A Piece of the Dream

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Every year the nation celebrates one man's birthday like no other's -- with song and poetry, breakfasts and rallies, parades that quicken the heart and films that well the eyes with tears.

Yesterday, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 79.

If he could peer across the national landscape, he would see some 125 schools named after him, at least 770 streets, the vast majority of them concentrated in the South, where he fought the hardest -- and resistance was greatest -- to change America.

If King could look out on the presidential campaign trail, he would see a woman and an African American leading the field of Democratic candidates. But over the past several days, he also would have noticed something else -- a bristling debate about leadership in the streets vs. leadership in the suites, as King's onetime lieutenant Jesse Jackson might have framed it.

Here's how Sen. Hillary Clinton got the debate rolling while campaigning in New Hampshire last week: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." She added: "It took a president to get it done."

It is partly a testament to how revered King remains that such a comment would have triggered a backlash among so many African Americans and civil rights veterans.

"I think African Americans do not want to see Dr. King tossed around," says Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, who is neutral in the presidential contest. "That is the status Dr. King has earned -- not only among African Americans but among folks of all kind. Martin Luther King is not a political symbol to be used in a campaign for president."

Though Sen. Barack Obama also has used him.

To rebut one of Clinton's arguments against his candidacy, Obama said in a New Hampshire speech: "False hopes would mean when King was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that he should have said to those crowds around the Reflecting Pool, 'Go home, the dream has died. It's not going to happen. False hopes.' "

In one sense, as longtime civil rights activist Lawrence Guyot observed, it is "absolutely ludicrous" to debate the necessity of presidential leadership in enacting civil rights legislation. "There was no one who was in the civil rights movement who disagreed with that thrust," says Guyot, the former chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and longtime member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

But Guyot adds that the subtleties of pride and credit were missed by Clinton.

"If Hillary were not concerned about demonizing Obama, some of her advisers could have told her: 'You don't want to be affiliated with a position that says, somehow Lyndon Johnson took over Martin Luther King's dream and got it done.' The whole civil rights movement was united on one position -- you have to have federal involvement."

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