Back in the day: What critics said about King’s speech in 1963

Updated
Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963.
Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963.
Paul Slade/Paris Match/Getty Images

Fifty years later, the March on Washington is considered one of the great moments in American history, celebrated by millions of people across the nation and even the world.

But that wasn’t the universal view at the time. Some of the major political leaders of the day spoke out in opposition to Martin Luther King Jr’s dream and the demands of civil rights activists.

Many prominent Democrats made the argument that African-Americans should be happy with what they had, rather than asking for more.

“The Negroes in this country own more refrigerators, and more automobiles, than they do in any other country,” South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond told NBC News in the hours after the event. “They are better fed, they are better clothed, they have better houses here than in any other country in the world.”

“No one is deprived of freedom that I know about,” he added.

Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana claimed that the push for equality violated the rights of business owners.

“Now what I as a Southerner plan to fight for is the right of a man to choose the neighbors among whom he will live, the right to decide who he’s going to trade with, who he’s going to do business with, who he’s going to associate with,” Long said.

“You see a lot of white folks out there in that demonstration,” he added. “If they want to mix with that mob, that’s fine. If somebody wants to be left alone by those people, I think he’s entitled to be left alone too.”

“I think a lot of younger people today probably aren’t aware of just how virulent that open segregationist racism against black people was,” author David Garrow explained on PoliticsNation. “The degree of violence that the civil rights movement encountered in the south was one reflection of just how intense some of that hatred was.”

That reaction was not confined to the south. By 1966, a nationwide Gallup poll found only 33% of Americans had positive feelings about Dr. King.

As author Gary Younge pointed out on the program, it took years before America began to collectively embrace the “I have a dream” speech and the ideals of the March on Washington.

“Between ‘63 and ‘68, the dream speech is barely mentioned,” he said. “It’s only after King’s assassination when America thinks, ‘How can we remember this man?’”

“At that time in the American conservative movement there was widespread opposition to the civil rights bill which became the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Garrow said.

Even through the 1980’s, opposition to Dr. King remained.

“That opposition carries on, even Reagan in 1983, when he was asked–Ronald Reagan–was asked, ‘Do you still think King was a communist?’ he said, ‘We’ll have to wait 35 years to find out,’ meaning the opening of FBI files,” Younge explained. “So the suspicion and animosity towards King and his legacy carries on well into the 80’s.”

In 2010, then-Senate candidate Rand Paul told the Louisville Courier-Journal and later the Rachel Maddow Show that he had issues with the part of the 1964 the Civil Rights Act that mandated private businesses could not discriminate. But the controversy Paul’s remarks caused can be seen as a testament to how far the country has come.

“It’s a tribute to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the sort of Southern white segregationist opinion captured so powerfully in that footage has virtually disappeared from American politics,” Garrow said.

Back in the day: What critics said about King's speech in 1963

Updated