It Takes a Movement

Isaiah J. Poole

Wading into the storm kicked up by Sen. Hillary Clinton’s comment that “it took a president” to turn Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality into a reality, Bill Moyers nails it on his January 18 commentary for his PBS show, “Bill Moyers’ Journal”:

Many, many years ago, I was a young White House Assistant, when President Johnson at first wanted Martin Luther King to call off the marching, demonstrations, and protests. The civil rights movement had met massive resistance in the South, and the South, because of the seniority system, controlled Congress, making it virtually impossible for Congress to enact laws giving full citizenship to black Americans, no matter how desperate their lives. LBJ worried that the mounting demonstrations were hardening white resistance. …

As the pressure intensified on each side, Johnson wanted King to wait a little longer and give him a chance to bring Congress around by hook or crook. But Martin Luther King said his people had already waited too long. He talked about the murders and lynchings, the churches set on fire, children brutalized, the law defied, men and women humiliated, their lives exhausted, their hearts broken. LBJ listened, as intently as I ever saw him listen. He listened, and then he put his hand on Martin Luther King’s shoulder, and said, in effect: “OK. You go out there Dr. King and keep doing what you’re doing, and make it possible for me to do the right thing.”

The coming-to-terms that Moyers witnessed between King and Johnson renders the “it takes a president” comment simplistic at best and insulting at worst. The truth is, it also takes people to move a president, even when a president wants to move on his or her own.

Certainly, a president must have the vision, courage and wisdom to get in front of the American public and lead. But, like a good football quarterback, even the best leaders need an offensive line that can clear the blocks to forward progress.

The civil rights movement in the 1960s served as that offensive line, taking the body blows so that a president who otherwise would have proceeded with timidity was convinced to be bold.

Part of Dr. King’s legacy lies in showing the need for, and the value of, an independent progressive movement that is not beholden to or constrained by political candidates and parties. The issues facing the nation in 2008 — universal health care, the need for a new green economy, the urgency of repairing the damage done to American and global security by America’s misadventures in the Middle East, and King’s very-much unfinished agenda of racial and economic justice — require getting past conservative intransigence as stiff as that of the Southern segregationists of the 1960s. Now, as then, hearts and minds of millions of ordinary Americans have to be won away from those who have held them captive with a combination of fear and an ideology that is morally and intellectually corrupt.

Yes, it takes a president to sign a bill into law. But, more than 100 years before King’s meeting with Johnson, another civil rights crusader, Frederick Douglass, observed, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”

We will be sorely disappointed if we think that just putting the right person in the Oval Office will lead to the progressive change we need. It does, and will, take a movement.

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