gilliam also worked as a J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Fellow at the George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.
“I remember being aware as I looked down at that swelling crowd that this was more than a news story—it was also a special moment in our history opened to the world to behold,” Mr. Kalb said.
The day after the historic march, the Washington Post did not give a single mention of Dr. King or his “I Have a Dream” speech on its front page—Ms. Gilliam speculated it was because the media had been so focused on covering the violence associated with racial tensions at the time. Several of the panelists recalled no one expected the march to be as peaceful and powerful as it turned out to be.
Amb. Young, who had been working as a civil rights organizer, remembered he originally wasn’t planning on attending the march because he was worried it wouldn’t be effective. Dr. King persuaded him to come, and Amb. Young realized the scope of the event when he saw the enthusiasm of the people participating.
“When they started coming in singing freedom songs from just about every direction, you couldn’t hold back the tears. You realized this was something special,” he said. “What I think it did was it took a Southern black movement and… it made it a global phenomenon.”
Ms. Ifill said the march affected people who didn’t realize the magnitude of civil rights issues and changed legislation that followed years after the event.
“It was 20 years in the making, and 50 years later, we’re still assessing whether the demands that were made were met. It wasn’t just a picnic. It wasn’t just a rally. It wasn’t just a series of speeches. There were a set of goals that are measurable,” Ms. Ifill said.
The panel agreed the media profoundly affected how many people the march reached: Photographs and videos were able to convey the message and the feelings of the event to the masses.
They also recounted the “magic” of the march’s leader, Dr. King. His genius, Mr. Bond said, was his ability to talk to both black and white Southerners in the common language of Evangelical Christianity.
“The beauty of the March on Washington is that [Dr. King] was speaking to a large number of white people who had never seen a black person give an entire speech. All of a sudden, here’s this articulate man explaining why we’re marching, why we’re protesting,” said Mr. Bond. “He made it so clear and so plain that you could not help but say, ‘Gee, he’s making a real argument here, and we ought to listen to him.’”
Before inviting questions from the audience, Mr. Kalb asked his guests what they believed to be the most important thing young people should remember about the march. Dr. Wilson, the president of Dr. King's alma mater, said they should remember Dr. King’s emphasis on schools and education, while Ms. Ifill said it was crucial to understand the hard work of leaders who were able to organize so many people in an era without today’s technology.
“A group of people came together and they put forth the most unbelievable moment in American history,” Rep. Lewis added.
During a question and answer session, audience members asked panelists to discuss the role of women in the march, how media coverage of issues pertaining to the black community has progressed and what Americans fighting for civil rights today could expect from Congress.
Mr. Kalb ended the episode by thanking Dr. King and remembering the impact of the event.
“When I covered the march 50 years ago, I felt that I was involved in something much larger, much more important than a news story, and I was. It was a huge moment in American history,” Mr. Kalb said.
The Kalb Report series, moderated by Mr. Kalb, is jointly produced by the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, Harvard University, University of Maryland University College and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. The series is underwritten by a grant from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.