Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Today's fight over Civil Rights




Jeffrey Toobin
Senior Analyst




At one level, it seems to me, the latest dispute between the Clinton and Obama campaigns can be seen as the political equivalent of a Seinfeld episode -- about nothing.

The controversy involves the relative contributions to civil rights legislation by Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. Clinton cited Johnson, who signed the main laws, as well as King. Obama focused on King, who provided the moral impetus. For America in 2008, it's hard to say how it makes much difference which candidate is right.


On the other hand, Clinton and Obama are tapping into one of the richest historical debates of the last several decades. Two of the finest multi-volume biographies in recent history -- Robert Caro on Johnson, and Taylor Branch on King -- deal with precisely the question the candidates are debating.

The books are very different in tone: Branch is admiring, often reverential, toward King; Caro is critical, sometimes even hostile to LBJ. But they come out close on the responsibility for the civil rights revolution.

Because both biographies are complex, nuanced (and very long), the authors avoid simple answers. But they show a shared responsibility between two giants for the triumphs of that era.

Both King and Johnson were indispensable -- a verdict that, upon reflection, Senators Clinton and Obama will probably come to share.

Posted By CNN: 3:08 PM ET
  5 Comments
Thanks for the links, Jeff.
Alternatively, I wish Obama and Clinton would focus more and dedicate time to the Civil Rights struggle of today- GLBT rights. I absolutely hate that both candidates support only "civil unions." Separate is not equal! Let's hear these two answer to that.
Posted By Anonymous Max, Dallas, TX : 3:39 PM ET
Jeff,
I think that it is ridiculous what is going on between the two of them. King and Johnson both played a huge role in getting the civil rights legislation made and passed! To be on one side or the other argueing who was the most important is stupid!! The bottom line is that the bill was passed and now all people have to be treated equal. That is all that matters!

Hillary and Obama need to move on before this really hurts them both. And the media needs to get off of it too and talk about the real issues that matter!

Cynthia, Covington, Ga.
Posted By Blogger Cindy : 3:42 PM ET
I think the deeper divide is the outlook of leadership itself. To say a President makes a dream a reality is suggesting that people have no power at all..... I believe that Dr King and the many other leaders in the movement respected ordinary people....
Posted By Anonymous M. Lewis : 3:49 PM ET
Initially I thought it could be a good thing when prejudice began to be discussed in this campaign, because I believe the nation still struggles with this serious problem. However, the conversation has devolved into political nit-picking and at this point serves no positive purpose. If we're going to talk about prejudice, let's do it in a forward looking manner and discuss the glass ceiling for women and the fear and distrust of all those who are different that is all too prevalent in our society.
Posted By Blogger Barbara in Culver City, CA : 4:55 PM ET
I do not understand why anyone would even question the role of either Dr. Martin Luther King or President Lyndon Johnson about the Civil Rights Movement.

Both leaders worked hand in hand. To diminish King's role, is to diminish all of the sit ins, marches, death, and blood that was spilled to advance civil rights in this country. People got out and either risked or gave their lives to make America listen and act. This is not a small feat and to downplay it is wrong.

President Johnson heard the cry of the people, witnessed the marches, the fire hoses and dogs, felt for the victims of bombings and respected the vision of his predecessor JFK wanted to legislate in such a way that would move America forward. LBJ worked on and got passed civil rights legislation in 1964.

One would not have happened without the other. Now can we get back to 2008, and talk about ways of solving problems that plague us now?

Peace
Posted By Anonymous Madeliene, Atlanta, Georgia : 10:51 PM ET
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