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Martin Luther King's 'Dream' transformed U.S. politics, law

U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King waves

U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King waves from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to supporters on the Mall in Washington, DC, during the "March on Washington." (Aug. 28, 1963) Credit: Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Like most members of Congress on Capitol Hill 50 years ago Wednesday, Long Island's Rep. John Wydler kept a wary eye on the massive March on Washington at the other end of the mall around the Lincoln Memorial.

Washington was on high alert as more than 200,000 people gathered to demand jobs and freedom at a rally highlighted by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

It was a message to the nation and the world, but its most immediate targets were the lawmakers nearby who would vote on the civil rights bill being worked on the House.

After the march ended peacefully, Wydler, a moderate Republican from Garden City, said, "It was very impressive and it achieved a worthwhile purpose. I was happy to see there was no violence."

But, he added, "I doubt it will change those who are opposed to civil rights legislation."


Status of King's dream

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama plans to stand where King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate King's speech and assess the status of his dream.

Aug. 28, 1963, didn't change the minds of Southern Democrats or allied Republicans, but historians say it helped build popular support, especially among whites, for a civil rights revolution that transformed America's law and politics.

Legislation passed in the 1960s tore down Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation and opened doors long closed to African-Americans.

And the Congressional fights over those bills realigned the Democratic and Republican parties ideologically and regionally into what they are today, said Calvin Mackenzie, co-author of "The Liberal Hour," a book about 1960s legislation.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin and gender passed by large bipartisan majorities.

All but one member of the New York House delegation of 21 Republicans and 20 Democrats, and both Republican senators voted for the bill. So did Long Island's four Republicans and lone Democrat.


Divided over rights bill

On the day of the march in 1963, however, President John F. Kennedy was worried about how he was going to pass a civil rights law at all.

Kennedy's own party was divided: Northern liberals demanded a stronger bill, but Southerners vowed a Senate filibuster to stop any legislation.

The Republican Party was split among liberals gung-ho on civil rights, moderates worried about business and individual rights, and conservatives allied with Southerners.

In the months to come, Southern segregationists beat "freedom riders" on buses, arrested King, turned fire hoses and dogs on marchers.

Kennedy embraced a broader civil rights package that liberals made stronger, but that he toned down to nail down Republican support.

Then he was assassinated. President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his first address, called on Congress to pass the legislation to honor Kennedy.

As the bill came up for a vote in the House in February 1964 and the Senate in June, no one doubted where the liberal and moderate Republicans and Democrats in New York stood.

Rep. Otis Pike of Riverhead, a rare Democrat in the Republican East End, was a yes vote.

Republican Sens. Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating were more liberal than most on civil rights. Wydler and fellow Long Island moderate Republican Rep. James R. Grover Jr. of Babylon also regularly backed civil rights.

Yet activists remained suspicious of conservative Reps. Frank Becker (R-Lynbrook) and Steven Derounian (R-Roslyn), though they had voted for civil rights bills in the past.

In October, the NAACP sent telegrams asking them to commit to a yes vote. Becker replied: "I have never and will not now myself to blindly vote for any legislation without knowing what is in it."

But, like the rest of the Long Island delegation, Becker voted to pass the House version in February 1964 and then the Senate-revised bill in July.

He never talked about it, said Nassau County Legis. Francis Becker, his grandson. "I can only tell you he was a person of extreme faith," he said.

Ripples felt on LI

The struggle, and passage, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sent ripples across Long Island.

In the 1964 election, Democrats won the seats of Derounian and the retired Becker, giving them three of the five seats.

Robert F. Kennedy, the former attorney general, defeated Keating, despite Keating's charge that Kennedy had not been liberal enough on civil rights. Over the years, New York State has become Democratic. Long Island is now represented by four Democrats and a Republican.

A half-century ago, Long Island's population was booming as a suburban destination and refuge for white flight from New York City. Few blacks lived on the Island -- they were 3 percent of Nassau's population, 5 percent of Suffolk's.

Reggy Pope, a real estate consultant in Freeport, recalled, "There was a lot of racism. I grew up on the north side. On the south side, we couldn't even go play in the parks."

Civil rights laws helped end those boundaries, said Elaine Gross, president of Erase Racism, a nonprofit in Syosset.

The South underwent more structural change than "up here," Gross said.

Nassau's population is now 12 percent black and Suffolk's 8 percent.

"We still have racially segregated schools on Long Island," she said. "We still have housing that's segregated."

But she added, "I like to think of it this way: We wouldn't even be where we are if it hadn't been for that legislation."

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