Blogs > HNN > Obama and Edwards are Libeling HRC on MLK -- and Distorting History

Jan 14, 2008 2:52 pm


Obama and Edwards are Libeling HRC on MLK -- and Distorting History



[Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. ]

Not surprisingly, as the Democratic race heats up, it is getting ugly, and silly. Senator Hillary Clinton is on the defensive, accused of disrespecting Martin Luther King, Jr., on the eve of King’s birthday celebrations, and just before the heavily African-American South Carolina primary. One of Senator Barack Obama’s supporters, the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, with no explanation or accompanying quotation, accused Mrs. Clinton of “taking cheap shots at, of all people, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Senator John Edwards chimed in too, equally histrionically. No matter who we support, historians should be appalled – and should object strongly – to this distorted and demagogic charge.

On Fox News the other day, Senator Clinton said: “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.” Obama’s people pounced, accusing Hillary of discounting King’s centrality to Civil Rights. Obama himself has denied his campaign fed the attacks against what he made sure to call “unfortunate” and “ill-advised” remarks. Edwards also joined the pile-on, telling more than 200 people at a predominantly black Baptist church: ''I must say I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change that came not through the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King but through a Washington politician…. Those who believe that real change starts with Washington politicians have been in Washington too long and are living a fairy tale.”

Predictably, as her surrogates attack Edwards and Obama for demagoguery, Senator Clinton is back-pedaling furiously. Alas, by the time Clinton finishes her damage control effort, she will probably join Obama and Edwards in distorting the truth.

In fact, Hillary Clinton gave a pithy, accurate summary of an incredibly complicated period of time. She started with Dr. King as the visionary. She acknowledged Dwight Eisenhower's disinterest and John Kennedy’s limited impact in implementing that vision. And she credited Lyndon Johnson with his great skill in translating Civil Rights leaders’ grand aspirations into lasting – and significant – Civil Rights legislation.

Moreover, it was perfectly appropriate for a presidential candidate to draw the lesson “it took a president to get it done.” One of the president’s central tasks, especially when spurred by passionate reformers like King, is to convert the high wattage energy of the moral crusader into a more standard and less combustible current for widespread domestic consumption. Edwards’ assumption that this process puts the dreaded “Washington politician” at the start of the process rather than the end of the process, is a willful distortion. Obama’s claim that this description somehow “diminished King’s role” is an ignorant misrepresentation.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the twentieth century’s most influential Americans. Putting his accomplishments in context, suggesting he could not have done it alone, does not diminish him in any way. In fact, by placing him in the proper context, by treating his achievements accurately and proportionately, we give him the respect he – and the millions who fought for justice with him – deserve.

P.S. Whatever high mark she earned with her MLK-LBJ summary, Hillary earns a"C" in history for her remark on Sunday when speaking to black parishioners at a Presbyterian church in Columbia, S.C. She said: “Many of you in this sanctuary were born before African-Americans could vote." Unless she was speaking to the oldest congregation in history, of people born in 1849 or earlier, she needed more subtlety in that formulation. The fifteenth amendment, ratified in 1870, gave African-Americans the vote -- although it took the Voting Rights Act (thanks to LBJ again) and the Civil Rights movement (thanks to MLK and others) for this right to be enjoyed fully with minimal harassment.

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    Victoria A. John - 1/23/2008

    An excerpt from a beautiful letter to John Edwards:

    "There has been, and will continue to be, a lot of back and forth in the political arena over my father's legacy. It is a commentary on the breadth and depth of his impact that so many people want to claim his legacy. I am concerned that we do not blur the lines and obscure the truth about what he stood for: speaking up for justice for those who have no voice."
    ___Martin Luther King, III

    Please Read More:

    http://www.johnedwards.com/news/headlines/20080121-mlk3/


    Tonja Christine Fleischer - 1/20/2008

    You must be HRC fan? I would ask this of you, what has she accomplished in her political career that resembles that of LBJ?


    Tonja Christine Fleischer - 1/20/2008

    I would remark that it does take more then one person to change society, but Martin Luther King Jr. created thenotion of protest by peaceful means which was a huge influence for the Civil Rights Movement.


    Tonja Christine Fleischer - 1/20/2008

    According to the Federal Governments line of accession for rights the recending of the 15th Amendment was against the law, and blacks were still allowed to vote.


    Tonja Christine Fleischer - 1/20/2008

    I disagree about it being any one person who deserves the credit for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I would give all the credit to Martin Luther King Jr. because his dream was protest by way of peace not riot. This showed the world that they deserved the rights as whites had. You can not seperate the two areas of history. Jim Crowe laws created Martin Luther King Jrs protest, and that in return created Lyndon B. Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
    Tonja


    R.R. Hamilton - 1/16/2008

    The Clinton magic has again bedazzled the Left. Once again it is shown that a Clintonization must be carefully parsed before it can be understood. I'm not an historian. Like Clinton, I'm a lawyer. Like her husband, no real sense can be made of what she says until you consult an attorney. For instance:

    On Fox News the other day, Senator Clinton said: “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.”

    All of you eggheads immediately conclude that "THE PRESIDENT BEFORE" refers to Pres. Eisenhower. That's because you don't know how to read well-crafted sentences spoken by people who are trained to say something entirely different from what it sounds like they are saying.

    If you read the sentence carefully, Clinton was clearly referring to JFK by the term "THE PRESIDENT BEFORE". She is not going to allow herself to get caught by SMART historians in telling lies about Pres. Eisenhower. This is a woman who, after telling New Zealanders that she "was named after Sir Edmund Hillary (the famous mountaineer)" and being confronted with the fact that Sir Edmund didn't become famous until years after her birth, explained that what she meant that she was, LITERALLY, named AFTER Sir Edmund. He was named in 1922 (or whatever) and she in 1947 (or whatever) -- voila! She was named AFTER Sir Edmund.

    As far as the civil rights records of Pres. Eisenhower and Pres. Kennedy, maybe you eggheads can remind me -- since I am no historian: Which of the two passed a Civil Rights Act and which sicced the FBI on Dr. King? While we're at it, who appointed to the Supreme Court civil rights visionaries Warren and Brennan and who appointed "tough-on-crime" White and his Texas crony Abe Fortas?

    The more things I read written by modern historians the less I'm surprised to hear that American kids can't identify in what century the Civil War occurred.


    Daniel J. Singal - 1/14/2008

    Gil Troy entirely misses the context of Hillary Clinton's remark. Before the passage he quoted she was speaking, with some heat, about how people who make eloquent speeches and are proponents of hope (by which she clearly meant Barack Obama) are not as valuable to the world as practical, experienced political leaders (like herself). She THEN mentioned Dr. King, who obviously was meant to fall into the Obama category as a peddler of eloquent but empty rhetoric, in contrast to LBJ, who, presumably like HRC herself, knew "how to get things done." Set in that context, the remark about King WAS disparaging.

    However, I personally doubt that Clinton meant it to be interpreted that way. She simply let the emotion of the moment get the better of her during the day before the NH primary. I also think that Bob Herbert of the NY Times, a columnist for whom I have no respect whatsoever, made a mountain out of this particular molehill. In reality this should not now be a major issue in the campaign. But the fact remains that Hillary did make the statement, it did (when set in context) disparage King, and she is very wrong to be blaming her problem on the Obama campaign when this was in fact a mistake she committed herself.


    Steven F. Lawson - 1/14/2008

    I understand that politicians favor "either/or" arguments, but historians should know better. Dr. King, in good dialectical fashion, rejected the "either/or" formulation for "both/and," and so should we. I am an historian for Obama, but in this instance Clinton (the candidate not the ex-president)did not miss the mark. It took King, local people, the president and Congress to pass civil rights legislation. Social movements do not operate in a political vacuum, and for better and worse presidents can promote and retard the possibilities for change. Compare LBJ with Ronald Reagan. I would have preferred that Obama respond to Clinton in this fashion: "I have been a community organizer and I have sat in the legislative halls of Illinois and Washington. In the spirit of both Dr. King and President Johnson, I am most suited in bringing about needed change." In saying this, he would be correctly applying the lessons of history.


    Gil Troy - 1/14/2008

    Just to be clear, I wasn't saying that prior to the voting rights act blacks had "minimal harassment," I was carefully making sure not to give a completely clean bill of health of post-1965 -- saying that after the voting rights act African-Americans had a chance to vote with minimal harassment -- meaning not that much, but still too much...


    Gil Troy - 1/14/2008

    Despite being a presidential historian, I'm well aware of the latest scholarship emphasizing the broad-based nature of the movement -- and made sure in the final line of my blog to refer to that by mentioning the millions with King. However, when it comes to the Civil Rights legislation, it's completely accurate and fair to place LBJ front and center, given how much time, energy and political capital he invested in pushing that through -- and how personally committed he was to passing it, as a Southerner trying to fill Kennedy's shoes.
    This debate was about the leadership at the top, and as I also wrote, it is fair for a presidential candidate to imply that she will be the kind of president to respond to such challenges.


    Ed Schmitt - 1/14/2008

    Increasingly scholars of the civil rights movement have come to understand that there has been perhaps too much emphasis even on King's role - much less Lyndon Johnson's - as a top-down model. Lots of important more recent scholarship is illuminating the much broader and wider bases of King's "not being able to do it alone" than just LBJ as the "closer." I understand Prof. Troy is a presidential historian so perhaps the top-down is his customary angle of vision, but it really skews how authoritative he can be on this topic in the absence of discussing the important social history that has been done on this. And "libelous" seems an awfully overheated and unhelpful way of portraying Obama's and Edwards's responses. The whole King/Johnson, dreamer/doer duality seems ridiculously and obscurantly simplistic.


    James W Loewen - 1/14/2008

    No need to give HRC a "C" for her statement, “Many of you ... were born before African-Americans could vote." Her audience was black residents of South Carolina. The statement is correct for those born before 1965. Gil Troy writes, "The fifteenth amendment, ratified in 1870, gave African-Americans the vote." True, but SC took it away in 1895. As Pitchfork Ben Tillman said on the floor of the US Senate, "Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could." Surely Troy earns a C- for euphemizing this as "harassment."


    Stephen Cipolla - 1/14/2008

    I totally agree.

    But, by now, we (meaning serious students of history) must have come to grips with the fact that all presidential candidates (and most Presidents) abuse and sometimes fabricate history and Americans don't know much, if any, historical content.

    No matter how many times we see it, it still ticks us off because "sound-bytes" of historical interpretation are nearly impossible to correct once they leave the candidate's lips. If you love the study of history and understand that serious historical interpretion is always subject to debate and revision, you never get used to it. How many presendential elections in the 19th century involved the waving of the "bloody shirt?" As though a political party was responsible for the Civil War.

    Marx wrote, "men make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing" or words to that effect. No single individual was responsible for the way-too-late fulfillment of the 15th Amendment's promise. But, more any one person, Dr. King certainly had a closer causal connection to the passage of voting rights legislation of the mid-sixties, which were a partial implementation of the promises this nation made to the freed slaves in the Reconstruction Amendments. Over the course of his too-short life, Dr. King made history, and the conditions underwhich he did it were certainly not of his choosing, but his moral courage and inspiration overcame the material adversity he faced every single day, right up to 1968.


    John M Shaw - 1/14/2008

    Forget the accusation of "histrionics." It's the silly season of U.S. politics as you said: "ugly and silly."

    But HRC started the "distortion" of MLK's galvanizing historic role in pushing the reluctant Democratic Party elite (JFK, RFK, LBJ, etc.)to get on the civil rights bandwagon. Her embrace of the white liberal top-down interpretation of the modern civil rights era was hardly "a pithy, accurate summary."

    The tipoff for distortion is the word "began": "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." I think most history professors would take points off if they found that sentence in a student essay on the modern civil rights movement.

    Yes, LBJ expended scarce political capital and gave reluctant legislators the "Johnson treatment" to leverage their vote for the landmark Civil Rights bill in 1964. That and the Voting Rights Act remain LBJ's greatest legacy amidst the many failures of his Great Society.

    Any successful political reform movement needs most of its impetus from the bottom-up in order to finally force entrenched interests and elected politicians to actually change. The fact that a few members of the power elite score the empty net goal (an ice hockey metaphor) does not mean they should get the lions share of credit for winning the war. To claim otherwise is a "distortion" of the history of the modern civil rights movement and its major achievements.


    John M Shaw - 1/14/2008

    Forget the accusation of "histrionics." It's the silly season of U.S. politics as you said: "ugly and silly."

    But HRC started the "distortion" of MLK's galvanizing historic role in pushing the reluctant Democratic Party elite (JFK, RFK, LBJ, etc.)to get on the civil rights bandwagon. Her embrace of the white liberal top-down interpretation of the modern civil rights era was hardly "a pithy, accurate summary."

    The tipoff for distortion is the word "began": "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." I think most history professors would take points off if they found that sentence in a student essay on the modern civil rights movement.

    Yes, LBJ expended scarce political capital and gave reluctant legislators the "Johnson treatment" to leverage their vote for the landmark Civil Rights bill in 1964. That and the Voting Rights Act remain LBJ's greatest legacy amidst the many failures of his Great Society.

    Any successful political reform movement needs most of its impetus from the bottom-up in order to finally force entrenched interests and elected politicians to actually change. The fact that a few members of the power elite score the empty net goal (an ice hockey metaphor) does not mean they should get the lions share of credit for winning the war. To claim otherwise is a "distortion" of the history of the modern civil rights movement and its major achievements.