Talking In Memphis (And Indiana): NBC'S Williams Speaks To All Three Candidates About Race And The Legacy Of MLK

04/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NBC Nightly News was live tonight from Memphis, Tennessee, starting off with anchor Brian Williams standing before the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 40 years ago tonight. Now the Lorraine Motel is the site of the National Civil Rights Museum, the second-floor balcony where Dr. King was standing when he was shot now permanently marked with a wreath.

Williams spoke with all three presidential candidates — John McCain live at the top of the broadcast, Hillary Clinton earlier in Memphis, and Barack Obama via satellite from Indiana, where he spent the day campaigning in advance of the May 6th primary. Williams asked McCain where he had been 40 years ago to hear that news; McCain responded with a rueful smile that he had been "living in a prison cell in North Vietnam" at that time, and had heard the news over Radio Hanoi. That was all you could really hear over the din of a speech going on in the background, which all but drowned out the presumptive Republican nominee.

More audible were the pre-taped interviews with the two Democratic candidates, Clinton and Obama. Clinton spoke of the "incredible" impact on her, at age 14, saying that despite "all the unfinished business of poverty and economic challenges and a war that we need to end" that was "so reminiscent of what he was talking about when he died," she was still optimistic for the country: "I believe the sun is rising. I believe the glass is half full." Williams asked her how she could be a leading voice on race when she was up against an African American; Clinton responded she was "here as a beneficiary of Dr. King... The Voting Rights Act helped me as well as helped those who were waiting in line to vote and being turned away in-- so many places across the south."

The final taped interview was with Obama, and Williams led by asking him why he wasn't in in Memphis on such a day; Obama responded that everyone across the country was commemorating Dr. King's death and life. Said Obama: "I thought that I could best deliver that message here in Indiana, and later, in North Dakota." Obama also emphasized "the link between economic justice and racial justice," noting that recent job losses had had a disproportionate effect on African Americans and Latinos. "That part of Dr. King's dream has not yet been achieved," said Obama. Williams asked Obama about prejudice in America, and Obama said that while the country was "light years" ahead of 1968, there were still strides to be made in overcoming divisions between groups, but that was the kind of leader he hoped to be. Like Clinton, Obama also said that he was a beneficiary of Dr. King: "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him."

: Williams apologized profusely for the sound problems at the top on his blog, and re-interviewed McCain for the 7:00 p.m. live feed of the broadcast. Watch it here, and watch the original interviews below:

Brian Williams with John McCain:

Brian Williams with Hillary Clinton:

Brian Williams with Barack Obama:


WILLIAMS: Without delay, before we get to the other news of this day, we want to bring in Senator John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee. I realize we're going to be fighting these speeches, Senator. You're kind to join us.

McCAIN: I'm glad to be here, Brian. Thank you.

WILLIAMS: For those who don't know your story, where were you 40 years ago tonight? How and when did you first hear of what happened here?

McCAIN: I was living alone in a prison cell in North Vietnam. Every morning and every evening, the Vietnamese would play a program that we called "Hanoi Hannah," it was a propaganda program. And, of course, immediately, as soon as this tragedy occurred, they told us about it and told us about it for days and weeks into the future. And they knew it would, they knew it would harm our morale and cause chaos and further their cause. And that's how I knew about it.

WILLIAMS: Today here you apologized for once voting against the MLK holiday.

McCAIN: Yes.

WILLIAMS: What was your justification then and what changed your position?

McCAIN: The justification was the expense and another federal holiday. It was not a good excuse. I later am proud to work very hard and be involved in the effort for the recognition of Dr. King by home state of Arizona, and I think I have a clear record since then. But it was wrong.

WILLIAMS: You've been here all day.

McCAIN: Yep.

WILLIAMS: You got a very nice reception from the crowd. What did you gain from being here today?

McCAIN: Well, you have to be here to appreciate this is a place of tragedy, triumph, and one of our historical places in America; but also where a crime was committed, but also a moment of triumph. Dr. King knew he was in danger. Dr. King knew probably that he may have ended his life early; but he did it for a cause and I'm very humble to be here.

WILLIAMS: You signed on today, in fact, if you're successful in your run for president, to make race a priority.

McCAIN: Yes....If we're going to give equality to all Americans, we've got to have equal education opportunity. That's my commitment, among others.

WILLIAMS: So you will, to make this anniversary live on, so we don't just forget the 40th, you'll carry something with you from today?

McCAIN: Of course, no one can come here without being deeply moved and humbled by a sacrifice that was made by a person who literally changed America. We've come a long way in the last 40 years, but we have a long way to go; and I'm committed. I'm committed, as president of the United States, to be president of all the people in this country.


WILLIAMS: Senator, first of all, this is-- this is almost a national talisman. Talk about the emotional impact this place.

CLINTON: Well, it has an incredible impact on me. Because I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard that Dr. King had been killed. I had met him as a young woman, when I was 14. And it really opened my life even as we look out at where we are in our country today, with all the unfinished business of poverty and economic challenges and a war that we need to end, it is so reminiscent of what he was talking about when he died. And we have to honor that.

WILLIAMS: You see the glass as half empty or half full? As they said during the Constitutional Convention, is the sun rising or setting where race, as a topic in this country, is concerned?

CLINTON: I believe the sun is rising. I believe the glass is half full. But whether you fill it to the top, or the sun actually makes it into the sky without being obscured by clouds and storms, is really up to us. It is not only up to those of us in public life, it is up to each of us in our personal lives.

WILLIAMS: How can you become the leading voice for-- matters of race for fulfilling Dr. King's dream with an African-American also in the race? Or does it matter whose voice is the leading voice as long as there's progress on the subject?

CLINTON: I think there are so many leading voices. And-- I am here as a beneficiary of Dr. King. The Voting Rights Act helped me as well as helped those who were waiting in line to vote and being turned away in-- so many places across the south. I was a young person when we reformed and amended the Constitution so that you could vote at the age of 18. So the emphasis on empowerment and participation that was at the core of the Civil Rights Movement has benefited me and every American whether we know it or not.

WILLIAMS: Final question. It's been theorized that not having a national conversation on race was perhaps one of the-- the missing elements of your husband's presidency. Can you pledge yourself to a national conversation on race?

CLINTON: Well, Brian, I believe that we have to continue it. It is an ongoing conversation. It should never end. And we not only need to talk about race, we need to talk about gender. We need to talk about religion. We need to talk about the full range of the categories in which we are often placed by ourselves and by those who look at us. I think, for me, as a white woman, you know, Dr. King was a category breaker. You know, he was reaching across all of those divides. And, as president, that's what I want to be as well. Here at home and around the world. We've got to find ways for us to connect with each other's common humanity.


WILLIAMS: A lot of people in the crowd assume you are here or will be here. Yet, you're not. Why is that?

OBAMA: Well, obviously, we all, I think across the country, are remarking-- on the tragic death and the extraordinary life of Dr. King. I thought that I could best deliver that message here in Indiana, and later, in North Dakota. And I also have the opportunity to talk to Dr. King's family this morning. I think they are aware of how important believe the legacy of Dr. King is. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him.

WILLIAMS: He was a 39-year-old man when he died on the balcony behind us. He's now been dead longer than he was on earth. What of his message, back then in 1968 continues today unchanged?

OBAMA: Well, obviously, race is still an important factor in our society. There is still discrimination. There's still barriers to opportunity. But I think what's important to note is that Dr. King went down to Memphis as part of the poor people's movement and recognized the link between economic justice and racial justice. But on the economic front, we just found out-- that last month, we lost 80,000 jobs, over 200,000 so far this year. And so often that is just disproportionately impacting African American and Latinos. Having an agenda that ensures economic justice, that everybody can get paid a decent wage and find a job. That part of Dr. King's dream has not yet been achieved. And I think has to be one of the challenges to America in the coming decades.

WILLIAMS: Senator, one of Dr. King's lesser-publicized quotes came from 1967. Quote, "I'm sorry to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously." What do you make of that quote in 2008?

OBAMA: Well, I think that there has been enormous progress over the last 40 years. And you see it most clear in the younger generation. So I think the attitudes are light years away from where they were in '68. But there's no doubt that we still have unconscious prejudices. Not just white, but also black and Hispanics and Asians. I think we all have biases and fears and concerns of people who don't look like us on the surface. And that's why it's so important that we have a leadership that is not trying to exploit those biases, but rather, trying to overcome them.