Monday, January 14, 2008
Obama Needs a History Lesson about Hillary and King
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The Obama camp did it again. They manufactured yet another issue out of a non issue when they pounded Hillary Clinton for supposedly defiling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by minimizing his role in the civil rights struggle. Here’s Hillary’s terrible sin per the Obama campaign crowd. She said that Dr. King’s dream was realized when President Lyndon Johnson shoved the 1964 Civil Rights Bill through Congress. This was anything but a put down of King.
Hillary paid tribute to King for laying the groundwork for the civil rights bill and gave justifiable credit to Johnson for ramming the bill through a bickering, divided and very recalcitrant Congress. Her point was that presidents that have their public policy priorities screwed on right can make changes, monumental changes, for good.
If Hillary could be faulted for anything it’s that she didn’t go far enough. If Johnson hadn’t forcefully intervened and jawboned, prodded, arm twisted, and embarrassed the slew of wavering and hostile Congressmen to the bill into supporting the bill, or at least tempering their opposition to it, King’s dream would have remained just that, an empty dream. King recognized that. In a Playboy interview in 1965, he said this about Johnson: “He has demonstrated his wisdom and commitment in coming to grips with the problem (racial discrimination). My impression is that he will remain a strong president for civil rights.” History amply proved that, and Johnson despite his Vietnam War tumble from historical grace, still is regarded as the president that did more for civil rights than any other president.
But I’d go even further still. King gets much deserved praise and is much honored for igniting the national fervor for civil rights and galvanizing thousands to put their bodies on the line in the civil rights battles. Yet, there’s an ugly side and often forgotten note to that. The street marches and demonstrations also stirred the first tremors of white backlash. The George Wallace surge in the North, the open hostility of many Northern whites to housing and school integration, and the Republican reawakening in the South was a direct outcropping of the civil rights push. This stiffened the spines of Southern Democrats and conservative Northern Republicans who dug their heels in and flatly opposed the bill, piled amendment after crippling amendment onto the bill initially, and employed every legal and parliamentary dodge and stall tactic they could dredge up to delay a vote on it, if not to kill it outright.
King could do nothing about this. JFK who introduced the bill couldn’t do anything about it either. He was at his wits end after months and months of Congressional ducking and dodging on the bill about how to get it moving. By the time Johnson took office, following JFK’s murder, the bill was still born in Congress. There was every chance that it could be shelved. However, Johnson would have none of that. He was a Southerner and he knew the mood and temper of the South. From his decades in the Senate he knew where the political skeletons were buried and how to rattle them. He did what King and Kennedy didn’t have a prayer of doing, he got the sympathetic ear of enough Southerners to take some of the steam out of their vehement opposition to the bill.
The rest of course is history. The Civil Rights Bill, not King’s marches and demonstrations, broke the back of legal segregation in America and became the watchword for progressive, visionary social legislation for decades to come.
King and all the top civil rights leaders knew that history had been made with the passage of the bill, and that the man that played the towering role in making that history was LBJ A t the signing ceremony for the bill, King and the other civil rights leaders beamed when Johnson handed them the pens after the signing. They effusively praised him for his tireless effort.
Hillary’s statement was a simple, honest, and respectful nod to Johnson for his indispensable part in making civil rights a legal fact and reality in America. This was the same nod that King and the civil rights leaders made more than four decades ago to him.
This is a nod that the Hillary haters have forgotten or deliberately distorted in their clinical obsession to smash mouth every Hillary utterance. This is a history lesson that Hillary got right about King and Johnson, and one that the Obama campaign flunked badly.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February, 2008).