Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Clinton, Obama, King, Johnson and history

It appears that the controversy inspired by Hilliary Clinton's crediting President Lyndon B. Johnson with the success of the civil rights movement has subsided.

Thankfully, Barack Obama and Hilliary Clinton have declared that a prolonged fight over civil rights history would be unproductive.

Both candidates' positions in this abortive debate were flawed, based on the faulty assumption that history is primarily the product of the actions and ideas of great men.

While it is certainly preferable to expand the pantheon of great men to include black and other men (and women for that matter) of color, this view of history ignores the social movements and the everyday men and women who participate in them that propel leaders to prominence and action. Yet, as the movie The Great Debaters brings to life in its scenes of a southern tenant farmer organizing drive and community mobilization, long before civil rights seized the national agenda, courageous men and woman, all but forgotten to history, like the poet, Melvin B Tolson and Wiley College's students, were challenging the entrenched system of racial segregation.

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University, writes: "Although many American still identify the civil rights movement with such national figures as Martin Luther King Jr., and some historians see the presidency as the critical reference point for civil rights activism, a strong case can be made that the movement reflected the strength, persistence, and vitality of grassroots black institutions and that it determined the agenda of presidential activism rather than visa versa."

Following the Supreme Court's unanimous decision, Brown vs the Board of Education, the landmark case outlawing "separate but equal schools" argued by NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney and future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall (where would the candidates place him in their civil rights hierarchy?), little real progress in integrating schools occurred.

President Eisenhower refused to implement the Court's decision. Southern politicians interpreted federal indifference as a signal to mount an aggressive campaign of massive resistance. In response, the civil rights movement entered a new stage of direct action protest with local citizens again taking the lead. The modern civil rights movement of domestics and laborers, of students, teachers, preachers, steelworkers and lawyers, of people from all walks of life, emerged to challenge racial supremacy throughout the South.

In Montgomery Alabama, a middle aged seamstress, Rosa Parks, joined with a prominent union leader, E.D. Nixon, to spark a boycott of the city's segregated buses that seized international attention. Nixon selected Rosa Parks for attention when she was jailed for refusing to sit at the back of a bus. As an organizer for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Nixon knew that Parks' almost twenty year relationship with the NAACP meant her jailing would be perceived as an attack on the organization making it easier to generate a community response. It was also Nixon who called Martin Luther King, Jr. to ask whether the boycott meetings could be held at his church. Nixon asked King because he calculated that the young minister had not been in town long enough to have been intimidated by Montgomery's white power structure. King agreed and emerged to provide leadership and moral authority to this social movement.

The Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement that followed in its wake provided Dr. King with a national stage from which he addressed the nation and radically transformed the political agendas of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

President Kennedy had given lip service to support for civil rights. But the Kennedy administration largely accepted the status quo until 1963. By the spring of that year civil rights demonstrations had reached an intensity that compelled a response from Washington. As Foner writes: "Kennedy went on national television and in a largely impromptu speech eloquent in its moral passion, called for the substantial civil rights legislation that eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

After Johnson took office, he continued Kennedy's new approach of actively supporting the fight for social and economic equality. that had been prompted by the civil rights movement. He even invited Dr. King to meet with him in the White House.

Today, Johnson is partly remembered as the former segregationist who overcame southern resistance and got Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act (1964) which outlawed most forms of segregation and Voting Rights Act (1965) which outlawed discrimination in voting allowing millions of southern blacks to vote for the first time.

It is inconceivable that Johnson would have invited Dr. King to the White House or become such a forceful advocate of civil rights without the often invisible work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); without the courageous stand of thousands of unknown domestics who boycotted Montgomery's buses; without the work of the Highlander Folk School where organizers and activists like Rosa Parks and Dr. King were trained; without the multi-racial sharecropper organizing drives of the 1930s; without the sit-in of four young, black North Carlina AT and T students that spread to fifty-four cities in nine different states; and much much more.

It has been written that: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past." This was true of Dr. King, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and all the men, women and children who participated in the fight for racial justice and equality. Some were courageous, some reluctant. Some were both reluctant and courageous. But collectively they changed the segregated world they had inherited.

Bill Moyers who was present during the meeting between Dr. King and President Johnson provides a useful historical perspective in the video below.

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