Today most Americans are enjoying a day off of work because it's Martin Luther King Day. Adoption of the federal holiday met early resistance from Senate Republicans, in particular North Carolina's Jesse Helms and John P. East. By 1983, President Ronald Reagan had more than enough congressional support to sign the holiday into law. It was first observed three years later. However, not all 50 states officially signed on until 2000, when South Carolina became the last to recognize the day as a paid holiday.
In February of 1964, U.S. News & World Report ran several exclusive interviews with leaders of the Civil Rights movement, including then-president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 1964, issue of U.S. News & World Report.
'Boycotts Will Be Used'
Interview: Martin Luther King, Jr., President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Q Dr. King, what trend will the drive for equal rights take in this election year?
A I think it will gain momentum. I think the progress that was made in 1963 has given the Negro a desire for greater progress in 1964 and the years ahead.
I think the drive this year will center on getting more Negro registered voters, so that the Negro vote can be an important factor in the presidential election.
There will be a great deal of activity in the entire field of civil rights. We feel that it is imperative to get the civil-rights bill through Congress. If it doesn't get through, the nation will face a great deal of social disruption.
Q What do you mean by social disruption?
A I would describe it as frustration and despair in the Negro community that would not be healthy for the society as a whole. I'm sure that if this bill does not pass—particularly the public-accommodations section—we will see demonstrations on a scale that we haven't seen before.
Q Do you think there will be another march on Washington this year—or a march on Congress?
A I think this is altogether possible. If there is a filibuster in the Senate, I'm sure that advocates of civil rights will engage in some type of direct action to dramatize opposition to this tragic and blatant abuse of the democratic process.
Q Aside from pressure for enactment of the civil-rights bill, will there be any change in the nature or scope of the civil-rights campaign generally?
A No, I don't think so. I think the same methods that have been used in the past few years will continue.
Q Do you expect more demonstrations?
A Yes. In communities where there is a recalcitrance on the part of political leaders, there will probably be large-scale demonstrations. In communities where there still is segregation in public places generally, there will be demonstrations just as we have been having in Atlanta.
Q What objectives will be stressed most intensively?
A Passage of the civil-rights bill will be one of the first and foremost objectives in 1964.
Along with this, there will be a big push to get better job opportunities for Negroes.
The program to wipe out poverty that has been discussed by President Johnson concerns us a great deal—because Negroes suffer in this area probably more than anybody else, from a percentage standpoint.
SCHOOLS AND HOUSING—
Q Will you press for more integration in schools?
A Very definitely. Fortunately, the civil-rights bill has a section in it that will speed up school integration. We're very concerned about that section. It will give the Attorney General power to initiate court action to speed school desegregation. We feel that this is necessary in the South, where the process has been all too slow.
In the North, we feel that it is necessary to grapple with the very difficult problem of de facto segregation. I'm sure that direct-action programs, such as boycotts, will be used in order to bring this issue out into the open in Northern communities.
Q Do you mean that there will be a widespread attack on what is known as the neighborhood-school pattern in the North?
A Yes, it seems that there will be. Groups are being formed in Northern communities to attack the old tradition of neighborhood-school patterns which continue to maintain de facto segregation in public schools.
As long as you have residential segregation, this problem will exist to some degree. But we feel that this should not be used as an excuse, that a community must rid itself of as much de facto segregation in the schools as possible, even though residential segregation is still a reality.
Q How will your campaign attack residential segregation?
A We will continue to work in every State for fair-housing bills. Some States already have such laws, but most States do not. We are working in many communities, even in the South, for open-occupancy laws. I'm sure that there will be intensified activity around the whole question of desegregation in housing.
Q Do you expect the 1964 effort in that regard to center in the South or in the North?
A I would think that you would get strong activity in both North and South. I think that 1964, like 1963, will continue to reveal that this is a national problem and not merely a sectional problem.
Q Will much of the activity in the North center in the big cities, such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia?
A Yes. I would think that most of the activity in the North will be in the big cities—mainly on the questions of employment equality, de facto segregation in the schools, and residential segregation.
Q What is the outlook on the issue of public accommodations?
A In the North, this isn't a major problem. But, in the South, it is indeed a major problem. It still symbolizes the deep humiliation of the system of segregation.
As long as Negroes are denied access to public accommodations, they will be stigmatized with this sense of inferiority, this sense of being "untouchables" in a caste system. Consequently, we will continue all-out efforts to integrate public facilities in the South. We feel that this section of the civil-rights bill is a most important section, and we don't plan to compromise at any point on this section.
Some of us feel so strongly about it that we would rather see no bill at all than to see a bill devoid of the public-accommodations section.
Q Have you seen evidence that white resistance to demands of Negroes is stiffening—taking the form of bloc voting by whites?
A I think some of this is inevitable in a period of social transition. Many people in the North have come to realize that they probably had much more deep-seated prejudices than they had been conscious of. It took the big push by the Negro community and the allies of the Negro in the white community to bring this whole issue to the surface in 1963.
I'm not at all discouraged. I think that this whole issue is out in the open now in a way that it has never been before. It's something like a boil, which, if kept covered up, will never be cured. It's only when you open it to air and light that it can be cured, even though it's ugly for the moment.
I think that we are bringing to the surface an issue that has been in the background all too long. We have tried to hide it. Now, it is out in the open, and this is the only way that it will be cured.
Q If this bloc voting develops as a trend, do you see a likelihood that it might work to the disadvantage of the Negroes?
A I don't think we will have any bloc voting that would be 100 per cent—even 75 per cent—bloc voting by the white community in any State.
The fact is that we have more support—active support—from the white community in the nation than ever before. I think that 1963 brought a coalition of conscience we had never seen before. For example, church groups came out in 1963 in a way they never had come out in the past—in terms of active participation by white clergymen and many of the lay leaders in white churches.
There will be some bloc voting, but I don't think the greatest percentage of whites will participate in it.
OUTLOOK FOR VIOLENCE—
Q Do you foresee widespread violence in months ahead?
A There will probably be sporadic violence here and there, but at this time I do not see a trend toward widespread violence. I don't think the Negro has any inclination to turn to widespread violence, because we've come to see that violence is not only immoral in our struggle, but impractical.
There will be, I'm sure, some reactionaries, die-hards, individuals on the lunatic fringe in the white community who may engage in violence as they've done before, by throwing bombs here and there and shooting at those who engage in demonstrations. But I don't think there will be any widespread violence.
Q Why do Negro leaders place such heavy stress on the civil-rights bill? Do you feel that laws can solve the major problems that Negroes face?
A I think that laws are very important in getting to the major problems.
I'm not saying that the ultimate problem in human relations can be solved through legislation. You can't make a man, through legal strictures and judicial decrees or executive orders, love somebody else. But we aren't trying to legislate love. We are trying to legislate issues that regulate behavior.
Even though morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. While the law cannot change the heart, it can certainly restrain the heartless.
It may be true that you can't legislate integration, but you can certainly legislate desegregation. And I think that desegregation is a necessary first step to bring about an integrated society.
Q Have Negroes made considerable progress in recent years?
A Yes. I think we've made very significant strides in civil rights and in re-evaluating our own intrinsic worth. I think that the Negro has a greater sense of dignity and self-respect now than ever before. This is very important, because as long as individuals don't have a sense of self-respect, it is difficult for them to engage in the necessary action programs to rectify their over-all social ills.
But the gains must not lead to a superficial optimism. We still have a long, long way to go. The strides that have been made in terms of individual accomplishments and employment opportunities and other areas have applied mainly to middle-class Negroes. The lot of the masses of Negroes remains about the same. Until we can improve the lot of the masses of Negroes, we must recognize that the problem is far from solved.
Q Is the time approaching when future gains will depend more on efforts of Negroes as individuals than on a mass movement?
A I think we've got to work on both levels. We need a strong action movement to seek removal of conditions that prevent us from rising to our full maturity, such as the system of segregation. At the same time, we need a constructive program which will help Negroes as individuals to improve the lagging standards that have come into being as a result of segregation and discrimination.
Q There seems to be a division among Negro leaders as to whether the recent demonstrations in Atlanta have been good or bad strategy. How would you judge the effectiveness of the Atlanta demonstrations?
A I've felt all along that the demonstrations were necessary. Many of the political leaders in Atlanta urged restaurant owners to end segregation. The Chamber of Commerce urged this. The local newspapers urged it. Yet these men refused to desegregate. I could see no alternative but to bring this issue before the conscience of the community and before the conscience of these businessmen by engaging in nonviolent demonstrations.
The only way we've made strides over these years of the struggle has been by bringing the issue out in the open. If we just waited for voluntary action, we would be waiting for years. So I heartily approve of the demonstrations, and I think they have the support of the vast majority of Negroes in Atlanta.
Q Nationally, Dr. King, is there any serious division among Negro leaders on methods to be used to achieve the goals you seek?
A No. I think we are very united in our goals, and I think we are united on the methods. Some organizations may emphasize one method over another. But I tend to feel that the highway that leads to the city of freedom, figuratively speaking, is not a one-lane highway but a three-lane highway:
Some of the organizations will move down the lane which stresses nonviolent, direct action.
Another lane stresses working through the courts, through legislation.
Another emphasizes preparation of the Negro for life in a highly urbanized society.
These are not contradictory forces. They supplement each other. I think that we are working together in a very meaningful and united way. There may not always be uniformity, but there is certainly unity.
Q Do the Negro leaders consult with one another?
A Yes we do, very frequently. We meet at least once a month, sometimes twice a month. We have what is known as the United Council for Civil Rights Leadership — which, we feel, is an important development.
Q When was the Council organized?
A I think it was in July of last year, just before the March on Washington.
Q What groups are represented?
A The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Urban League, the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the NAACP, and the National Council of Negro Women.