In the agonizingly absurd civil rights “debate” between the supporters of Democrartic 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.