Wednesday marks 50 years since the famous March on Washington, when more than 200,000 Americans gathered in support of civil rights. Capital correspondent Karen Dewitt sat down with former governor David Paterson, the first African-American to serve as governor of New York state, to talk about the event and its impact on his life.
Karen Dewitt: Gov. Paterson, we’re really glad you could join us to talk about this topic. First of all, I want to know how old you were when the March on Washington happened.
Gov. David Paterson: On August 28th, 1963, I was nine years old, and I was scheduled to go with my parents to the March on Washington. I didn’t get there.
Karen Dewitt: And why?
Gov. Paterson: I think the reason I didn’t get there will really provide historical perspective to the March on Washington, which is viewed almost anachronistically. Now it’s almost like it was a big picnic, and Martin Luther King made a great speech, and everybody was happy, and it makes a great AT&T commercial. That’s not what was going on that day. My parents did not take me to the March on Washington, and my mother didn’t go, because there were widespread rumors that there was going to be violence at that event. There were threats from the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society and other anonymous sources that they were going to do things that made sure the people that went to that march would suffer.
Karen Dewitt: You came from a political family, of course your father was secretary of state, the first African-American Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, but did those events get you interested in wanting to go into politics? Is there a direct connection there?
Gov. Paterson: I think those events made me interested in social activism. And I would say my father’s attempt to become the first black lieutenant governor, and winning the primary with 71 percent of the vote, won every county except his opponent’s county of Huntington, and they wouldn’t put my father’s picture in the commercials because they didn’t really want it known that it was a black candidate running. So it was a long time from 1970 to 2006, when I ran for lieutenant governor with Eliot Spitzer and he had me in every picture in everything he did and had me right next to him every place he went.
Karen Dewitt: Do you think that things are better than when you were nine years old, or what still need to be done?
Gov. Paterson: Anybody that would say that things are no different than they were in 1963 is a charlatan and should just be dismissed. But anyone that thinks that we’re in a serious post-racial period where we’re all equal and everything’s the same, needs just look at the education statistics, the economic development statistics, the wider gap between black and white when it comes to personal net worth, the wider gap when it comes to opportunity to complete college. We still have a lot of work to do. And sometimes, the symbols of David Paterson becoming governor in the spring of 2008 and incredibly, Barack Obama becoming president in the fall of 2008, they are wonderful accomplishments. They certainly move the bar, but the bar still has some ways to move. As a matter of fact, Karen, sometimes I think that the House and Senate in Washington, in 2013, 2014 and 2015 -- 50 years after the March on Washington, the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Federal Voting Act of 1965 -- couldn’t pass those same bills in their same form today.
Karen Dewitt: That’s a very good point, we’ve almost sort of gone full circle on that. We’ll have to end it there, thank you very much for joining us Governor David Paterson.
Gov. Paterson: Well for such a great topic, it was an honor.
The March on Washington culminated with Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” He was killed five years later in 1968.