A Piece of the Dream
As Politicians Seize on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy They Lose Sight of the History and the Sacrifice

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."

I Have a Dream. It would be hard to find an American speech that has been cited more often, listened to by more people, taught more widely than King's address at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Unless it was the one given by Lincoln himself at Gettysburg. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) likes to remind people, however, of how long it takes sometimes to realize dreams. He wrote the original legislation calling for a federal King holiday four days after the civil rights leader was assassinated in spring of 1968. It took until 1983 before the holiday was established. It took activists and the singer Stevie Wonder to push the government to act.

Now, on the occasion of King's holiday this year -- Jan. 21, always the third Monday of the month -- Clinton and Obama will appear at a rally in King's honor in Columbia, S.C. That night, they will see each other again in Myrtle Beach at a debate co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.

The Clinton and Obama camps have declared a truce in their verbal battle over King and the nature of leadership. The invective had spiraled far beyond the relationship between King and Johnson, leading to outcries from many for the debate to quiet. Clinton said she was misunderstood and deliberately misinterpreted, and finally sought to "seek common ground" within the party.

Last night at a debate in Las Vegas, the candidates blamed their surrogates for the recent skirmishing. Clinton called them "exuberant" and sometimes "uncontrollable supporters." Obama acknowledged that staffers and other backers of his campaign occasionally "get overzealous" and say things "I would not say."

Returning to King, though, Obama added that what he took from the civil rights leader's example is that it requires "an activated people" to demand change that government won't initiate.

Taylor Branch, who has written an acclaimed trilogy of books on America in the King years, says something fundamental has been absent from the discussion about the roles of King and Johnson in the civil rights era.

"I think the discussion so far has been almost entirely misguided because it has been about who is insulting whom," Branch says. "The discussion should be about what the relationship was and should be between a citizens' movement and leaders in a democratic government. King's whole career was a petition to the federal government. He was appealing to Americans through their government to keep faith and be true to democratic ideals. So it was never contemplated that the movement could accomplish these things alone. And it was never contemplated that the government was going to make these changes on its own without a movement of its citizens."

Here's what Branch wrote about King and Johnson in the third part of his trilogy, "At Canaan's Edge":

By far the most critical figure for him to read was President Lyndon Johnson, whose relations with King contrasted sharply with President John F. Kennedy's sympathetic, sophisticated aloofness. Whereas Kennedy had charmed King while keeping him at a safe distance, harping in private on the political dangers of alleged subversives in the civil rights movement, Johnson in the White House was intensely personal but unpredictable -- treating King variously to a Texas bearhug of shared dreams or a towering, wounded snit.

After Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, Johnson telephoned King, as Branch writes, pledging to demonstrate "how worthy I'm going to try to be of all of your hopes." Johnson, a former Senate majority leader, skillfully arm-twisted and cajoled lawmakers into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in public facilities and employment. But even in the legislative arena, Johnson needed help, enlisting movement veterans such as NAACP lobbyist Clarence Mitchell and the nascent Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. That legislation was followed up with enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Says Branch of King and Johnson: "I don't think either one of them could have done what they did without the other."

What often is missing from some of the wonderful King birthday reminiscing is how complex the fight for rights was, and the push-pull that existed within the movement and outside of it. Take the 1963 March on Washington, which everybody now seems to have attended or embraced. Malcolm X had called it "the Farce on Washington," and John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Atlanta and a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton, had been one of the movement's rabble-rousers, someone whose impending speech at the march worried the Kennedys, who appealed to emissaries to get Lewis to tone it down. He did, while still making forceful remarks against the federal government. Today, Lewis is considered a symbol of reconciliation. And the Kennedys still have a Camelot glow. But civil rights was not initially a JFK priority.

This from historian Kenneth O'Reilly's book, "Nixon's Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton":

John and Robert Kennedy remained civil rights minimalists for the whole thousand days, holding as best they could to the basic rules learned in the Massachusetts politics of the 1940s and 1950s: Cultivate the handful of people who could deliver the black vote, make an occasional symbolic gesture, never risk any political capital on behalf of anyone's civil rights. To the extent that the Kennedys pushed the envelope on minority hiring, voting rights, federal housing, and combating segregationist violence, they did so because the civil rights movement forced their hand.

Morial wonders sometimes about what the King holiday has become. "When we say holiday in America, we think about a day off work, a day when retailers have sales and a day when children get out of school." But King's legacy is larger than a day off.

"I'd like to see a greater effort in and around the holiday of teaching Americans what Dr. King's effort was all about," Morial says. "Some people, all they know is King as an orator. But his vision and his work is a work in progress. The civil rights movement has opened a whole host of doors. But as far as economic progress, a significant reduction in poverty -- those things have not occurred."

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