LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. In a little more than two weeks, Barack Obama will be sworn in as president of the United States. We've been holding a series of conversations with NPR News analyst Juan Williams about milestones in civil rights. And on this first Sunday of the new year, we are going to talk about the legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Soundbite of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" Speech)
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. (Civil Rights Leader): It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
HANSEN: That's Dr. King in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. And NPR's Juan Williams is in the studio. Welcome back, Juan.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: Dr. King really became a household name during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Black bus riders throughout Alabama were pressured to sit at the back of the bus, but why was Montgomery the center of the storm?
WILLIAMS: Well, a good question, Liane. You know, in fact, in '53, 1953, there was a one-week bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana led by Reverend T.J. Jemison. And it had some limited success, and it could have been really a starting point because, as I say, they only had limited success. The difference with Montgomery is that you had a state capital, Baton Rouge being a state capital, but Montgomery a state capital with a substantial presence of black people. You had Alabama State University. You had a substantial network of black churches. And as a result, you had the opportunity on those bus lines, to work with a population of bus riders that were 70 percent black. So, it really was a threat to the economic viability of the bus lines.
Dr. KING, JR.: I don't have but one message as I journey around this country, and it is a message which says that I am convinced that the most potent weapon available to oppressed people as they struggle for freedom and justice is the weapon of non-violence.
WILLIAMS: You had Dr. King understanding, and I think many people associated him right from the start in Montgomery with Gandhi, understanding the power of non-violent political action. Clearly blacks were the minority, did not have the militia, did not have the power of police forces. But what they did have was the power of conscience and you see this. I mean Rosa Parks refusing to give up the seat, willing to go to jail. All the rest, the whole notion being that what blacks had and what minorities had - Jews and others who were fighting against the power of, let's say, organized corporations in Appalachia, what you had was the power to organize, organize and protest. And Dr. King really was the epitome of that.
HANSEN: Was Martin Luther King engaging in any dialogue with the president at the time?
WILLIAMS: He did, he did have some dialogue with President Kennedy, even after the march on Washington. You know, Kennedy initially have been opposed to their, to bringing such a large group of black people to the capital. There was fear that if you had so many blacks in the capital, it could lead to rioting. They surrounded the capital with military forces in case of just such an eventuality, Liane. But afterwards, seeing that it had been a peaceful protest, that it had come off successfully, President Kennedy invited Dr. King and other leaders of the march over to the White House for lemonade and spoke to them about the need for change in terms of civil rights in the country.
And you start to see, for the first time, and this is the overarching, I think, aim of Dr. King during this period, is to get the federal government, because of the protest, to get the federal government into a posture of having to enforce civil rights laws rather than, and this had been Kennedy's inclination, simply wait. Kennedy had thought, you know what, we've got some things in motion. We've already had the tumult surrounding the Brown decision. Let things settle down. Here was King pushing the envelope and saying to Kennedy, you've got to enforce civil rights laws. Blacks had voted overwhelmingly for Kennedy in the '60 election, and yet, Kennedy had not proposed any civil rights legislation and had not acted aggressively to enforce civil rights laws.
HANSEN: Of course, we know, President Kennedy wasn't able to fulfill his term of office. Then President Lyndon Johnson came in, and Dr. King approached President Johnson to support that civil rights legislation. He wanted him to sign a new voting rights bill. What was Johnson's stance on civil rights and on voting rights at that point?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, Johnson's position pretty much picked up on Kennedy's. Now, of course, Johnson uses the Kennedy assassination as leverage with the Congress to gain passage of a civil rights bill in '64. And after passage of that bill, Johnson's attitude is well, again, let things settle down. Let the South get accustomed to the idea of civil rights laws that allow blacks into hotels, restaurants, public accommodations and the like. Do we have to have voting rights right away?
And again, you see the likes of Dr. King and others, the freedom riders, going into the South trying to insist, no, you've got to enforce civil rights laws. You can't allow it to be a back burner issue. This is critical for us in terms of black America, in terms of civil rights in America today. Here's Johnson at the signing of the Voting Rights Act.
(Soundbite of then President Lyndon B. Johnson at signing of the Voting Rights Act)
President LYNDON B. JOHNSON: There were those who said this is an old injustice, and there is no need to hurry. But 95 years have passed since the 15th amendment gave all negroes the right to vote. And the time for waiting is gone.
HANSEN: What do you think overall is Dr. King's political legacy?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, in a speech at Selma, and when you talk about convincing President Johnson to act in terms of the Voting Rights Act, it was going to Selma. It was challenging Governor Wallace in terms of voter registration. It was insisting that literacy tests, poll taxes, and the like, be invalidated, that they had no place, that people had to have the right vote.
Dr. King once said, we wouldn't have politicians standing in school house doors if blacks had the power to vote. We wouldn't have people like Sheriff Jim Clark down in Selma, you know, releasing the fire hoses, beating people, beating black people who were simply trying to register to vote if black people had the power to vote. And so, in many ways, King's legacy is about the passage of the Voting Rights Act, even more so than the Civil Rights Act.
And it ties in directly to what we're going to see in two weeks here in Washington, Liane, because it's the power of the vote. And it's not just the black vote, it's the Hispanic vote, it's the female vote. It's the power of people coming together who have felt that they were dislocated or ignored and coming together to create a passion for a candidate. I think you see that in Barack Obama. And so, to my mind, it's a natural extension of gaining the right to vote, exercising that right to vote and then seeing an unorthodox candidate, an African-American like Barack Obama, rise to the power of the presidency.
HANSEN: NPR News analyst, Juan Williams. He's the author of "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary" and "Eyes on the Prize," the companion book to the widely acclaimed PBS series on the Civil Rights Movement. Thanks for coming in, Juan.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Liane.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.