Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village stirred controversy by highlighting the importance of the community, as opposed to mere parents, in the rearing of children. Recently she touched off another political tussle by emphasizing that it took a politician, President Lyndon Johnson, not merely the courage of folks like Martin Luther King, to win passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“I would point to the fact that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Senator Clinton, concluding, “. . . it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives, because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished.”
Her statement immediately created a hullabaloo, what with Senator Barack Obama’s inspiring oratory and his campaign of unity and hope so reminiscent of King. And perhaps because, while Mrs. Clinton’s self-portrayal as the insider who can move Washington in Johnson-esque fashion is simply fairy-tale spin, her calculated campaign — and likability quotient — do remind one a bit of LBJ.
Of course, what bothered me was the essence of Hillary’s point, its sheer idiotic quiddity. Unquestionably true in a narrow sense, it is broadly false. President Lyndon Baines Johnson did indeed push enough reluctant Democrats to vote with congressional Republicans to pass the landmark legislation. But just as with her arguments about the village vis-à-vis parents, she’s missed the forest for the lumber.
LBJ’s mathematical ability to count votes — including the number of potential future black votes — hardly exists on the same moral and historical plane as the extraordinary courage exhibited by Martin Luther King (and others) in facing down water cannons, police dogs and billy clubs. Of course there is reason to thank President Johnson for what he did. But let’s first remember those who bore great suffering to assert their rights before President Johnson saw advantage in recognizing those rights.
Granted, King’s crusade certainly would have been longer and tougher without LBJ’s decision to push the ’64 act. But the movement would have ultimately succeeded without Johnson.
Can we say that of the reverse? Had Johnson been president without Dr. King and the civil rights movement risking it all? Are we really supposed to believe LBJ would have attempted to pass any smidgen of the civil rights law?
This matters because change today will not come from politicians having polls read to them and mouthing the word “change” a dozen times every stump speech. Change comes from a public demanding change.
Frederick Douglas, the great abolitionist, illuminated the relationship between citizen reformers and politicians back in 1857, when he said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement demonstrated they would endure a mountain of threats and abuse, but no longer would they endure second-class citizenship. King was the lightning that precipitated a storm that changed America. Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was made possible by the courage of that movement, not by some independent decision of the politicians in Washington.
I suspect that Senator Clinton truly meant no offense to Dr. King. It’s just that she is a politician, who believes change happens only when politicians act. In this way, she fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the civil rights movement . . . and much of human history.
One thing I like about Martin Luther King is that he was not a politician. He understood the need to mobilize the people to make change, and he was a master at it.
Having worked in the citizen mobilization business on issues like term limits, petition rights, tax limits, and eminent domain reform for many years, I can appreciate what King accomplished and have some small inkling of the challenges he faced.
Regular readers of this column or my Common Sense e-letter know that today I’m facing criminal prosecution by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson for my involvement in a petition drive to place a Taxpayer Bill of Rights measure on the ballot back in 2005. Three of us have been charged with a felony that carries a ten-year prison term. According to Edmondson we conspired to violate the state’s requirement that petition circulators be state residents. As I explained in a previous column, we are innocent.
The residency law, which we did not break, happens to be unconstitutional. It is now under challenge in federal court as a violation of First Amendment rights to petition, to speak, to associate, along with other constitutional issues. The Oklahoma law is an effort to keep out any ideas the political bosses don’t want to see in “their” state. The lawsuit is now at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Reading one of that case’s legal briefs brought to mind Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham during a non-violent civil disobedience campaign. A group of eight ministers had criticized the effort as being “unwise and untimely.”
While in jail, King scribbled a response to those clergy in the margin of a newspaper, that began, “I think I should indicate why I am here In Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against ‘outsiders coming in.’”
King said that he had indeed been invited to come, but went on to explain:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
King’s brilliant strategy in the struggle for civil rights required great sacrifice on the part of black Americans. But he was right: They made the sacrifices. His strategy also called for tremendous faith in white Americans, that they would be ashamed by racism in our laws as well as through extra-legal means. And again, King proved correct.
Had he not been assassinated in 1968, Martin Luther King might well be alive today at 79. Tomorrow marks only the 22nd anniversary of a national day to honor him. King has come to embody both “hope” and “courage.” Citizens should long remember what he stood for, and regularly recommit to fulfilling this very American dream, of which he spoke so passionately (here in a 1965 speech in Selma, Alabama):
Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36-years-old, as I happen to be, and some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80, and the cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died.
A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. So we’re going to stand up amid horses. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama, amid the billy-clubs. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama amid police dogs, if they have them. We’re going to stand up amid tear gas. We’re going to stand up amid anything they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free!