At first I took it as another, yawn, white rip-off of black culture and creativity: the Rolling Stones appropriating the Bo Diddley beat, Bo Derek sporting corn rows, and now Hillary giving Lyndon Baines Johnson credit for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If you had to give this honor to a white guy, LBJ was an odd choice, since he’d spent the 1964 Democratic convention scheming to prevent the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party from taking any Dixiecrat seats. By Clinton’s standards, maybe Richard Nixon should be credited with the legalization of abortion in 1972.
But Clinton’s LBJ remark reveals something more worrisome than racial tone-deafness–a theory of social change that’s as elitist as it is inaccurate. Black civil rights weren’t won by suited men (or women) sitting at desks. They were won by a mass movement of millions who marched, sat in at lunch counters, endured jailings and took bullets and beatings for the right to vote and move freely about. Some were students and pastors; many were dirt-poor farmers and urban workers. No one has ever attempted to list all their names.
There’s a problem too, of course, with the conventional abbreviation of the Civil Rights Movement into two names–Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. What about Fannie Lou Hamer, who led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s delegation to the 19464 convention? What about Ella Baker, Fred Hampton, Stokely Carmichael and hundreds of other leaders? The Great Person theory of history may simplify textbook-writing, but leaves us with no clue as to how change actually happens.
Women’s rights, for example, weren’t brokered by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem over tea. As Steinem would be the first to acknowledge, the feminist movement of the ’70s took root around kitchen tables and coffee tables, ignited by hundreds of thousands of now-anonymous women who were sick of being called “honey” at work and excluded from “men’s” jobs. Media stars like Friedan and Steinem did a brilliant job of proselytizing, but it took an army of unsung heroines to stage the protests, organize the conferences, hand out the fliers and spread the word to their neighbors and co-workers.
“Change” is this year’s Democratic battle cry, but if you don’t know how it happens, you’re not likely to make it happen yourself. A case in point is Clinton’s 1993 “health reform” plan. She didn’t do any “listening tour” for that, no televised town meetings with heart-rending grassroots testimonies. Instead, she gathered up a cadre of wonks for months of closed-door meetings, some so secretive that the participants themselves were barred from bringing in pencils or pens. According to David Corn of The Nation, when Clinton was told that 70 percent of Americans polled favored a single-payer system at the time, she responded sarcastically with, “Now tell me something interesting.”
She could have gone about things differently, in a way that wouldn’t have left 47 million Americans uninsured today. She could have started by realizing that no real change would come about without a mobilization of the ordinary people who wanted it. Instead of sequestering herself with economists and business consultants, she might have met with representatives of nurses’ organizations, doctors’ groups, health workers’ unions, and patient advocates. Then she could have gone to the public and said: I’m working for a major change in the way we do things and it’s going to run into heavy resistance, so I’ll need your support in every possible way.
But she did it her way, and ended up with a 1,300-page plan that no one, on either side of the aisle, liked or could even comprehend–proving that historical change isn’t made by the smartest girl in the room, even if she shares a bed with the President. Similarly, she ignored the anti-war movement of this decade and alienated untold numbers of Democratic voters, feminists included.
I’d like to think that Obama, with his community organizing experience and insistence on firing people up, gets it a little better. But whoever is elected President this year, there won’t be any real change in a progressive direction without a mass social movement to bring it about–either by holding the President accountable or by holding his or her feet to the fire. And a mass social movement doesn’t begin at the top. It begins right now, with you.