Ari Kelman: Hillary's top-down view of the civil rights movement

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ari Kelman is an associate professor of history at UC Davis.]

“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” Clinton said. “It took a president to get it done.”

The quote is already infamous. But it’s worth a second look with news from South Carolina that Congressman Jim Clyburn may rethink his neutral stance in the that state’s upcoming primary. That could be very bad for Hillary Clinton.

Josh Marshall, three days ago, asked his readers to take a deep breath, pointing out that the excerpt above was only a small part of a larger quote:

“I would, and 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 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.”

Josh made the point that Hillary referred to two presidents. Said he:

“Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, one of whom inspired but did relatively little legislatively and Johnson who did a lot legislatively, though he was rather less than inspiring. Quite apart from the merits of Obama and Clinton, it’s not a bad point about Kennedy and LBJ.”

Josh is right, I think, in arguing that the full quote casts Hillary in a more favorable light, particularly if one is concerned about her understanding of political history. Kennedy did relatively little for the Civil Rights movement. His greatest contribution to the struggle for African-American equality was, there’s no polite way of putting this, dying. Lyndon Johnson used JFK’s memory to whip votes for the Civil Rights Act, accomplishing what Kennedy had not — as Hillary notes.

But that’s a narrow view of MLK’s dream, which extended beyond voting rights, beyond de jure discrimination to the more complicated de facto realm:

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

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.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four 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.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

Hillary, whether in the truncated or the complete quote, ignores the expansiveness of Dr. King’s dream. Instead, she offers an inside-the-Beltway revisionist history of the Civil Rights movement, a top-down interpretation, in which presidents were the key players rather than the men, women, and children who marched and sat-in and faced mortal danger to realize an ephemeral dream that, in many parts of the nation, including swaths of South Carolina, is still a dream deferred.

Congressman Clyburn, meanwhile, fought for that dream. The biography on his website indicates that he became a leader in the local chapter of the NAACP when he was just twelve years old. He later took part in several important Civil Rights marches. He also met his wife in the movement. And then he became a history teacher in Charleston before helping, one assumes after he entered Congress, to raise more than $1.5 million for an Archives and History Endowment established at South Carolina State University, his and his wife’s alma mater.

Clyburn, in other words, has a command of both the lived and learned history of the Civil Rights movement. Of Hillary’s comments he said: “We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics.” “It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone’s motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal.”

Bill Clinton may have been our first Black president. But if Hillary is perceived by African-American voters as being on the wrong side of a memory fight over the Civil Rights movement, she’s in trouble. She could, if she isn’t more careful with her use of the past, come across as the Goldwater Girl she once was.

Update: I should be clearer on a few points. First, I don’t believe that Hillary is racist — really, I don’t — or that she doesn’t know the history of the Civil Rights movement. My point is largely about perception: in suggesting that she has a top-down view of the struggle for African-American equality, a view in which presidents were more important than the movement’s leaders or rank-and-file, it becomes easy for people to believe that she lacks the proper respect for Martin Luther King and the people who fought so hard to help realize his dream.

Second, if I’m right about that, about that issue of perception, and Clyburn’s comments suggest to me that I am, that’s a problem for Hillary. The Clinton name has great resonance with African-American voters. The Toni Morrison piece, linked above, calling Bill the “first black president,” is telling. But, I remember back to Coretta Scott King’s funeral, where Bill was brilliant. Hillary was, well, less brilliant. So even if she was speaking strictly about political history when she made her comment to Fox’s Major Garrett, she runs the risk of tarnishing an important part of the Clinton brand — especially if Clyburn endorses Obama.

Third, the one way in which I’m not willing to be as charitable to Hillary as Josh is this: I think her formulation does misread the history of the Civil Rights movement in an important way. And her misreading is just the sort of thing that I’d expect from someone who has lived in the White House. Hillary suggets that the Civil Rights Act was a kind of capstone to the movement, and that President Johnson, therefore, realized Martin Luther King’s dream. Wrong and wrong, as far as I’m concerned. The King dream, as noted above, was not just about clearing away legal impediments to Black equality; it was about transforming “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” The individuals who would be the key players in such a symphony were not going to be presidents or Supreme Court justices; they would have to be ordinary Americans. If the dream is ever going be realized, in other words, it will have to be from the bottom up.

Read entire article at Edge of the American West

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 1/17/2008

Vote for Ralph Nader or Ron Paul!

Ari Kelman - 1/17/2008

The author of the original post in now way supports the lunatic rantings of the the first comment on this post. Thanks.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/15/2008

If Dems choose Clinton as their candidates, anyone would be better of
to vote for any SOB Repug.
There is no more power-hungry, hypocritical, lying, and making-anything-for-a-vote candidate than her.
Vote for Ron Paul, just to show support for a more or less honest, sticking-to-principals, speaking-his-mind politician versus
phony and power-hungry manipulators of public opinion!