Creating Moral Imperative

“I would, and I would point to the fact that that 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. That dream became a reality. The power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said, ‘We are going to do it,’ and actually got it accomplished.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton made these comments during a Jan. 7 interview on Fox News and, in the process, touched off a debate over whether the New York senator and former first lady was engaging in racial politics in her efforts to turn back rival Sen. Barack Obama before the New Hampshire primary.

While there may have been racial overtones to the comment — and to some of the comments offered by Clinton’s surrogates — there is another light in which her statement should be considered.

As John Nichols wrote in January, question is not whether Clinton was disrespecting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but whether she understands the synergy that must exist between the grassroots and the nation’s political leadership that is required for real change to occur.

Quoting Frederick Douglass (“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” the antislavery icon said in 1857. “It never did and it never will.”), Nichols reminded readers of his blog on that “the relationship between struggle and power is definitional for those who seek consequential change in the body politic. Both are needed to bend the arc of history toward progress.”

But the activism must come first.

Clinton’s comment about King — and the media reaction to it — reveal, as Barbara Ehrenrich wrote for, “a theory of social change that’s as elitist as it is inaccurate.”

“Black civil rights weren’t won by suited men (or women) sitting at desks,” she writes. “They were won by a mass movement of millions who marched, sat in at lunch counters, endured jailings and took bullets and beatings for the right to vote and move freely about. Some were students and pastors; many were dirt-poor farmers and urban workers. No one has ever attempted to list all their names.”

At each turn in the movement for civil rights in the United States — which runs from the days of the abolitionist movement before the Civil War through the founding of the NAACP and the writings of W.E.B. Dubois through Brown v. the Board of Education to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s – it was the activism, the “struggle,” as Douglass described it, that created the moral imperative to action on the part of government.

And the movement to end slavery and to win voting and civil rights for African-Americans was not the only in which mass action moved the government to act. Decades of suffragist agitation eventually won women the vote. Labor struggles led to changes in law and the growth of unions that, for a time, won workers significant gains that helped level the playing field with management. The antiwar movement in the ‘60s, now viewed with derision by some, turned public opinion against the Vietnam War, which helped bring it to its end.

The ’60s and ’70s brought us feminism and gay rights, the ‘80s the fight against apartheid – the list is long. What’s important to remember, however, is that each of these fights created an atmosphere in which the United States government had to act.

And that is the key.

Who we elect as president is damned important – as the disaster of the last seven years reminds us. All of the Democratic candidates have their virtues and their flaws (the GOP crowd lacks virtue), but it is clear to me that for any of them to be successful in righting the wrongs that have been done to the nation under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, they will need some prodding – from active antiwar and labor movements, from feminists and civil rights activists, from people fighting to cleanse their neighborhoods of pollution and crime and drugs and the economic conditions that breed these dangers.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press (N.J.). Email See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2008

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