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Gov. David Paterson. Photo: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:David_Paterson_2_by_David_Shankbone.jpg">David Shankbone</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Gov. David Paterson. Photo: David Shankbone, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

NY's first black governor recalls March on Washington

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This week America is remembering and reconsidering one of the most influential moments in our nation's history. Fifty years ago on Wednesday, Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech before 250,000 people on The National Mall in Washington, DC.

One person who thought he was going to be there - but wasn't - was a 9 year-old David Paterson. Paterson went on to become New York State's first African American Governor.

Paterson sat down with Albany correspondent Karen Dewitt to share his memories of that day and how it shaped his life.

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Reported by

Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

Gov. David Paterson: On August 28, 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. 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 to make sure that the people who went to that march suffered. This had happened in other forums down south, and because of that, not only did my parents not let me go, but my mother stayed home with me, in case something happened to my father. So this is not the way it will be on the anniversary, when they just let everybody go down and celebrate it.

Karen DeWitt: It was a violent and scary time, really, and nobody knew which way things were going to go., so it was scary. But did you end up watching it on television?

DP: I watched in on television and I watched Martin Luther King's speech and was absolutely stunned by the way he talked. I had heard him speak before, but not the way he was that day, and I told my father when he got home that I thought that speech was better than the Gettysburg Address. And my father said, "Oh, please. The Gettysburg Address is one of the landmark speeches in this country." He has now denied that he said that to me. A kid always knows what his father has said. But that's the evolution of the speech and the evolution of the movement.

KD: And then  five years later, Martin Luther King, of course,  was assassinated. So how did all--I mean, you were sort of coming of awareness to the world--you were nine years old in 1963, and then fifteen in 1968 How did that shape your world view? All this stuff was going on: the civil rights movement, and advances and setbacks…

DP: I was very moved by it and wanted to be part of it, and wanted to go to these events. When Martin Luther King was killed, he was somewhat of a controversial figure at the time, because he was one of the first people to oppose the war, and people couldn't understand how he could do that to Lyndon Baines Johnson, who passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Housing Act. And no one could understand why he would do something like that. He was kind of controversial in that respect, and then on the other side, there were a lot of activists that didn't think Martin Luther King was confrontational enough.

But the night he got shot, everybody dropped their issues with him, because we knew we had lived with an historic figure. And there were many different reactions. Mine was anger--very angry that he could be taken away from his family at thirty-nine years old.

KD: You came from a political family. Your father was [New York] secretary of state, the first African American candidate for lieutenant governor--but did those events get you interested in wanting to go into politics? Is there a direct connection there?

DP: 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% of the vote, winning 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, long time from 1970 to 2006, when I ran for lieutenant governor with Eliot Spitzer and he had my picture in everything he did, and he had me right next to him everywhere he went.

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