Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Civil Rights History Lesson for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton

From The Desk Of Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) Jan. 15, 2008 - It is certainly no shock that the respective political camps of Senators Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama are unusually anxious to engage in rhetorical rock-throwing in the heat of the Democratic party primary contests. That's what politics in America is about: wait for your opponent(s) to make some obvious misstep, or catch them on camera saying something that could potentially offend part of the electorate, and then go for your opponent's jugular.

So it's understandable that the Obama campaign vigorously responded to a comment about the civil rights struggle uttered recently by Senator Clinton. Namely, that, according to her account of history, it required the power and approval of a president (Lyndon Johnson) to realize the civil rights objectives of Dr. King's movement.

Presumably, the Senator from New York was referring not only to her understanding of the power of the American presidency, but to her evaluation of her own power - if she is to be elected - to act in a similarly altruistic and just way for the sake of racial and social equality.

But Senator Clinton's statement is packed with assumptions and historical perceptions that need to be unpacked and examined, not in juxtaposition with the Obama candidacy, but in comparison to the real truth of the institutions of American political power, as well as the nature of this particular mass movement that changed the course of the nation.

It should be worth remembering, especially by Senator Clinton, that the civil rights movement was more than a movement - it was, in every sense, a struggle. Southern Democrats like Lyndon Johnson (who was nurtured and supported by the very segregationist Dixiecrat establishment that Dr. King vehemently opposed), not only fought the movement for full African-American human rights, but used their legislative power to delay the inevitable de jure victory of civil rights (and in 1965, voting rights).

Johnson, if anything, was "dragged" to the signing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, not because of his incorrigible love for the rights of Black people, but because of the power of potential mass social disruption; not to mention his memory of the internal revolt and racial schism that rocked the Democratic Party at the Atlantic City convention in 1964, when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party insurgents (led by the powerful and amazing Fannie Lou Hamer), reminded the world of the political disenfranchisement of Black democratic voters in Mississippi, and throughout the South.

There is also no real historical evidence to support the notion that President Johnson, himself, felt some deep personal commitment to the notion of Black social and political equality in America, even if the realpolitik of the times compelled him to sign legislation to that effect.

What Senator Clinton (and for that matter, Senator Obama and every other elected official in America) should also understand is this: Dr. King's movement, ultimately, was a human rights movement, not just a civil one. That is to say, while the movement had the legislative objective of dismantling legal (de jure) American apartheid, it's ultimate objective was the overturning of de facto (real) inequality in this nation - not only in terms of access to the ballot - but in every other dimension of the civic and social tapestry of the nation.

Legislation that protects the rights of citizens is critical, of course, and the legislative victory in 1965 was a seminal moment in American history. But it was a milestone in a yet-unfinished journey, and a moment in a struggle that no executive branch, or legislature, or judiciary, can ultimately win.

It can only be achieved by the total transformation of every fiber of a nation that still, 40-years after the murder of Dr. King, remains far too comfortable with the continued material benefits of white supremacy and the persistence of inequality in all aspects of civic life.

It would be unfair to suggest that Senator Clinton intentionally tried to disparage the legacy of Dr. King by implying that President Johnson's approval was necessary for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to become law. Hillary is, if anything, both a consummate politician and a very smart woman who knows her core constituency and the potential fallout from any statement that might be construed as diminishing the King legacy. (You will notice how quickly her African American supporters, like Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson, rushed in to circle the wagons and protect her from the Obama counter-attack).

But Senator Clinton, as well as both her supporters and detractors, should use this flap as an opportunity to study the history of the civil rights struggle in-depth, and realize that the movement for justice and equality in America is a work in progress, and that it did not begin, and will never end, in the Oval Office of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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