Panel discussion on the March on Washington and civil rights legislation

You certainly do have problems, and some of the difficulties you point out, it seems to me particularly on the percentage of counties, I quite agree, it seems to me that that is a weakness of that title of the bill. To explain to the audience what we're talking about, there is a provision in the bill that authorizes the attorney general to seek action, to protect and ensure the voting rights of Negro citizens in counties where less than 15 percent of the minority group in question are not registered.
Now, obviously, this leaves out counties where there are 16, 17, 18, 20, 30 percent, which are badly in need of this protection. It also opens or invites the kind of circumlocution here that a county with 10 percent registered Negroes will go out and register another five, and then lower the boom and stop it. You can find going through this legislation piecemeal many difficulties with it. I think the point is that some of these measures can be strengthened on the floor of Congress, if we can develop public discussion on this bill.
Now, really, I think the sense of Mr. Lewis' remarks today, his censored remarks indicated, to me, as you read them anyway, really the legislative approach is so watered down that it's not much use to us. This was a rather extreme statement, and not spelled out in the calmer mood, in which you pronounced it now. But directed really against almost any kind of legislation at all.
Now, this is not a position that it seems to me the consensus of the civil rights groups or the Negro community support. And it seems to me that this is one of the reasons why his remarks were censored today.
Please let me make two comments. Just two comments, first, it’s generally agreed in Congress here that there's going to be no strengthening on the floor. The bill, the strongest bill, is going to be the bill that comes out of sub-cellar, Sub-Committee No. 5, and go into the full committee.
It's agreed, it generally felt, that the house bill will then be – that is the sub-committee bill will then be probably weakened to a degree in the full judiciary committee where there are many Southerners. Then going to the floor, through the Rules committee, probably further weaken on the floor. Of course, we don't want this to happen, but that's the general consensus here.
Secondly, the analysis of Mr. Lewis' comments of being extreme, along these lines, and being antithetical to the remedy of legislation, just isn't accurate, in my view. I don't think that's there at all.
And from what I know about Mr. Lewis, I wouldn't say so either. I was just saying that I didn't get by any means the same ideas that Professor Goldsmith seems to have received from Mr. Higgs' analysis of Mr. Lewis' position because it does not seem that he would reject the immediate objectives through legislation. And it certainly does not seem that he would rule out altogether using the legislative process, as a means of bringing about his ends.
And I did see today, not only Lewis expressing the idea that the time has long since passed, when we could expect the Negro to deal out in large measures, this precious commodity of patience. And the expression, freedom now, was not used in just Mr. Lewis' speech, but in Dr. King's speech. I think Mr. Wilkins used something quite comparable to it. And the whole spectrum of the civil rights protest movement, as represented here today, expressed this point of view that white America can expect the Negro to go on acting the way he has been acting, if he continues to receive the type of treatment he's been receiving.
I would like to move away for a moment from these differences of opinion and interpretation of Mr. Lewis' remarks to the question of the Negro in the north. I think there probably is general agreement among people who are interested in this question that the first basic right to be guaranteed to all Americans is to vote, and agreed on the desirability of legislation to secure that for all Americans.
But there are discontented Negroes in the north, and here in Massachusetts, there's probably the most advanced legislation of any state in the union. Yet I'm sure if you went out and asked Negroes here in Boston whether they were satisfied with the state of affairs, they'd express extreme discontent. There is discontent in the north.
What can be done about that? What about the legislation, and its affect on the north? And if something isn't done to secure further guarantees, and a better life in the ghettoes in the north, what is going to be the affect in the north? Professor Goldsmith? Mr. Burns?
The same, Mr. Godsell. We had hoped that the objective wouldn't be a better life in the ghetto, but the actual destruction of the ghettos themselves.
I understand. Professor Goldsmith, on Negroes in the north, and legislation as it affects the north?
Well, I think that the so-called sophisticated area that we were talking about earlier certainly has to be clarified, and that's why I put such great emphasis on public discussion of what this sophisticated area is. But I must say, in general, that in a situation like we're in now, which rightfully is called the revolutionary situation, some kind of tactical decisions are necessary.
Now, it may be that the major problem in the south today is the federal judges. I'm not informed, as well as Mr. Higgs is to make this general characterization of all the federal judges in the South, but this isn't a legislative matter you see. And to put your major emphasis on this problem in the middle of a legislative fight, you may awaken some interest in the President's future appointment of federal judges. But in the meantime, the specific legislative objectives may be lost.
Now, this is what I don't want to see. It seems to me that there was a certain element of rhetoric running somewhat loose or wild in the remarks that Mr. Higgs read that were censored from Mr. Lewis' speech. And I assume that the other leaders came to a determination that on a tactical basis, they want some strong legislation, and then to move out from there, and they're going to fight to get it.
Mr. Higgs, one moment please. We have only two or three minutes left, and I don't want to get bogged down in this discussion of some particular aspect of legislation. I would like to ask each member of the panel what danger he thinks there is that there is going to be a feeling of letdown after this march, after any hopes it might've raised. I'll ask Mr. Higgs first, and as brief as possible, just a sentence.
Well, I wanna say one sentence that it emphatically is the role of legislation to deal with the tight courts, and that consider this legislation, that precisely is what was involved in this bill. But in answer to your question, I think there will be perhaps a tremendous upsurge from this. In other words, this might be galvanizing, I believe as Mr. Burns has said, of so many of these elements, of these concurrent feelings, and desires to push something, to get this over with this year.
Well, the whole idea of free in ‘63 seems to have been an unrealistic goal, although the goal does seem a bit more distant. But it's also obvious that the Negroes aren't going to make it any more distant than is humanly possible. And I think that the real reaction to what is going on today will not come immediately, but only after the civil rights bill does come out. And if we get one passed at all, it will be a much watered down one, I believe, if we get any one passed at all. And then I think at this point, that the upsurge that Mr. Higgs just mentioned will come to be.
I think if we get a watered down civil rights bill, it will be a great catastrophe. And it seems to me that it is one that need not happen, and if some of the great energy and spirit that was evoked today can be channeled and directed into intelligent, public appraisal, and discussion of the legislative struggle coming up for a strong civil rights bill, I think one can be passed this session of congress.
Gentlemen, I'd like to thank you all for so patiently taking part in this discussion.
You have just heard a panel discussion on the implications of the Freedom March. Our guests in Washington, DC, Haywood Burns, author of the soon-to-be-published, The Voices of Negro Protest in America, and William Higgs, a civil rights consultant, and representative of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee on the leadership conference on civil rights.
Our guest here in Boston was William Goldsmith, Assistant Professor of Politics at Brandeis University. The moderator for this evening's panel was Geoffrey Godsell, editorial writer for the Christian Science Monitor. This program was produced for the ERN by WGBH-FM in Boston.