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January 15, 2008

the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

I have some reflections on the recent spat between Senators Clinton and Obama, but first, here is the actual "text" of their dispute as accurately as I can capture it.

At the Democratic Debate in New Hampshire, Senator Clinton said: "So, you know, I think it is clear that what we need is somebody who can deliver change. And we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered. The best way to know what change I will produce is to look at the changes that I've already made."

Back on the trail, Senator Obama said, "For many months I've been teased, almost derided, for talking about hope ... We saw it in the debate last night. One of my opponents said, 'We can't just offer the American people false hopes of what we can get done.' False hopes!" Later, in Labanon, NH, he amplified his position: "Dr. King standing on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial, looking out over that magnificent crowd, the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument: 'Sorry, guys. False hope. The dream will die. It can't be done.' "

Then, on Fox News, Major Garrett asked Senator Clinton if she would respond to Senator Obama, and she said, 'I would, and I would point to the fact that that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but 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."

During and after this exchange, the candidates, their surrogates, and pundits have said many things that do not deserve to be taken seriously or at face value. But I thought the comments themselves raised valid and relevant issues about how major social change is accomplished.

For the sake of simplicity, we might say that there were three great reasons for the civil rights reforms of the 1960s: (1) The charismatic leadership of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues and rivals; (2) the skillful political maneuvering of politicians like Lyndon Johnson; and (3) the great popular movement that arose from grassroots voluntary institutions, especially Black churches.

If we interpret Senator Clinton charitably, I think she was saying that Democrats are at risk of voting for charisma (Senator Obama) without realizing that you also need the skills, tactics, and experience of professionals like Lyndon Johnson--and by analogy, herself. Other critics of Senator Obama also believe that what he basically offers is charisma. For instance, Paul Krugman has recently written, "The Democrats in general make far more sense [about Chinese trade policy]. But among at least some of Barack Obama's supporters there seems to be a belief that if their candidate is elected, the world's problems will melt away in the face of his multicultural charisma." I thought that Krugman created a straw man; but it's true that charisma is inadequate and voters should pause before voting for the candidate who happens to be the best speaker.

Clearly, the third ingredient of the civil rights movement--neither political tactics nor charismatic leadership, but grassroots organizing--was crucial to its success. Senator Obama might have emphasized that point in his response to Senator Clinton (instead of attacking her for besmirching the sainted memory of Dr. King). In fact, at his next opportunity to speak after Senator Clinton talked about "false hopes" in the debate, Senator Obama said, "And just to wrap up, part of the change that's desperately needed is to enlist the American people in the process of self-government." He could have amplified that point over the succeeding days and noted that Lyndon Johnson couldn't have done a thing without active pressure from citizens. He could have used language like Rich Harwood's: "No candidate, no matter how gifted or skilled, can through their campaign offer redemption to a nation on its stained history. Surely, the candidate can help lead and give voice to such a process, but the great work of coming together will ultimately only occur through the efforts of people in their communities, and only over time."

Alas, we do not have large, highly active, interlinked progressive organizations that are rooted in the working class, as we did from 1930s through the 1960s. A pessimist might say: Therefore, the best we can get is whatever skilled political tacticians can win by playing the Washington game effectively. The question is who's the most skillful tactician in the race? (I'm not actually sure of the answer, because none of the three leading Democrats has a legislative record even close to LBJ's.)

An optimist would say: There are pieces of a civic infrastructure in America, and innovative ways for citizens to engage. The right kind of national leader can strengthen that infrastructure by encouraging active citizenship rhetorically and by implementing policies that get ordinary people more involved. The first step is to change the debate we have seen over the last few days. It should not be about who supports civil rights policies, nor about who respects Martin Luther King. It should be about how to achieve positive social change.

January 15, 2008 5:55 PM | category: Barack Obama | Comments


"He could have amplified that point over the succeeding days and noted that Lyndon Johnson couldn't have done a thing without active pressure from citizens."

I thought Obama did just that?

[quote]Some say she seemed to suggest that it took a white politician to fulfill a black man's dream.

"I don't think it was in any way a racial comment," Obama told ABC News. "That's something that has played out in the press. That's not my view."

But, he said, the comment was revealing about her political character. "I do think it was indicative of the perspective that she brings, which is that what happens in Washington is more important than what happens outside of Washington," he said.

He said he believes the quote betrays a belief on her part, "that the intricacies of the legislative process were somehow more significant than when ordinary people rise up and march and go to jail and fight for justice."

He called that a "fundamental difference" between them.

January 16, 2008 3:37 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Richard

You're right; Obama did a good job on ABC. I was thinking of deleting my critical sentence even before your helpful comment.

January 16, 2008 7:53 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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