On Sunday, August 25, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins sat down for an interview on Meet the Press about the impending March on Washington. The first question forced the men to answer the charge that many believed it “impossible” for “100,000 militant negroes” to assemble without rioting. The second question asked what gains could possibly outweigh the risks of marching. The third question was, “Don’t you think, though, that both the country and Congress itself are aware of the situation? Do you have to take the risks you are going to take in order to emphasize it?” The fourth question not-so-subtly accused the Civil Rights Movement’s leadership of communist infiltration. And the questions grew more skeptical from there.
The day after the march, there was a 1,300-word story about the event on the front page of the Washington Post. Neither the name “Martin Luther King Jr.” nor the phrase “I have a dream” appeared even once. Of the two-dozen stories the Post published about the March on Washington, Washington’s largest newspaper mentioned the title of the speech that would become one of the most famous in human history just once, on the bottom of A15. That same day, civil rights leaders visited Capitol Hill and the White House to demand the inclusion of stronger enforcement and anti-discrimination provisions in the Kennedy administration’s already courageous and admirable civil rights legislation. But a Time magazine story said that from politicians of both parties, “the visitors got polite words—and polite refusals.”
The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington comes at a moment when America’s collective frustration with its capital has reached a fever pitch. The insular, myopic, self-serving nature of the city’s political class has left us deeply cynical about Washington’s ability to function in a way that reflects our founding values of liberty, equality, and opportunity.
But while the rot has certainly spread over the last few decades, recollections of the city’s tepid, skeptical reaction to the most important civil rights march of all time remind me of a favorite saying: “Washington is always the last to get the news.” Or, as my former boss put it when he accepted the 2008 Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of the march, “the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.”
This sentiment, which President Obama repeated hundreds of times during the eight years I worked for him, always generated more than a few snickers and eye rolls from the city’s pundits and political observers. One reporter said that the president committed his “biggest gaffe” in four years when he made the following observation during the 2012 campaign: “The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside.”
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