Friday, February 22, 2008

Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson

Sen. Hillary Clinton recently got into trouble with Democrats because she correctly pointed out that President Lyndon Johnson, rather than Dr. Martin Luther King, was responsible for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Her opponents Barack Obama and John Edwards ignorantly criticized her for pointing out the obvious facts.

According to Josh Marshall the quote in question is:
"I would point to the fact that that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President 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 [Dwight Eisenhower] had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became a real in peoples lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished."

The interview is available at

Dr. King was a dreamer. President Lyndon Johnson was a doer. King inspired people to act. Johnson was a skilled political operator who knew how to get legislation through Congress. Johnson combined the skills he had developed as Senate Majority Leader with the power of the presidency to push civil rights legislation through Congress. As Majority Leader Johnson had previously gotten weak civil rights legislation passed in 1957 and 1960 without the help of then President Dwight Eisenhower.

Johnson has gotten a bad rap from Democrats because they blame him for the Vietnam War rather than President John Kennedy. Johnson inherited Vietnam from Kennedy, along with Kennedy's advisers, and didn't know how to handle it.

Many people don't understand Dr. King's role in the civil rights movement and the passage of civil rights legislation. The image many people have today is that Dr. King was a Moses who led his people out of bondage. The fact is that King did not start the civil rights movement. It had been building for decades through lawsuits and protests by people who were often lynched for the their trouble. The integration of the military by President Harry Truman and of major league baseball directed by Branch Rickey had built up hopes that racial segregation might be on the way out.

The south in the 50s was ready to explode because of pent up resentment by its black population. All that was needed was a spark. The arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat in December, 1955, could have provided that spark. It did provoke a mass meeting of Montgomery, Al., residents who were looking for something to do to support her. Dr. King took control of the situation and gave them something they could do - engage in a non-violent action by boycotting the bus line.

Fortunately for the nation, King's efforts to encourage non-violent actions including non-violent civil disobedience kept the resentment of those who had been mistreated for generations from turning to violence and a racial war. King did not start the civil rights movement. He kept it under control so that those who participated were a well disciplined army rather than an angry mob.

King's approach exposed racist southern government officials as monsters and made it possible for northern politicians to support civil rights legislation. If southern blacks had reacted violently to their mistreatment, northern politicians might have had trouble justifying their support for legislation that their constituents thought of as applying only to the south. King's approach also encouraged the next generation of southern leaders like Jimmy Carter to abandon racism.

King and Johnson were both essential to the civil rights movement. King kept the movement focused on demonstrating the need for legislation. Johnson provided the power to get that legislation passed. King had hoped to get southern politicians to voluntarily change their ways. Johnson recognized that force was needed in the form of laws that would allow prosecution of those who violated people's rights.

Most people think of Dr. King's contributions as only involving racial equality. He did much more than that. By working to eliminate the south's emphasis on racism, he caused southern leaders to shift their focus to economic matters. Prior to King southern politicians had been elected to keep black residents "in their place" regardless of the economic situation. After King, southern politicians had to do something about the economy.

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