Monday, January 21, 2008

What Dr. King did

Backlash has been part and parcel of decades-old struggle to set aside this day in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born 79 years ago this month. Most years backlash has come from the right, often from elements once aligned with segregation. (On that point, see this excellent op-ed.)
This year questions have come from a different direction. A Democratic presidential candidate has indicated that King was a talker, that it was President Lyndon B. Johnson who delivered civil rights to people of color in the United States. What was said:

Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. It took a president to get it done. ... The power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president ....

In view of this claim, it seems appropriate to recall at least some of what Dr. King did -- not only through the act of talking, but also through the acts of submitting to arrest, of marching, of putting himself before hostile crowds.
What Dr. King did, after he won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize (above), was to act upon his understanding that civil rights depended on peace.
What Dr. King did was this: he defied the President to whom, that 1 candidate said, King owed everything. King opposed the Vietnam War, and in so doing, spoke against war itself. The 1st audio-visual item below, a brief video pastiche, demonstrates the nature and scope of his opposition. The 2d audi0-visual item below, a longer audio clip of a sermon in which King explained his opposition, found evil in the sending of poor people of all races to kill another nation of poor people:

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with a cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school room. So we watch them in brutal solidarity, burning the huts of a poor village. But we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta. Now, I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

Recalling prior encounters with segregationist sheriffs, King continued:

Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, 'Be non-violent toward Bull Connor'; when I was saying, 'Be non-violent toward Jim Clark.' There's something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, 'Be non-violent toward Jim Clark,' but will curse and damn you when you say, 'Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children.'

What Dr. King did is evident in this timeline:

March 2, 1965: "King asserted that the war in Vietnam was 'accomplishing nothing' and called for a negotiated settlement."
March 25, 1967: "King led his first anti-war march in Chicago ... and reinforced the connection between war abroad and injustice at home: ‘'The bombs in Vietnam explode at home—they destroy the dream and possibility for a decent America.'"
April 4, 1967: In a speech entitled "Beyond Vietnam," King spoke out against the war in front of "3,000 people at Riverside Church in New York City."
April 15, 1967: Despite the NAACP's resistance to his linkage of peace and civil rights, King, along with Dr. Benjamin Spock (with whom Coretta Scott King had been marching for years) and 10,000 others, demonstrated against war in a march, pictured at right, to the United Nations headquarters in New York.
April 30, 1967: King gave the sermon quoted above at his church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta.
March 31, 1968: In a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., King called Vietnam 'one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world.'
Four days later King died, felled by an assassin's bullet -- 4 days, that is, after Johnson announced both that he he would begin to end the war and that he would not seek to remain President after the November election, 4 days after the President had yielded to antiwar entreaties of King and others.
What Dr. King did, through word and deed, was to help force a President to hasten the cause of peace on a troubled planet.
It took a dreamer to get it done.


CaitlynA said...

When I heard Hillary's comment my first thoughts went to the telephone calls between Dr. King and Lyndon Johnson that were played on NPR a few years ago. It sounded to me that there was an implicit partnership between the two men with Johnson and King both necessary to the process.

Any major change in the public policies of a nation requires three forms a leadership: substantive (addressing the details of the change to be sought), procedural (focused on how the change will be made) and inspirational (convincing the public and their leaders that the change is necessary.

Lyndon Johnson was the procedural leader - does anyone doubt that he was the dominant force behind the movement of the civil rights act through the committees of congress? King provided the inspirational leadership, making the public as a whole recognize the importance and moral correctness of changing America's law as the applied to race and equality. Then there were the hundreds, if not thousands, of lawyers and mid-level politicians, both black and white, who crafted the legislation, laid the ground work in preparing and refining the text on the substance of the new laws addressing civil rights.

Listening to Hillary, I did not hear her belittle Dr. King's roll in the civil rights movement. When she did was say that Dr. King worked with partners to achieve his goals, one of whom was President Johnson. King couldn't do what Johnson did any more than Johnson could have made Dr. King's contribution.

If anything, the discussion should remind up that it took Dr. King, it took the President, and it took many others, mostly forgotten, to create and pass the legislation that rightly is part of Dr. King's legacy.

At least, that is what I heard and what I thought when I listened to Hillary. I think she made a good case that we need both inspirational ability and procedural (administrative) skill to get things done. Now, as before, we seem to ignore that we also need the specialists, both in government and outside, who can fill in the details left out by the lofty leaders.

I don't think Hillary's speech detracted in any way from Dr. King's legacy. His partnership with Lyndon Johnson was part of what made him great, and what separated him from other inspirational leaders whose dreams were never realized.

Perhaps we all hear speeches through our own filter.

CaitlynA said...

sorry for the typos in the post above. I should never post before coffee.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I don't think it in any way detracts from honoring King (his commitment to nonviolence, his courage, his religious faith, his political judgment, indeed, the vision that came to fuse the quest for civil rights to a fight for justice here and abroad) to recall how his political leadership was made possible by many others that preceded him as well as untold others of his time and place. Toward that end, the few books noted here represent the historical, socio-cultural and political context that help us better appreciate King's leadership role in the civil rights movement:

Cooney, Robert and Helen Michalowski, eds. The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1987).

Marable, Manning. Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990 (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2nd ed., 1991).

Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984).

Payne, Charles M. I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).

I'm assuming familiarity with some well-known and standard works in the civil rights literature by Branch, Carson, Garrow, et al.

Diane Marie Amann said...

Dear Caitlyn & Patrick,

Many thanks for your comments. I hope that the filters through which you absorbed the comment were indeed what was intended.
Even so, must it be, is it, that the roles of proceduralist and inspirationalist always remain separate? That there are 2 not-combinable categories, talkers and doers?
This post was intended to interrogate any assumption to the effect that one can choose a talker or a doer, but not both, by showing that King, in the act of talking and other actions, was in fact a doer.
Even stripping our conversation of any contemporary political context, this last is a point of legacy with regard to King, as discussed in this article just posted by the Associated Press: "Tributes to MLK tend to ignore his complexity; Historians say King was far from revered as he pushed activism beyond race,"

CaitlynA said...

I think that some people can show all three forms of leadership, but generally only one is dominant at any time and it is not easy to switch between the forms. I think for many it is a matter of personality or experience that sets the strongest form for leaders. The ability to get down and dirty with the details tends to run counter to the ability to make a broad outreach to the public on matters for principle. Procedural leadership often requires years of learning how to work both formal and informal networks. Inspirational leadership requires a different set of learned and practiced skills.

To separate the roles into "talkers" and "doers" is, I think a disservice to the inspirational leader (superficially, at least 'doing' seems preferable to 'talking'). Motivating people is one of the most basic elements of leadership, and those who lead by resonating their words and character with the basic beliefs shared in our culture are, I think, the most important of leaders. Also, I do not mean to denigrate Dr. King's procedural leadership - he was quite effective in the way he organized people, activities and events to maximize the opportunity to inspire others.

As much as I admire the inspirational leader, I also admire and respect the procedural leader who, like Tommy Koh leading, herding and wrangling diplomats to agreement on Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration in the UN Conference on Environment and Development, achieve results that neither the substantive experts nor the global spokespeople could accomplish on their own.

The one person I can think of who exerted procedural and inspirational leadership at the same time was Maurice Strong in the leadup to the UNCED negotiations, but his behind the scenes efforts to control the procedure tended to undercut his efforts to lead through inspiration and inclusion. I need to review more cases, but I think that procedural leadership, which often requires compromise and concession, is complimentary to inspirational leadership when it is based on shared principles and inclusion of all parties and is not likely to be seen in the same person.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


I simply wanted to add something to the subject, an addition which was not predicated upon critiquing or disagreeing with anything you said, which I in fact happen to agree wholeheartedly with. I'm sorry that was not more clear from my comment.

Judith Weingarten said...

I'm glad that other comments have already cleared up what Clinton really said, and meant, but I still want to say that I find this level of analysis worthy only of our pitiful media and not IntLawGrrls

A Democratic presidential candidate has indicated that King was a talker, that it was President Lyndon B. Johnson who delivered civil rights to people of color in the United States.

You should have taken the trouble to hear her whole statement.

Diane Marie Amann said...

Dear Judith,

Thanks for your comment.

I'd be happy to learn that "our pitiful media" had distorted what transpired, and so on reading your comment I dug further.

The best I could find was a Media Matters item that, helpfully, explains that the quotation I used is a compression of a somewhat longer statement. I'll paste all of that below in a moment, but unless I'm missing something the full quote that I've been able to find is about the same as the compressed version.

(Is there yet more? The Fox News blog of its own interview, in which the statement was made, contains only the compressed quote. See

Here's from Media Matters -- you can find the full item at

* * * *

Clinton's remarks came during a January 7 interview, when Fox News political correspondent Major Garrett asked Clinton if she would react to a portion of a quote from Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama: "False hopes? ... Dr. King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking out over the magnificent crowd, the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument: 'Sorry, guys. False hope. The dream will die. It can't be done.' " Clinton said:

I would, and I would point to the fact that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon 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 real in people's lives because we had a president who said, "We are going to do it," and actually got it accomplished.

Judith Weingarten said...

Diane and all,

The full quote and the full story is here


Judith Weingarten said...

Sorry, the link seems to be truncated. Trying another way (so just click on:
No Quarter