Martin Luther King Jr.'s Message Lives On

Wattleton: I do. I was at that time an undergraduate student in nursing at Ohio State. And it was afternoon, early evening. And I was passing medications in a patient's room. I was just riveted. I was, it was almost as though glue had suddenly attached to the bottom of my feet, and I just could not move. It was just such a compelling moment.

Claiborne: And it, obviously, it reached that crescendo with the litany of "I Have a Dream." Do you remember that?

Wattleton: I do remember that crescendo. You know, I happened to be a child of Southern immigrant parents. My mother was from Mississippi, or is from Mississippi, my father was from Alabama. He speaks about conditions in Mississippi and Alabama. They were really the poster children for the bad public laws that segregated, according to race, in our country.

Claiborne: Dr. King envisioned a future, an indefinite future, when there would be full equality legally and for opportunity, you know, the vestiges of racism would be expunged. Are we there, now?

Wattleton: No, we're not there now. And in spite of the fact that we have an non-white president, we still have a long way to go to change attitudes that are deeply embedded in the way we perceive one another.

Claiborne: Well, do you believe that we're at a point where a person's character, the content of their character is more important in how they are judged than the color of their skin?

Wattleton: No, I don't think that we're at that point. I think that we're at the point where it is more likely that character may be judged, but there is ample evidence that color of the skin trumps character.

Claiborne: What do you believe is the legacy of Martin Luther King 40 or almost 50 years later?

Wattleton: Well, we're still talking about him. This interview is evidence that the impact that he had on this country, the example that he set, the wisdom of the strategies that were implemented at that time, the legacy is still with us.

One of the aspects of the "I Have a Dream" speech is that there is not one word that says "woman" in the entire speech. The speech reflects about brotherhood, about man, about mankind, and women were not a part of the hierarchy, of the power structure of that civil rights time. Claiborne: Martin Luther King talked about the arc of history being long and bending toward justice. Does the arc of history bend from Martin Luther King to Barack Obama being president, making it possible that there be a non-white president?

Wattleton:Oh, absolutely. I agree with you that the arc of history from Martin Luther King bending toward Mr. Obama's presidency is, in my mind, irrefutable.

Claiborne: What was the most important contribution to America and African-American of Dr. King's life and struggle?

Wattleton: I think the most important contribution of Dr. King's life is that he created a symbol. He was a symbol for, for racial justice, for non-violence, for the possibility to move people forward, to compel people to come together who might not otherwise see common cause.

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