Today Marks Dual Landmarks In American History

Sen. Barack Obama makes history tonight when he speaks before the Democratic National Convention as the first black presidential nominee of a major party. But today also marks the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington. Civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman discusses the significance of both events.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is in Denver this week covering the Democratic National Convention. A little later in the program, a noted poet shares her insights about the prospect of the first African-American president. But first, Illinois Senator Barack Obama's acceptance tonight of the Democratic Party's nomination for president is made even more symbolic because of the date. Today marks the 45th anniversary of the march on Washington. It was August 28th 1963, when people from every section of America marched in protest over the lack of jobs and for justice for black citizens suffering under segregation. That march was led by the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who later addressed the crowd on the National Mall.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until that is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality, 1963 is not an end but a beginning.

CORLEY: In that famous speech, Dr. King went on to express his hope for the future.

Dr. KING: I say to you today my friend.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Dr. KING: So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up, live up the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

(Soundbite of clapping)

CORLEY: As we continue our special coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Tell Me More host Michel Martin talks about that historic day with civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the children's defense fund.

MICHEL MARTIN: Marian Wright Edelman, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN (Founder, Children's Defense Fund): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You just heard those familiar clips from the march on Washington. What do you remember most about this day 45 years ago?

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: Oh, it was an exhilarating day. And Henry Hampton who did "Eyes on the Prize," found the place where I was singing with Julianne Bonn and Rubadar(ph) Smith and Ella Baker had driven down from New York. And all the sneak(ph) kids, and we were just singing our hearts away as if the dream really was being shared and it was his dream, it was our dream but it was one of the great days of our lives which brought forward our great hopes.

MARTIN: So you could see the dream. Do you remember what dream it is you saw? What do you think you envisioned?

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: Well, he saw a dream where you could be who you were in America and where you would be judged by your character and not by your skin or by your income. But it was, what America is supposed to be. And so, it was just one of those great days that you'll never ever forget. And we believed it then with all of our heart, we believe it now with all of our heart. But the question is how do you translate that dream into reality?

MARTIN: When you think about the fact that an African-American is in position to potentially become the first African-American president of the United States, did you think that you would see this in your lifetime? And was that part of the dream you had that day?

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: I think it's a part of the dream that anybody could do whatever their talents will enable them to do. And that America's DNA which stretched to enable that and this year has been a gigantic step forward with Barack Obama has stretched out high DNA on race. And Hillary has stretched our DNA political on agenda. And so we've come forward. The issue is whether we will cross the finish line.

MARTIN: Some people see Obama's candidacy as the culmination of the dream that was set forth in 1963. But some people see it very differently. Some people see it in essence, and forgive the crudeness of the language, it's kind of letting the country off the hook, that people will see a Barack Obama should he prevail. And even if he doesn't actually, even just capturing the nomination is a sign that the end of racism is over, that we are now a post racial society. How do you see that?

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: Oh, it's the next big step. I disagree with both statements. I would say it's we're moving out of the wilderness of the last 40 years. It's been a very hard 40 years since Dr. King died. We've made progress but it's been difficult. But Barack Obama's, you know, election as president of United States, if we are able to see that will be in an enormous step forward for the country. But it's not going to solve all of our problems. We have been struggling to deal with the centuries old and structural racism and legacies of slavery for many, many decades. We've made enormous progress but we've got a huge, long way to go. And it worries me that many people will say, well this is going to solve our problem, we don't have to do anything more if he is elected. My goodness, we've got to have a citizens movement to help him get done or any new president get done what we've got to get done to close the racial and class divide which is at its highest - and on the class issue and on the income issue, it's the widest its been in history, recorded history.

We've got more poor children now than when Dr. King died and most of them, they're in working families, playing by the rules. We've got a cradle to prison pipe line that is you know, taking us backwards if we don't wake up and say we're not going to have our children tracked for prison and for death and not for college and not for successful careers and for families. And so again, I don't want to ever downplay - (unintelligible) about the momentousness of this. But this is just the next step and realizing the American dream and giving hope to every child. That's the agenda. And so, all of us have to mobilize to say we need to change priorities, we need them to help this man - he's not going to be the solution alone.

MARTIN: I hear you're talking much more about poverty and class than about race. Now Martin Luther King also talked about poverty and class. But he also talked a very great deal about race. Is that in part what this moment means because I wanted to talk about what does that mean to have an African-American president. And what I'm kind of hearing you say is race is only part of it.

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: Race is part of it but - and poverty is the other part and Dr. King when he was dying, was calling for a poor people's campaign because he understood that economic and social rights were absolutely essential to exercise a political right. He recognized continuing racial disparities. If we look at the cradle to prison pipeline because of the legacy of racism in our country, there are racial disparities that are driving it along with poverty at every step of the way. And because blacks and Latinos and native Americans have been disproportionately poor, the combination of that history doesn't eradicate itself and so black boy is twice as likely as Latino boy to go to prison in his lifetime but almost five times we're likely to go to prison those of you know, white boy. And so, racial disparities permeate every one of our systems but undergirding it all is poverty. And so the most difficult place for child to try to grow up in America today is still despite the enormous progress and we've made enormous progress. It's that - that intersection of race and poverty. And we've got to address them both. And so race and poverty intertwine.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Marian Wright Edelman, civil rights and children's advocate about the 45th anniversary of the march on Washington led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I'm wondering if you feel that this emphasis on Barack Obama's race is perhaps unhelpful. I mean, I'm asking you as a person who bridges the so-called civil rights generation and activism today because you've never stopped being an activist, you've never stopped your advocacy. I wonder if you think it's unhelpful, is it inescapable? You know, there were - as if you feel that there's sort of a generational divide here in sort of the world of activists today that there's a sort of generation, it's very focused on race and that the younger generation sort of focused on post race. And you bridge both.

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: Well, I don't get to those divides. I do bridge both. The day after Dr. King died, I went out into public schools and told children not to riot and not to ruin their future. Some little boy about 12 or 13, looked to me in the eye and said, lady, what future? I ain't got no future and I got nothing to lose. And so, I've spent 40 years trying to pick up where Dr. King left. I've just written him with a letter in a new book. I'm trying to report on the progress we made. And the fact is that, that boy saw a truth, that we still have to address. And we did have any time for despair, you had to pick up and go on. And you knew you had to put the surf and economic underpinnings beneath the political and civil rights. And so, I think that we were bridged to the next phase of the civil rights movement or the human rights movement.

MARTIN: When people say, they think that Barack Obama represents a post racial politics, a lot of people mean different things by that. But one of the things, the points I think that you are trying to make is that the problems and the challenges of poverty may cut most keenly because of race but they affect everyone. They affect people of all demographics and they affect the entire country. Do you see in Barack Obama the potential for a figure who could actually be a leader of that movement toward a focus on poor people regardless of race? A focus on poverty, in eradicating poverty regardless of race? Or do you see - has there ever been such a figure?

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: Well, Dr. King was making that transition when he died. It was - the purposeful campaign was a cross racial movement and it addressed both race and poverty. And it was a major, major watershed and I have no doubt that Obama can be the person that brings us all together. It has personified in who he is. He is black but he is white. He's come from a family that's had to suffer and struggle, and yet he has had the best education that you can have. He has been a community organizer and yet, he has shown us that he can put together an extraordinarily sophisticated organized campaign.

MARTIN: And yet, the people who are least likely to support are people who have - less educated, less affluent white. So you'd think based on economic interest, should be attracted to him.

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: People vote against their interests all the time. That's the lingering legacy of racism that I hope that we can overcome. You know, it is so hard - taking children as an example, because the Children's Defense Fund talks about all children because there are more poor white than black or Latino children. There are more poor white children or white children who are uninsured than anybody now except the Latinos who just slightly eased out. But in all of our areas where there are drugs or teenage pregnancy prevention, or poverty, or education, more white children in absolute numbers are affected. That's through violence as well is every plague that we face. Though black and Latino and Native American children are disproportionately affected in trying to keep those two ideas in your mind. It's been a very difficult thing to the get the American public to grasp that you are voting for your self-interest.

And the second thing is that even if you don't like these children and you think that somehow they are unworthy because of their color, because that still is a deep sense of some folk. Isn't yourself interested in investing in them early so we can all have a productive workforce? And I'd rather give a child prenatal care that cost a few thousand dollars and give him an immunization than to pay thousands of dollars for them to show up in emergency room that drains us. But this use of race or this hold over of somehow race that has been very deeply inculcated. That was true in the South, that we needed to be better than somebody else, I think is one that I hope he will be able to overcome and we will help overcome and we'll have policies that show them that we are going to make work pay. And all of our children are going to get educated and that we are going to stop this backward mobility, of white as well as black children. But I think if anybody can do it, then he can do it.

MARTIN: When you think about what it means to observe a 45th anniversary of the march on Washington, what does that mean to you?

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: Oh, this is a wonderful occasion. Because I think it is as the march on Washington was, a marvelous symbol of this country's continuing struggle to be who it says it wants to be. And here you have after 40 years of hard times in wilderness, despite great progress, here we are sitting here to celebrate the possibility of a black or African-American president of the United States at a time when this country is losing its way. I think we are seriously off track in our moral leadership role in the world and at home, where we've seen so many years of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and our children is still not having the hope that they can do better than their parents did. And this new symbol of where we can move forward again is the next big move forward for American rights. Our moral compass, which I think has gotten off base, is I think it would make Dr. King very, very happy and that the country I think has hope again. And the new generation is stepping up to the plateau. I am just so proud of him and I am so proud of the young people and I am proud of what we are trying to become again, as a nation.

MARTIN: You mentioned that you wrote a letter to Dr. King in a book that will be coming out this fall. Would you just briefly tell us what did you write to Dr. King?

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: Oh, I wrote to him how much we miss him, and how much I think about him everyday, and how hard we have been trying to carry on his struggle for a decent America. He warned us repeatedly about the dangers of poverty, and militarism, and excessive materialism, and of racism, and so I tried to report him how much we had done and had not done. And I do report on all the black elected officials, the Latino-elected officials that are and he'd be pleased by that. And then I tell him about the fact that poverty is still rampant, that militarism is still rampant, that excessive materialism in a culture that defines things by things rather than buy intrinsic character that he called us to judge ourselves by. That we are still - we've been moving backwards on that and while we've got great progress that we can show at the top for many middle-class blacks and Latinos, we've got a growing bottom and the black children are poorer now then they were when he was alive - 13 million poor children that we- even our economy three times richer and worth 13 trillion dollars and we let 13 million children go in poverty.

And our military budget is absolutely draining and the resources we need, reminiscent of the Vietnam War. People said why are you criticizing that war. He was criticizing that because he understood that as he called for a war on poverty, that we were spending 80 billion dollars on a military budget and on the Vietnam War. And two billion dollars on the so called war against poverty. That was an unequal match and that disparity is still there. And so we've got the cradle to prison pipeline. We've got millions of uninsured people. We've got people working, but can't make ends meet. We've got a middle-class that's played. We've lost our way I think in the world and in our values and I think he would not be pleased with our still misguided priorities, but it's up for us now.

Pick up and remind us of whom we are. We like to remember Dr. King and I am sure he'll be so happy that we're going to have a memorial in the mall and that we have a national holiday to him. But it's time for us to follow him and really look and see what his message was in his later years and to pick up the call to end the excessive materialism, and come to end poverty, and to end racism, and to end militarism, and to try to see how we can bring us together in a non-violent world where we live our values and we are big enough to include everyone within our fold and within our dream.

MARTIN: Marian Wright Edelman as president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund. Her latest book "The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small," a collection of 11 letters that she has written to various important people in her life including Dr. King, is forthcoming this September. She was kind enough to join at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Marian Wright Edelman, thank you so much for joining.

Ms. WRIGHT EDELMAN: Thank you.

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