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Secret White House recordings from MLK's 'I Have a Dream' summer

White House recordings from JFK's Oval Office shed new light on MLK and the civil rights movement.
A teenage suicide attempt foretold dark moods to come. Did it also lead to greatness?

A teenage suicide attempt foretold dark moods to come. Did it also lead to greatness? Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office/Wikimedia Commons

This year's Martin Luther King Day celebration coincides with the inauguration of President Obama. Thirty years ago President Ronald Reagan signed a new law making the third Monday of January Martin Luther King Day. Fifty years ago, during the late summer of 1963, President John Kennedy's White House hosted the Civil Rights leader on two important occasions. The first was immediately after King's "I have a dream" speech, and the second was nearly a month later following the tragic bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four girls.

Crosscut has been given permission to publish two transcripts from those meetings, which appear below. The transcripts and recordings appear in a new book, Listening In: the Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy. The book, which also includes two CDs, contains selections from 265 hours of recordings, which writer and historian Ted Widmer edits and introduces along with a foreword by the President's daughter, Caroline Kennedy.

August 28, 1963 JFK meets Civil Rights leaders 

On what may have been the most historic day of the Civil Rights movement, in the immediate aftermath of the “I have a dream” speech just delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., the leaders of the March on Washington came to the Oval Office. They were greeted by a president who was obviously moved by the speech he had watched on television, and more to the point, had a detailed political plan for pushing forward the legislation they wanted. 

The tapes continue from these excerpts to reveal him going through the entire Congressional delegation, with great specificity, to help the leaders of the movement understand how high the mountain was that they were trying to climb. A. Philip Randolph had first called for a march on Washington in the summer of 1940; at last his moment had come, even if a new generation was required to put his vision into law and everyday practice. In these excerpts, the leaders exult in their momentary triumph, and gird for battle in the fall.   

Roy Wilkins: You made the difference. You gave us your blessings. It was one of the prime factors in turning it into an orderly protest to help our government rather than a protest against our government. I think you’ll agree that was psychologically important. And the mood and attitude of the people there today pleased all of us, without exception.

Walter Reuther: The other thing that I think will come out of this, as I said today in my speech, after we get the legislation, that only means we’ve got a set of tools to work with. It doesn’t mean that automatically this problem is resolved.

What we have to do is to develop a broad coalition of men of good will in every community, where we’ve got to implement this program. And I think that this is what this march has done. It has brought into being an active, functioning coalition around this central question of equality of opportunity and first-class citizenship.

And I think if we reflect this by practical work in each community, we can mobilize the community, we can mobilize the men of good will, and we can search for answers in the light of reason by rational, responsible action. Because if we fail, then the vacuum that we create, our failure, is going to be filled by the apostles of hatred. And reason is going to yield to bitterness and bloodshed. So I think that this is really a more significant aspect of what we’re doing. We have put together the kind of coalition that can be meaningful at the community level, across this country, after we get the legislation, and it can be effective in mobilizing support for the legislation.

JFK:  Very fine, but let me just say a word about the legislation. There’s one thing that I, on this question of education ...  We have this juvenile program, as you know, in New York, and a lot, and the Attorney General was out in Chicago on it the other day and was shocked by some of the crowding of the class, the leaving (?) of the school, the fact that the best teachers … and there’s no visiting by the teachers in their homes.  And they won’t study, and the children won’t study unless … what their color or their income level is. 


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 12:28 p.m. Inappropriate

King got it right. Nothing happened to give blacks hope, not even the Civil Rights Act in 1964. No change in status. so race riots broke out all over and we had the summer of 1967. When King got killed in 1968 more race riots happened. LBL thought his "War on Poverty" would help, (We've spent billions perhaps as much as a trillion dollars on a war that was lost as soon as the president put it into action.)

Turns out having a black president isn't making much of a difference either. The things that JFK talked about within the black community are still the norm today. I had thought that having Obama in the White House might galvanize the black community and inspire black youth. Turns out it's the white and brown youth that got galvanized. Black kids are more interested in killing each other. Senseless.

I want to read the transcripts of the build up to the Bay of Pigs.

Djinn

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 9:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Truth: Obama isn't black. He's half white. Why do people continue to label him as either?

At least Seattle has melted and is not more the jet-black hair crowd of many ethnic peoples, not just the Scandihoovians.

JOBS for untrained people of all ages are important. Miniumum wage for untrained people are too high.

And yes, generations of people have been "left behind" and the learning curve to show them opportunity, hope and a decent paycheck seems impossibly high.

But quit using your tired 1960's rhetoric. It's old, it's useless. Crusty even.

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 9:43 p.m. Inappropriate

typo, sorry. Seattle has melted is is more the jet-black hair crowd of many ethnic peoples, not just the Scandihoovians.

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