In a well-publicized interview last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton contrasted the presidential experience of Lyndon Johnson with the message of change articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The comments launched a “silly” exchange in which each Democratic presidential candidate affirmed and reaffirmed the role of activists in creating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But in an election year in which everyone and their mother is looking for a candidate who will generate change once in office, the historical parable raised by Clinton also presents a pretty good example of where change actually comes from and why the binary between “change” and “experience” isn’t all that valid.
While President Johnson certainly was instrumental in pushing the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress, he was hesitant to support the 1965 Voting Rights Act proposed shortly after. Only after significant pressure from his constituents, who held him accountable to his commitment to civil rights, was he willing to take action.
The Civil Rights Act had been a historic piece of legislation in desegregating public spaces, but the act lacked enforcement provisions to guarantee Southern blacks the right to vote. In the fall of 1964, days after Dr. King returned to the United States after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, King met with Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, to discuss the passage of a voting rights act to supplement the earlier law. Yet according to one of King’s lieutenants, Reverend Andy Young, Humphrey immediately rebuffed King’s proposal. “I’m sure we can’t get a voting rights bill, not in 1965,” Humphrey said. “We passed the civil rights bill only a month ago. It’s too soon.”
When King met with President Johnson in the White House, the president similarly said that he supported the idea of a voting rights act but he needed more time before he would introduce it.
It was not until the simmering pressure from the civil rights movement reached a boiling point that President Johnson finally shepherded a voting rights bill through Congress.
In February 1965, a 26-year-old black pulpwood cutter named Jimmy Lee Jackson was killed by a state trooper during a voting rights demonstration just outside of Selma, Ala. In March, a planned protest march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest his death was stopped short on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Alabama state troopers on horseback, each carrying bully clubs and tear gas canisters. In front of television cameras, the troopers mowed down the 600 demonstrators before the eyes of a horrified nation on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” That night, King and other organizers made round-the-clock calls to the national “Community of Good Will” for support, soliciting the help of thousands of Southern and Northern allies to participate in a second march.
But when one of these allies, a white minister from Boston named James Reeb, was bludgeoned to death on the streets of Selma by white thugs, the national public became visibly outraged by the federal government’s inaction.
Soon, not only was the Johnson administration offering the marchers military escorts for their protection, but President Johnson gave an impassioned nighttime address to Congress calling for a voting rights act, saying at one point “we shall overcome.” Johnson then vigorously moved the bill through Congress, and on Aug. 6, 1965, he signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
The moral of the story is not that the experienced President Johnson was the man who signed the Voting Rights Act, nor is it that King and other demonstrators sacrificed sweat and blood in the name of change. Rather, the narrative demonstrates that any leader, whether a preacher or a president, requires an organized constituency to hold him or her accountable in effecting the change that may be desperately needed. The idea that it takes experience to create change or that change can only come from an outsider misses the point. The passage of the Voting Rights Act showed that it took local and national organization as well as a dedicated grassroots community effort to push the president to act on his conscience.
In the false dichotomy she created between the experience of Johnson and King’s outsider status, Sen. Clinton drew on a long historiography of King, rehashed every January, in which around the country we remember the reverend for his rhetorical dream and willingness to sacrifice for his beliefs.
But we should also remember King’s position as one of hundreds of organizers who helped turn a social movement into a triumphant political struggle. Similarly, while Clinton’s interview suggested that Sen. Barack Obama has been successful because of his speeches, she belied the organizational tactics Obama has employed throughout his campaign, especially in Iowa.
As The New York Times reported the day of the Iowa caucuses, Obama transferred many strategies from his work as a community organizer into his campaign, from introducing local organizers at each campaign stop to opening storefront campaign offices on main streets months before elections. Indeed, his level of organizing, not his rhetoric, may have made the difference between Obama’s success in Iowa versus in New Hampshire.
All this is not to say that Obama will be more responsive to his supporters than any other candidate if elected. But it does demonstrate the power of long-term organization versus election-day mobilization, as well as the practical limitations of populist rhetoric and insider power.
Change does not often bloom simply because a leader wills it. Instead, it may require the commitment from a constituency to organize support and hold its leader accountable for his or her actions, even after an election has long ended.
Niko Bowie is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.