January 18, 2008

Commentary:

King is an American Hero. But he needed Johnson ... and Truman, Humphrey and the Kennedys … to succeed at his life’s work

By E.A. Barrera

“To those who say … we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say … that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

Hubert H. Humphrey
1948 Democratic Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

As we approach the Martin Luther King holiday and recall the man who has become a symbol of American courage and liberty, a rather ugly debate has formed over who is responsible for the legacy of Civil liberties coming out of the 1960s. Candidates for the presidency - namely Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton - have haggled over whether King was solely responsible for the victory of civil rights during that time, or whether he needed help from President Lyndon Johnson to achieve that victory. Candidate John Edwards has sought to criticize the idea that King needed help from Johnson by dismissing our 36th President as just “a Washington politician” whom King was not dependent on for any success.

But this debate over King’s legacy has missed a more important point. For while there is absolutely no question that without the political courage of Harry Truman, John and Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, civil and voting rights in America might still be an unrealized dream and certainly would never have happened in the 1960s. This truth does not diminish the physical and moral courage Dr. King demonstrated in his short life to lead this country towards his dream. Instead it demonstrates the necessary relationship between social advancement and the political support that legalizes the dreams of those who would fight for our American liberty.

Truman wanted a civil rights declaration in the Democratic Platform of 1948, as well as civil rights legislation passed by the Republican controlled Congress. Humphrey - then the 37-year old Mayor of Minneapolis and a candidate for the Senate in Minnesota - represented the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. His stand on civil rights was the natural progression of a segment of the American political body which traced it’s roots back to Thomas Jefferson and the belief that all human beings had rights to freedom and self-worth. Abraham Lincoln had been that ideal’s greatest champion, but four score and three years after his assassination, civil rights was still not a universal practice within this country.

Though slavery had been abolished, second class citizenship was rampant throughout the nation for African-Americans. In the Confederate South, segregation and the dampening of voting rights for African-Americans had become the rallying cry for racist-white cultural preservation. Led by southern Democrats such as Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Georgia Senator Richard Russell, a massive wave against the civil rights plank formed. The Southern Democrats would eventually bolt the Democratic Party and form the “Dixiecrat Party” that challenged Truman during the 1948 election. Thurmond would head the Dixiecrat ticket, stating to supporters that “there’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.”

Truman won the election of 1948, but 20 years of righteous, violent, and often tragic undeclared civil war over race, justice and American ideals would follow that election. That same year, a 19-year old Georgia man was graduating from Morehouse College. Martin Luther King would go on to receive his PHD in Theology from Boston University in 1955. At the age of 25 he would become pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He’d arrive in Montgomery just in time to help orchestrate the greatest non-violent movement in American history at that point - the bus boycott launched in Montgomery when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person.

This boycott (and the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling ending segregation in the public schools) would launch the next wave of political activism regarding civil liberties in this country. A decade of violence and unrest would ensue, including the 1961 Freedom rides, in which groups of black and white people would ride buses throughout the South to challenge segregation by registering people to vote. San Diego Congressman Bob Filner was among them, and would spend two months in an Alabama jail cell for his activism in trying to liberate the South from white racist oppression.

In 1962 two people were killed and many injured in riots, as an African-American named James Meredith was enrolled as the first African-American at the University of Mississippi. President John F. Kennedy federalized Mississippi National Guardsmen to protect Meredith. In June of 1963, Kennedy’s Justice Department under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy would force Alabama Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama. President Kennedy would go on National Television the same day to state that the United States would not continue to indulge institutionalized racism. He would announce his intention to seek from Congress a new Civil Rights Act in America - what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act,

“This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened,” said President Kennedy. “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free … and this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

Two months later on August 28, 1963 - on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial - Martin Luther King would give one of the great declarations of American ideals using four simple words: “I have a dream ...”

“It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” said King. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” said King. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character ... And when this happens … will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Though President Kennedy would not live long enough to see his 1964 Civil Rights Act pass - nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - President Johnson would invoke Kennedy’s name and memory to aid in the passing of both pieces of legislation.

“No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law,” said President Johnson on November 27, 1963 - five days after JFK’s assassination.

On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. In 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act - the dream King had sought, which authorized federal examiners to register qualified voters and suspended devices such as literacy tests that aimed to prevent African Americans from voting.

Both King and Robert Kennedy were killed within three months of each other in the Spring of 1968. Young men - King only 39 and RFK only 42 - when they were murdered. Thus, the holiday we will celebrate in honor of Martin Luther King this Monday should stand as a testament to not just King’s life, but the lives of all those who spoke for American Freedom.

From the Founding Fathers to Lincoln to Truman, to Humphrey, to the Kennedy’s, to Johnson ... to an American hero named Martin Luther King ... the history of the battle for civil rights is the history of the United States itself. Martin Luther King championed this dream in the most eloquent of voices. But achieving his dream required some help - from a group of “Washington politicians.”

Together, these men reaffirmed the dreams all people around the world share ... to be free ... at last.

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