Meet the Press   |  August 25, 2013

Doris Kearns Goodwin remembers civil rights movement

Historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin reflects back to her memories of the civil rights movement as a young college student.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> dr. king again on this program 50 years ago, he spoke about the highway of freedom and all its dimensions, moving up that highway of freedom. doris kearns goodwin , you were there 50 years ago, which is remarkable since you're only 27 now.

>> hooray.

>> i spoke to taylor branch , the historian of the era, and he talks about dr. king as a modern founding father. here's a portion of my conversation with him.

>> the founders confronted at the beginning of america a hierarchy, kings, monarchs, and they figured out a way to promote equal citizenship, to found us on the idea that we have equal votes and equal souls. and they moved us in that direction, and so did lincoln and the people -- the best, highest patriots have done that, and that's certainly what the civil rights movement did and dr. king did.

>> the meaning of that moment today.

>> i think there's no question that taylor branch is right. there are -- it's a straight line from martin luther king backward to lincoln , backward to the founding phatters. they created an ideal of the country founded on the idea that all men were created equal . they knew all men were not created equal . we had slavery. but they mu we'd force ousts to move forward it. lincoln moved us forward. martin luther king 100 years later got us further to that ideal. what was so special about that march when i was a college student , i remember the day , i remember the singing, i remember the worry before hand about whether there'd be mob violence . but most of all i remember the exhilaration, a feeling i was part of something larger than myself. we were helping to make the country a better place . and despite the fact that the '60s degenerated into riots later, assassinations, the vietnam war , there was something about that hopefulness in the early '60s. it stayed with me my whole life. and that's what you have to re-create today, the idea we can change the country, nonviolent movement, leadership, did it then, civil war did it in an earlier time, the framers did it at the beginning. we have a generation that can do it now.

>> can i pay tribute to the two men who organized the march, especially randolf, a man of immense dignity, who believed in peaceful, direct options. you go after your opponents relently. superior emotional discipline and self-control and force them, the racists in that count, to display their own evil and transfer the whole debate that way by a superior dignity. that was part of what the march did, took a strategy deeply thought through and expressed to the nation and showed how you made social change .

>> sheryl wudunn , you won a pulitzer prize covering china, particularly the demonstrations in tiananmen square . the resonance that you saw covering tiananmen square of that 1963 march.

>> oh, absolutely. look, absolutely, martin luther king 's speech was the greatest speech of the 20th century so it had to have an effect around the world. the underlying need for better jobs, better -- you know, life and also freedom was very strong. a chinese student leader actually invoked martin luther king has his role model during the tiananmen square movement. but most kids, they would say something like, one student told me, democracy, yes, i don't know much about it but i know we need more of it.

>> it's interest, reverend, the tension at the time, and again it plays out in this special rebroadcast on nbc when you saw dr. king with roy wilkins . to david's point, you saw dr. king so poised and unflappable facing questions of potential violence in washington. but there was tension about the value of that kind of demonstration, mass demonstration in the street, and how it made african-americans look and appear to a largely white america .

>> it's ironic that people don't understand mrs. king, who i've got to know well -- i was too young to know dr. king -- talked about how controversial he was during his lifetime and those tactics of randolph and rustin. people always said you're causing violence, stirring things up, and you're moving too fast, and i think that upon his death people gave him credit for things that he never heard in life. and in many ways we hear today some of the same kinds of attacks. certainly no one's on the scale that they were, but the same kinds of things, that why don't y'all do it another way, when these are the ways you dramatize the problem. marches are not set to solve a problem. they're set to show the problem and force someone to solve it.