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Clinton vs. Obama: Lest We Forget

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET

The Clinton vs. Obama contest for the Democratic ticket of the upcoming residential race raises some provocative issues when reflecting on the Women's Movement and the African American community. So much so that a recent comment by Senator Hillary Clinton about it taking President Lyndon B. Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for Dr. King's dream to be realized ("It took a president to get it done," stated Senator Clinton) was viewed by many as racially insensitive and a major gaffe. The comment has further sparked a national debate and has become, for now, a focal point of an already white hot, volatile political contest. It's no surprise that Dr. King's name and the Civil Rights Movement have been invoked into this discussion. I suspect that it won't be the last time either. Aside from Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. King, with whom I worked closely as personal counsel, advisor and draft speechwriter for much of the Civil Rights Movement, may have done more to achieve social, political and economic justice in America than any other event or person in the previous 400 years. So, as we approach November 2008, the burning question has been and will remain: What will it be? The historic opportunity to elect the first woman or first African American male as president of the United States.

There are few white women for whom I have more respect than Gloria Steinem, an ideological Godmother of the women's movement. In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times about the Obama vs. Clinton contest for the Democratic Party's nominee for President of the United States ("Women Are Never Front-Runners," January 8, 2008), Ms. Steinem's lifelong advocacy for gender equality appears to have become politically transformed into an advocacy of gender preferential treatment or implicit "female entitlement."

I am 77 years old, male and black. My experience in our country, as an African-American, and the reality of American history contravenes the assumption underlying Ms Steinem's thesis: women in the United States have been equally or more oppressed, excluded and discriminated against than African American men, writing in her op-ed, "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House." As evidence she cites the historical fact that "Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot..." That historical anomaly standing alone, however, obscures the reality that white middle class women, as a group, have been one of the principal beneficiaries of Dr. King's legacy of struggle for racial justice and gender equality.

Further, the forefathers and foremothers of white middle class women in America did not endure the Middle Passage, chattel slavery by predecessor governments to our current government, the failure of Reconstruction, segregation, and years of racial injustice in our country. African-Americans are the heirs of a past of rope, fire and murder, sanctioned by institutionalized racism throughout the history of our country. As such, the election of an African American male to the presidency of the United States, under the reality of this unique American experience, is or would not be any less of an event or "historical first" than the election of a middle class white woman as President of the United States.

Which brings me to Senator Clinton's recent comments, presumably, to contrast her qualifications for president with those of Senator Obama, comparing herself to President Lyndon Johnson with the words, "It took a president to get it done." My longevity as a personal counsel and a draft speech writer for my beloved friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., has blessed me with the memory and the obligation of a living witness. The challenge confronting me and others, who worked with Dr. King, is how to set the record straight without appearing to third parties, especially the media, to be playing the so-called "race card". The absence of such raced based politics is what may be part of the unexpected broad appeal of the Obama candidacy.

I would like to remind all the candidates that this is the week of Dr. King's 79th birthday. Distorted application or misappropriation of his legacy for self serving political purposes by any candidate besmirches this legacy. Less there be some question about the roles of Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson, let me "make it plain": the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was not principally because of President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was because of Martin Luther King, Jr. LBJ was only responding to what Martin often said, quoting Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, that "There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world and that is an idea whose time has come." The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was "an idea whose time had come"; a direct result of those hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets across our country under Dr. King's leadership and not because "it. took a president to get it done."

Often during municipal, state or federal political campaigns, various parties seek to appropriate one or more excerpts from Martin's speeches or writings in support of their immediate political objective. This is understandable. Dr. King left such an extraordinary imprint upon our nation's DNA. Without proposing or recommending any choice between Senators Clinton or Obama and the other remaining candidates for the Democratic Party's nomination, one would have to be brain dead or suffer from amnesia not to see the haunting parallel between Senator Obama's candidacy and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple in Memphis, TN, in support of the sanitation workers' strike against the city of Memphis, in his last public speech and the day before his death, Dr. King told those assembled on that historic occasion: "I've been to the mountaintop... And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

The candidacy of Senator Barack Obama may just be part of the Promised Land that Martin believed we as a people would get to, even though he prophetically said he may not there with us. The possible election of Senator Obama in 2008 as President of the United States may very well be more powerful than the march of mighty armies -- an idea for which the time has come.

Finally, a caution, if not a warning, to President Clinton, Senator Clinton and their campaign advisors: You run the risk of dissipating, corrupting, if not destroying, the justifiably deserved and accumulated positive capital and goodwill you have earned among black people from President and Senator Clinton's own history of struggle for racial justice. Few public officials, especially President Clinton, like Senator John Edwards, a son of the white south, have transcended the segregationist's racist conditions of their southern upbringing, and committed their lives to racial justice. As such they have earned their "credentials" among black people. Prior to the current election contest, President Clinton was belovedly characterized by many African Americans as "America's first black president". However, the Clinton presidential campaign's apparent blind ambition for power runs the risk of destroying Clinton's reservoir of earned political integrity and affection among black people.

I suspect to some African Americans, especially older parents and grandparents, Senator Obama is symbolic and/or represents their sons and grandsons, for whom most have sacrificed to get them an education and succeed. Good faith questions about qualifications and experience are always appropriate about a candidate who seeks the nomination of his party to be president. However, gratuitous attacks against Obama or sarcastic paternalism dismissing his "qualifications" to be President of the United States are offensive and carry a tinge of "we know what's best for you" racism. This only serves to embolden Senator Obama's younger supporters; as they appear to resent such condescension and respond by saying "Yes we (he) can!!" Despite perhaps knowing less about the legacy of Dr. King, these young people nonetheless sense that Senator Obama's campaign for president may also be "an idea whose time has come."

In the name of my beloved friend Martin, I beseech all candidates to pause in a moment of reflection and consider whether what you do and say to get elected as president either enhances or diminishes the ultimate sacrifice that Dr. King made so that you are in a viable position to be in the presidential race in 2009.

Clarence B. Jones is the former personal counsel, advisor, draft speech writer and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is a Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University. His forthcoming book titled What Would Martin Say will be published by HarperCollins in April 2008.

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