Johnson Did Help Give Life to King's Dream

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Michael Fauntroy Professor, Author, Columnist, and Commentator at

Senator Hillary Clinton has been taking a beating for a comment she recently made regarding Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the role President Lyndon Johnson played in bringing about the legislative change sought by the civil rights movement. She noted that King's dream began to come into focus when President Lyndon Johnson supported and signed into law important civil rights legislation. Some African Americans, sadly disconnected from the historical record, took the comment as a slight to King's legacy. Conservatives did what they usually do, stoking the fire by suggesting that Clinton simply dissed the Black icon and should be punished by African American voters. (Disclosure: Neither Clinton nor Senator Barack Obama is my preferred presidential candidate). Clinton is factually right and, after seeing the video of the comment, I am convinced that she met no disrespect to King's legacy.

My interest in King is more than academic. I'm blessed to be a nephew of Rev. Walter Fauntroy, one of Dr. King's chief lieutenants. He has long told me of his work during this period and how the man (King) and the movement coalesced and unified the country, which became outraged by what they saw on the evening news night after night. He also told me something that I tell my students: ideas and movements mean nothing if they don't change public policy. Mass movements and demonstrations are designed to prick the conscience of the country on a given issue. At that point the legislative process takes over. That process must go through the president. A supportive president can accelerate change. An obstinate president (see Bush, G.W. - Iraq) can thwart a movement, even though it might have a majority of support in Congress.

My uncle has told me a thousand times about how important Lyndon Johnson was to making the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 a reality. He sacrificed his own favor with southern conservatives to do the right thing. I see a particular irony that some southern Black elected officials, some of whom owe their seats in Congress to the changes effectuated by the Voting Rights Act, now criticizing Clinton for remembering her civil rights history. Noting Johnson's role is not disrespectful to King's legacy. It's simply a historical fact. And Clinton's memory seems to be on target.

It's my hope that the media and racially sensitive people of all stripes will take a deep breath and relax a bit. Presidential candidates, talking all the time every single day while on the campaign trail, will say things that can easily be taken out of context. Responsible observers have to encourage the public to pay closer attention to the issues rather than perceived slights that don't really exist. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to question whether Hillary Clinton is best suited to win the Democratic presidential nomination and the White House. Her comment on President Johnson and the civil rights movement should not be among them.

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of Republicans and the Black Vote. A registered Independent, he blogs at