MLK, LBJ, Clinton, Obama and the Politics of Memory
by John Nichols
In the agonizingly absurd civil rights “debate” between the supporters of Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I’m with the Lion of Anacostia.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” declared Frederick Douglass in 1857, in response to those who suggested that the great abolitionist was pushing too hard for an end to human bondage. “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Douglass understood that the relationship between struggle and power is definitional for those who seek consequential change in the body politic. Both are needed to bend the arc of history toward progress.
As such, it is boneheaded in the extreme to diminish the role of movements in forcing social and political progress. But it is surely just as silly to suggest that who holds power might be of limited or lesser consequence.
If the candidate Hillary Clinton campaigned for in 1964, Republican Barry Goldwater, had been elected, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement would have suffered a setback. Dr. King believed that it was dramatically better for the movement, and for America, that Democrat Lyndon Johnson won that essential presidential election of 44 years ago.
This would appear to be the point that Hillary Clinton was attempting so clumsily — or so calculatingly — to make when she said prior to the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary that, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”
Unfortunately, while Clinton’s words may have had some truth in them, her comment came across as precisely the sort of crude and self-serving interpretation of history that Americans expect from the lesser of our leaders. And that it was. By so casually referencing the complex role that civil right agitation played in forging racial progress, she invited the firestorm that has come. Obama is not speaking out of turn, or unreasonably, when he suggests that, “Senator Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark, about King and Lyndon Johnson… And she, I think, offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King’s role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act.”
The pettiness of the politics that are on display as we mark the 79th anniversary of King’s birth borders on the grotesque. Surely, there is a measure of comfort to be found in the fact that both leading Democratuc candidats for president want to claim a piece of this country’s civil roghts legacy. But there is nothing graceful, nor reassuring, in the way in which the claims have been staked.
Clinton played games with the nation’s civil rights narrative in order to position herself as a stronger presidential nominee for the Democrats, and Obama’s campaign has effectively slammed her for it. Clinton says she is “personally offended” by the signals coming from the Obama camp with regard to her regard for King and the civil rights movement. Obama glibly stirs the pot by suggesting that he is somehow above the fray while saying of Clinton: “She is free to explain (herself).”
Neither candidate matches the charicature that the campaign of the other invites us to accept. At the same time, neither candidate has cut through the thicket of this distorted debate and reached for the higher ground that might distinguish a contender for the presidency as something more than a politician on the hunt.
Where both Clinton and Obama are misguided is in their shared attempt to score political points rather than to step back from the abyss of an ugly discourse and to seek the clarity that is so frequently absent from our politics.
Neither Clinton nor Obama is using history well or wisely. Neither is telling those of us who recognize the significance of the King-Johnson collaboration – and, for a brief shining moment it was a collaboration – what we need to hear. Neither is answering the fundamental questions: How, as president, would they relate to social and political movements? Would they invite the Martin Kings and the Frederick Douglasses of the twenty-first century to the White House? Would either of these two candidates, as president, sit down with those demanding fundamental change, craft policies with supposed radicals, and coordinate political strategies with influential outsiders – as did both Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s and Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s?
Frederick Douglass knew, as did King, that it mattered who held the presidency. An imperfect Lincoln was better than a perfect Jefferson or Jackson. As Douglass explained in remembering the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, “We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations, who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in the light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln. It mattered little to us what language he might employ on special occasions; it mattered little to us, when we fully knew him, whether he was swift or slow in his movements; it was enough for us that Abraham Lincoln was at the head of a great movement, and was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.”
King was similarly clear-eyed about Johnson, a Texas politician who came slowly to the cause of civil rights but was crucial to its advancement. Where the administration of John Kennedy had kept King at arm’s length, Johnson reached out to the man who would win the Nobel Peace Prize during the new president’s first year in office. King said Johnson helped him understand that “new white elements” in the American South might be motivated by a “love of their land (that) was stronger than the grip of old habits and customs.” Johnson, in turn, recognized the necessity of maintaining close ties with King and other civil rights leaders, both because the president valued their insights and because he needed their support.
The president got that support in 1964, when King urged African-American voters to use all of their burgeoning political might to block the candidacy of Goldwater, a conservative Republican who had voted with southern racist Democrats against civil rights legislation. Though Johnson and the civil rights movement had been at odds during the course of the campaign — especially over the question of whether to seat black delegates from Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City — there was no question about where the most prominent leader of the movement stood with regard to the fall race. Three days before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, in October, 1964, King abandoned the traditional neutrality of the civil rights movement in presidential politics and delivered a historic address at Brooklyn’s Antioch Baptist Church in which the New York Times reported that he said the “negative” attitudes of the Republican presidential candidate on human, political and constitutional questions had compelled him to call for the crushing defeat of Goldwater
When Goldwater’s candidacy was indeed crushed on November 3, 1964, one of Johnson’s first post-election calls was to King, who said that “the forces of good will and progress have triumphed.”
But the civil rights leader said something else. Rather than place his blind trust in the president to deliver on the promise of justice, King described Johnson’s landslide as “a definite mandate from the American public” to take the civil rights movement deeper into the south, to expand its demands on Washington and to generally raise the level of expectations.
Johnson responded by echoing King’s sense of urgency.
In the same week of December, 1964, that the world heard King accept the peace prize – with his memorable description of the honor as “profound recognition that non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time–the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression” – Johnson appeared before civil rights leaders in Washington and declared that, “There are those who say: It has taken us a century to move this far, and it will take another hundred years to finish the job. Well, I am here to say to you tonight that I do not agree. Great social change tends to come rapidly in periods of intense activity and progress before the impulse slows. I believe we are in the midst of such a period of change.
“There are those who predict that the struggle for full equality in America will be marked by violence and hate; that it will tear at the fabric of our society. Well, for myself, I cannot claim to see so clearly into that future. I just do not agree. I know that racial feelings flow from many deep and resistant sources in our history, in the pattern of our lives and in the nature of man. But I believe there are other forces, that are stronger because they are armed with truth, which will bring us toward our goal in peace. There are our commitments to morality and to justice, which are written in our laws and, more importantly, nourished in the hearts of our people. These commitments, carried forward by men of good will in every part of this land, will lead this nation toward the great and necessary fulfillment of American freedom. In this way, our peoples will once again prove equal to the ideals and the values on which our beloved nation rests.”
That was a remarkable statement coming from a just-reelected president. It confirmed Johnson’s commitment to respond to the demands of the civil rights movement, thus assuring that King’s initiatives had not just the prospect but the likelihood of realization.
That is the unique dynamic of the King-Johnson relationship, the dynamic that created the sort of progress Clinton, Obama and others now struggle to define as somehow being more likely to be replicated under one or the other of them.
What we would do well to demand of both these candidates and their campaigns is something more than the cheap positioning of an election season. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both owe it to America to suggest that they could – and would – recreate the King-Johnson dynamic in order to achieve the progress that is still needed not just along the color line that Frederick Douglass and Martin King struggled to move but along lines of gender, class and sexual orientation.
For meaningful progress to be achieved, movements are necessary.
But so, too, are presidents.
It is when a movement has the ear of a willing president that necessity gives way to something more tangible and potentially transformational: the discussion of how to move from an antiquated here to only-dreamed-of there. In a democracy, this can never be a one-sided discussion – as Martin King and Lyndon Johnson, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and every other great American combination recognized. The ability of a Hillary Clinton or a Barack Obama to articulate that recognition in the language of this moment might well make one of them the next president of a nation that longs not for another history lesson but for the making of history.
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy — The New Press.
© 2008 The Nation