“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the door of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick-sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood…” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963
In remembering the Great March on Washington, 50 years ago, we clearly remember the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — the greatest man of the 20th century. In remembering that epoch-making event, I also recall my two interviews of Dr. King.
The first was Jan. 28, 1964, with The Milwaukee Star staff at downtown’s storied old Schroeder Hotel. The second was in 1967, as a reporter with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. To my surprise, he recalled meeting me in Milwaukee. Both were highlights of my career.
Some of my most cherished memories of Dr. King are personal — especially when we met during his visit here to my hometown to address a fund-raising rally for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It was an experience I’ll never forget.
That evening, as associate editor of The Star — a ground-breaking Black weekly newspaper — co-workers and I met his plane at Mitchell Field and were part of an airport news conference. I took the accompanying photo of Dr. King with Black police detectives Dewey Russ and Leroy Jones, who provided security during his one day visit.
After traveling in separate cars to the Schroeder, we crowded onto a couch in a VIP suite — with Dr. King and I seated side-by-side. These moments were captured by a staff photographer in a historic photo with him holding a copy of The Star that appeared prominently in our paper and others — and also accompanies this column. Sadly, everyone else in the photo has since passed away.
Ever the gentleman, Dr. King listened as everyone got a chance to talk. As lead interviewer, when I spoke of the positive role of the Black press, he responded firmly.
“The Negro press is vitally necessary to readers during this time of the American social revolution,” he said. “In fact, this has always been the case.” He added that “…issues important to our people can be objectively presented in the Negro press; issues the daily press frequently neglects…”
In the highlight of our interview from my point of view, Dr. King looked directly at me and began talking about the need for Black people to develop self-esteem
“It’s not just important that our white brothers and sisters respect us,” he said. “We’ve got to respect ourselves. Because with self-esteem comes the success of the mind.”
He then stared gently into my eyes and said, “Wouldn’t you agree, young man?”
Detectives Russ and Jones then led the way as the group — including the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, executive director of New York City’s SCLC — left for a rally in the Milwaukee Auditorium. There, a capacity crowd of 6,000 in Bruce Hall included Mayor Henry Maier and Second Ward Ald. Vel Phillips.
During the rally, Rabbi Dudley Weinberg said this of Dr. King: “Out of his devotion to the cause of the Negro, he serves my needs as a white man. Out of his Christian heart, he speaks to my Jewish heart.”
And then Dr. King, in a sonorous voice that had echoed across the land the previous summer from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, boomed out: “Racial discrimination is a national problem. No section of the country can ignore it. You must decide tonight that you will not be content until we are all brothers.”
The evening ended soon after and I saw him in person, and spoke to him for the final time, in a suite at the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel in the autumn of 1967. On spotting me he said, “I know you, don’t I? Milwaukee a few years ago, wasn’t it?” Brimming with surprise, I recall saying, “Yes, that’s right. An interview with a Black weekly paper.”
But nothing could be more memorable than Dr. King’s inspiring message of hope 50 years ago — on August 28, 1963 — a sweltering summer day that was to become a pivotal point in the civil rights struggle. Yet today, despite electing our first Black president, much of the dream inherent in his sentiments has yet to be realized.
Dr. King’s 18-minute “I Have a Dream” speech is the most vivid memory of this special man most people retain. It also highlighted the first time a civil rights protest was aired live on national television as millions watched in living black-and-white and more than 250,000 people of all colors arrived from everywhere to demand an end to racism.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime tribute to the dream of racial equality — in the shadow of the Great Emancipator. It was from there Dr. King thundered out the phrases that have come to mean so much to so many. His eloquence was unforgettably captured by the TV cameras as his memorable words cut a swath through the heavy, late August air.
It was a day of celebration for the multitude — many chanting “pass it, pass it…” of President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights program before Congress. And it was a red-letter day on the small screen for millions who witnessed the historic event as it played out.
And 50 years later we remain justly proud of Dr. King — the first American since George Washington be honored with a holiday of his own. Rightly so, for his manner of man rarely walks among us. I am lucky for having had the opportunity to talk with him for the first, and best time, on a cold January day in my hometown of Milwaukee. Milwaukee native Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist