Sean Wilentz: To understand Hillary Clinton's "race problem," we must better understand the history of civil rights.





[Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton).]

In war, truth is the first casualty--but in politics, it appears that the first victim is history.

The latest maiming of the historical record and elementary historical logic has come over Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson--and the presidential primaries of 2008. The media echo chamber is now booming with charges that Senator Hillary Clinton has disparaged Dr. King, praised President Johnson in his stead, and thereby distorted the history of the civil rights movement. It is the latest evidence, say the talking heads, that Clinton is running a subtly racist campaign--or, as the theology and African-American studies professor Michael Eric Dyson worded it on MSNBC, that she is carrying a message with an "an implicit racial subtext."

Ben Smith of Politico was among the first to stir things up, charging that remarks by Clinton on MLK and LBJ offered "an odd example for the argument between rhetoric and action" that Clinton has been making in her contest with Senator Barack Obama.

By the time the charge reached Maureen Dowd's column in The New York Times on Wednesday, it had morphed into a false claim that Clinton actually compared herself to Johnson--a comparison Dowd claimed she never thought "any living Democrat" would do in trying to win the New Hampshire primary. (Dowd had 1968 and Vietnam on her mind, which, unfortunately, was not the matter in dispute: civil rights.)

Now, Representative James E. Clyburn, the most prominent African-American elected official from South Carolina, has picked up the ever-changing story and implicitly accused Senator Clinton of denigrating Dr. King and the civil rights movement. "We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics," Clyburn told The New York Times.

So--let us very, very carefully look at that historical record.

In a pair of television interviews earlier this week, Clinton made the uncontroversial historical observation that Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement put their lives on the line for racial equality, and that President Johnson enacted civil rights legislation.

Her point was simple: Although great social changes require social movements that create hope and force crises, elected officials, presidents above all, are also required in order to turn those hopes into laws. It was, plainly, a rejoinder to the accusations by Obama that Clinton has sneered at "hope." Clinton was also rebutting Obama's simplistic assertion that "hope" won the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the end of Jim Crow.

The historical record is crystal clear about this, and no responsible historian seriously contests it. Without Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, black and white (not to mention restive slaves), there would have been no agitation to end slavery, even after the Civil War began. But without Douglass's ally in the White House, the sympathetic, deeply anti-slavery but highly pragmatic Abraham Lincoln, there could not have been an Emancipation Proclamation or a Thirteenth Amendment. Likewise, without King and his movement, there would have been no civil rights revolution. But without the Texas liberal and wheeler-dealer Lyndon Johnson, and his predecessor John F. Kennedy, there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Hope, in other words, is necessary to bring about change--but it is never enough. Change also requires effective leadership inside government. It's not a matter of either/or (that is, either King or Johnson), but a matter of both/and.

Behind this argument over Clinton's comments lies a false, mythic view of the 1960s in which the civil rights movement supposedly pushed Johnson and the Democrats to support civil rights against their own will. In fact, the movement and the elected officials were distinct but complementary elements in the civil rights politics that changed America....




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Patrick Murray - 1/21/2008

Historians prefer the actions of the few and the powerful partially because it is easier to write about the few and the powerful, owing to the ease of sources. I have a friend who was an engineer and a Tuskegee airman who after the war represented a very large corporation doing business with a sub-contractor in the South. My friend was in charge of awarding the contract but was put up in a segregated facility owing to his race. He told the sub-contractor that the next time he came calling that they would put him up in the same hotel as the white engineers. He moved across the tracks, the sub-contractor got the contract, and progress occurred because of the action one African-American. I believe that there are tens of thousands of such stories waiting to be told about the hopes and lives of people who took charge and made a difference. It is just easier to write about Congress and the Presidency.


Arnold Shcherban - 1/21/2008

As it well known Lindon Johnson was not a passionate supporter of the rights of black people, to say the least...
But he was a prudent politician and wanted to avoid a mini Civil war, as it becomes clear from his remarks made that time, plus he accounted for the world situation indicated by Mr. Clark in his last comments.
I don't think the real reasons behind LJ respective actions were the ones
meant by Hillary in her praising-the
President-remark. Therefore she was
incorrect anyway one takes it.


Chris Bray - 1/21/2008

"(not to mention restive slaves)"

Fitting to your narrative that you got those restive slaves in there parenthetically.

GREAT POLITICAL LEADERS (and some ordinary black citizens)...


Clare Lois Spark - 1/20/2008

I should have mentioned that the civil rights movement existed since the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, and that both Nazi and Soviet propaganda taunted the U.S. for hypocrisy with respect to its treatment of minorities in a purported democracy. After the war, the Cold War context was crucial as the U.S. and the Soviet Union were competing for allies and influence in the Third World.
This is so obvious that only a celebrity culture could have allowed the efforts of the 1960s movement as headed by MLK Jr. to be awarded the bulk of the credit. The 1930s movement was massive, but the South did not bend even after Gunnar Myrdal warned them that race riots and communism would probably result if they didn't allow Negro votes. (See AN AMERICAN DILEMMA, 1944).


Clare Lois Spark - 1/19/2008

Wilentz writes: "Her point was simple: Although great social changes require social movements that create hope and force crises, elected officials, presidents above all, are also required in order to turn those hopes into laws. It was, plainly, a rejoinder to the accusations by Obama that Clinton has sneered at "hope." Clinton was also rebutting Obama's simplistic assertion that "hope" won the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the end of Jim Crow."
Where did Obama make such assertions? If Wilentz is going to criticize Obama for political naivete, he might have enumerated all the motives,forces, and sacrifices that brought about massive change instigated initially by relatively small minority movements. Surely a belief system that human will and activity could ameliorate suffering in this world was imperative. Nihilism, existentialism, and rage, so evident in both high and popular culture today, cannot advance positive change or achieve the social cohesion and bipartisanship that Obama seems to be advocating.
Please, Professor Wilentz, clarify your statement. As it stands, you sound like a Clinton partisan, and more troubling, as beholden to a version of the leader principle, which I doubt that you are.


R.R. Hamilton - 1/16/2008

Just one minor correction for you: "Without Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, black and white (not to mention restive slaves), there would have been no agitation to end slavery, even after the Civil War began."

Far from being "restive" the slaves were remarkably pacific. Even after the Confederate military needs denuded most of the South of white men -- and at a time when Federal armies proclaimed they were fighting for slave liberation, there were no incidents of slave insurrections. This was true even in areas where whites were no more than 10% of the population. John Brown learned this fact to his surprise in 1859; no need for us to forget it not.

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