Americans of a certain age are more than likely to assert that they saw the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s compelling “I Have a Dream” speech live on television.
It’s more than likely they are deluding themselves.
King’s soaring oratory, the climax to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, was many things to many people. But a big TV event wasn’t one of them.
The timing, late afternoon on a summer weekday, didn’t lend itself to wide tune-in. Plus, it was an era when national television news came from three sources, ABC, CBS and NBC, and was consigned to distilled 24-minute dispatches at dinnertime.
“Only CBS committed to afternoon coverage,” said Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at New York’s Paley Center for Media. “And most of their broadcast,” anchored by Roger Mudd, “consisted of correspondents talking to politicians about the impact of the march on legislation.
“Two of the networks did not cover that portion live,” Simon continued. “ABC was probably broadcasting ‘American Bandstand’ from Philadelphia.”
The young studio audience of dancers on Dick Clark’s show was not desegregated until 1965, after production had moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.
At the time King took the podium on that hot afternoon in 1963, prefaced by gospel legend Mahalia Jackson singing “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned,” NBC was showing a rerun of “Make Room for Daddy” with Danny Thomas, Angela Cartwright and Hans Conried.
“Television was lagging behind the major social movements – racial equality, antiwar and women’s rights,” said television historian Tim Brooks, co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present.”
“Television was an escapist medium, showing ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ while there were demonstrations in the street. It wasn’t until late in the ’60s that television began to reflect modern reality.”
In a very real way, that speech was instrumental in dragging TV out of the insulated “Donna Reed” epoch, primarily because it turned out that viewers did want to hear King’s message. Ratings are the only argument that networks can hear, then as now.
CBS’ live coverage “did much better than the regular daytime shows,” Simon said, “which I think really surprised network executives.
“They all did recaps in prime time that equaled the ratings for ‘Wagon Train’ (ABC) and ‘The Virginian’ (NBC).”
Part of the reason for the scant coverage was the pervasive conviction that such a large gathering of minorities would inevitably end in violent unrest.
“There was a deputy attorney general standing inside the Lincoln Memorial with his finger on the button” for the loudspeaker system, said James Polk, producer of CNN’s documentary “We Were There: The March on Washington.” He added: “He was poised to cut off the speeches if things got out of hand.”
For those who did watch the actual live broadcast, it was an indelible moment.
“I came away from the television set knowing that was a major event in the civil rights struggle,” said Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” who in 1963 was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I had never heard such a speech, one with the power to move people, even on television.”
Even if you were on the Mall that day, there was a good chance you didn’t get to see King deliver his inspirational remarks. (This was well before the advent of giant Diamond Vision screens flanking the stage.)
“I could hear him but the crowd was too large to see him,” said Barbara Still, a school psychologist in Philadelphia, who as a middle schooler traveled by bus to Washington with the Harlem Educational Project.
“It was powerful, but it wasn’t the speech that defined the day,” Still continued. “We were all excited to see the civil rights workers from the South. We really looked up to that delegation and cheered for them everywhere they went. It was a day of encouragement, and celebration, and of admiration for the civil rights worker in the South.”
So, if this week somebody tells you they saw King’s masterpiece on live television, nod politely.
“We think the whole nation was galvanized by the speech,” said the Paley Center’s Simon. “But that simply wasn’t the case. It’s just that it’s been referenced, anthologized and reshown in so many different ways that everyone thinks they saw it live.”