[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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