Monday, January 21, 2008

How Not to Honor Dr. King

I've been pissing off Democrats all damn day. I'm usually much more diplomatic when I argue politics with friends, but there are just some things I cannot brook, especially not today. Dr. King's name has been bandied around quite a bit in the political arena lately; this is unsurprising. What is also unsurprising is that a white candidate has managed to monumentally twist history in order to paint a white politician as the "real" hero of the civil rights movement in order claim superiority over a black candidate.

Hillary Clinton's comment went thus: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.” Inevitably, Democratically-minded individuals have told me today that I should "re-read the comment, because it doesn't actually say that Dr. King didn't do anything."

Of course it doesn't. What it does is ignore everything that Dr. King accomplished before 1964, and attribute any "real" change he helped bring about to a white politician. Dr. King was working toward equality long before LBJ became president -- the Montgomery Bus Boycott started in 1955. Dr. King helped found the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) in 1957, which organized peaceful protest and voter registration throughout the Jim Crow South. During this time, the US government was hardly a huge help; in fact, Dr. King was wiretapped due to suspected communist involvement owing to his persistent belief in his own personhood. He was leading protests and marches and writing books and preaching peace and equality (and periodically spending time in prison for his troubles) for almost a decade, gradually winning local freedoms one boycott or sit-in at a time, until the US Congress FINALLY passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Which Lyndon Johnson valiantly put his signature on.

The revisionist history of Clinton's statement doesn't stop there. Johnson's signature hardly "got it done." No oppressive system has ever been vanquished solely by a law stating that system is illegal; there are still parts of this country where African Americans are violently unwelcome. It is not "done" by a long shot, and that is one of the most damning points of Clinton's statement; she makes it clear that she is one in a long line of clueless, rich white people who think that because they don't see racism in their everyday, pasty-looking lives we must have achieved equality.

This act of attributing the accomplishments of the entire civil rights movement to one president is troubling in so many ways. First, the paternalistic racial politics cannot be ignored. The suggestion that a white president was the benevolent power who gave the final go-ahead for black personhood glosses over the fact that civil rights were never his to grant. Civil rights in the US were not "given" to black people via legislation. They have been and must continually be taken back from the legacy of slavery and inequality that is our country's history. Clinton's statement exudes racial privilege, implying that she is the LBJ to Obama's MLK, kindly willing to see him as an agent for social change, but claiming political power as her white birthright.

Finally, Clinton's statement is personally insulting to me as a citizen and as a participant in several social movements. The idea that any social or political change is not primarily accomplished by the average, everyday citizens who show up to care is contrary to the democratic principles our country claims to espouse. We the People are those who truly govern this country, and it's time we remember that. It is time we start thinking critically when we elect those who "lead" us, reminding them that they are elected to represent us, that we have a vested interest in what their words say about us.

Which is how I got around to pissing off Democrats today. I do not agree with my friends that Clinton is the left's best chance against the crazy fundies the Republicans are tossing around. I'm more than willing to re-read the quote again, but I'm pretty sure I'll come to the same conclusion. She is engaging in intra-party garbage that only weakens whichever candidate stands in November's general election, and now she's doing it by implying herself to be racially entitled to the nomination. She may end up as the lesser of two evils in November, but right now I'm hoping primary voters will resist her clumsy twisting of Dr. King's legacy to paint herself as Democrats' Great White Hope.


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