My father never wanted his story told. He said strongly on the phone today: “Do not feature me, feature Martin Luther King. He is one of 100 greatest Americans. He set the record straight on discrimination.”
But my father experienced a piece of history. He is a living primary source, so I have defied him to bring you a glimpse of a grass roots movement in American history:
“In the spring of 1961 I received a call from Martin Luther King. He was organizing his summer schedule and he wanted more participants.”
Dr. King said, “You are a student leader in the Midwest.” I was then president of the Wisconsin Union in Madison. We had had a decade of McCarthy sending half of Hollywood into unemployment. I defended the right of Pete Seeger to hold a concert. I sat on the Board of Trustees. I argued, we must be open to other people’s views in life. It’s part of the education process. The education process means you need the freedom to listen and learn.
The call came in when I was sitting in my office at the Wisconsin Union on the third floor, where we organized hundreds of events.
He asked, “Do you have an interest?”
I said, “Yes, I have an interest in your movement but I have a prior commitment to the military.”
How King found out who people were was pretty interesting. He was a very resourceful man with a cause to explain to the public. This was not a violent movement. This was not a campaign. He was trying to recruit assistants to the movement to replace discrimination with equal rights, something that had been delayed for a century.
He was a very pleasant man on the phone. We had a chat for about five minutes. I said, “I’ve read about you, and I’ve seen you on the TV news.”
Had I not had the commitment to the army, I would have accepted Dr. King’s invitation.
Two years later in 1963, MLK would march on Washington and millions would hear the words of the pastor named for the reformer Martin Luther.
My dad, named for the U.S. statesman, Daniel Webster, would serve on active duty during the war in Vietnam to return in 1966. He would be given bachelor officers quarters in New York.
Martin Luther King would be assassinated in 1968.
Later that same year, my parents were married and would move in together on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
So much history in those seven years.
My father’s final words before ending our call — “He ran it (the Civil Rights movement) and he died for it, and it is one of the great tragedies of the history of America.”
And so the dream was put in all of our hands.