BOB GARFIELD: Forty years ago this week a quarter of a million people descended on Washington, DC to make their common grievances known. It wasn't the first time and it certainly wouldn't be the last that Americans exercised their right to assemble on the doorstep of the nation's lawmakers. But never before had the media focused to such a degree on mass protest, and no demonstration since the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has been so repackaged and reproduced. Historian Lucy Barber is the author of Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Tradition, and she joins me now from that city of protest. Lucy, welcome to OTM.
LUCY BARBER: Thank you, Bob. Pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: There is a single moment that is etched in all of our consciousnesses from the 1963 March on Washington. Let's listen to it. [APPLAUSE]
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: 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. I have a dream today! [CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]
BOB GARFIELD:Well I guess you agree that that's the moment from the March on Washington that we most remember. My first question is: why? Is it a fair representation of what the march was supposed to be all about?
LUCY BARBER: I think we remember it the most because it got played the most -- both since then -- it shows up on commercials, it shows up in clips every year when they do the annual story on the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom --but I think even more critically, it started to be what the march became on television very quickly -- so that if you see the live coverage they're of course covering every part of the march -- all the controversies, all the different speakers, all the different voices. But by the time they start distilling it down, they've already started to focus down on to King. He was the celebrity; they set it up so he was the last speaker; and rhetorically he was the most accomplished.
BOB GARFIELD:Apart from the inherent theatricality of this great oration by Dr. King, do you think there is a reason that the networks chose to focus on this speech, which was decidedly non-confrontational, as opposed to the fairly confrontational message that the organizers intended which was to demand -- not request but demand -- legislation immediately to create equity for blacks and other minorities in the United States?
JOHN LEWIS:Those who have said "Be patient and wait" --we must say that we cannot be patient! We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! [APPLAUSE]
BOB GARFIELD:That was John Lewis, and he didn't sound like he was in the mood for compromise or dilatory action on the part of the United States government. We seldom hear that cut of tape.
LUCY BARBER: No. And that's because he was demanding "now." And yet, King said the same thing. He just said it in the first part of the speech. And that part of the speech was not as-- dream-full, was not as optimistic of a future that would be different. And the media turned from the story of the demands to the story of the dream -- mostly I think on television. When you look at the press coverage, it's much more complete.
BOB GARFIELD:There was an interesting observation made by one of the reporters reporting live from the scene - very ironic in retrospect. Let's listen to that.
REPORTER: You notice there's no noise. There-- this is a very, very orderly procession - straggling, confused. One of the most interesting things about it is that the people are doing the marching -- there are very few people actually watching. There are a lot of police lined up at about 6 foot intervals along either side, and they're just standing there-
BOB GARFIELD:Well-- maybe Washingtonians didn't show up in person, but the reporter was quite wrong -- the march was watched worldwide. Tell us about the breadth of the coverage.
LUCY BARBER: Well it was covered live on CBS all day and then the other networks came in and picked it up. At the same time, it was being broadcast to Europe by the new satellite systems that had just gone up just a few years before, and so it didn't have the immediate spectators that previous marches had so depended on, but it had this new set of spectators because there was that live coverage of it.
BOB GARFIELD: So in a very Marshall McLuhan-esque way, the medium had actually become the message --received loud and clear round the world.
LUCY BARBER:Yeah, and that of course raised concerns for some people because even if you started to have the march compressed down to the I Have a Dream speech, in other ways they had the march showing people saying we want freedom now. We want a civil rights bill now -- in red, white and blue signs. And I think people picked up on that dichotomy and people at the time wondered how that was going affect the next stages of the civil rights movement.
BOB GARFIELD:If the coverage and the focus for example on Dr. King's speech skewed the meaning of the March on Washington, did it also somehow ultimately transcend the relatively modest, immediate goals of the sponsors? Did the media enable the March on Washington to be actually bigger than anybody among the organizers had ever imagined?
LUCY BARBER: I think they actually had really high ambitions from the beginning. One of the things you notice from almost the day one that they start calling for this march is that it's going to be historic. That's the refrain during the day. And then Kennedy calls it "a part of American history." So what happens to the March in a way is it becomes almost more important for the history of American democratic struggles than it does for the complicated battles of the civil rights movement. But even as it became this model, of course it was kind of hard for other social movements to match that day! Partly because it's been so celebrated and edited since. For any other march the media seems to end up saying "well, they didn't get as many people as the civil rights march in '63" or-"there was no rhetoric that was as good as Dr. King" or "the crowd didn't seem as united" -- and that seems to give the media, at least, a way to distance themselves from some very powerful collective gatherings in Washington and elsewhere.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well Lucy, thank you very much.
LUCY BARBER: Thank you, Bob, for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:Lucy Barber, a historian at the California State Archives is author of Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up -- bogus trendspotting and why we love the TV crossover.