King and Johnson
Joseph Califano's long public career included a stint as President Lyndon Johnson's special assistant for domestic affairs, from 1965 to 1969. He has first-hand knowledge of the actual relationship between President Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King. On Tuesday, he wrote this insightful commentary, in the Washington Post.
The greatest fairy tale of the 2008 campaign so far is the accusation that there is some tint of racism or putdown of Martin Luther King Jr. in Hillary Clinton's comment that "it took a president," Lyndon Johnson, to realize the civil rights leader's dreams.
The visionary preacher and the tough-talking master politician would be the first to say that they needed each other. I know how they came to work together, in a complex partnership, to produce a social revolution that has saved this nation.
Within days of President Kennedy's assassination, King was already telling Johnson directly that he would risk his life by forcing dramatic confrontations in the South, if that's what it would take to get government action.
He knew it would take presidential leadership, he said, and he shrewdly held out the potential of supporting Johnson in the 1964 campaign.
Johnson appreciated King, and decided to push ahead with what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
To break a filibuster, Johnson had California Democrat Clair Engle, who was dying of a brain tumor, wheeled onto the Senate floor. Engle couldn't speak, so LBJ had him signal his aye vote by pointing to his eye.
And in one of the more famous indications of Johnson's understanding of the political cost of having done the right thing:
The day after passage, Johnson told his aide Bill Moyers, "I think we delivered the South to the Republican Party for your lifetime and mine." Indeed, he was defeated in five Southern states in 1964, four of them states Democrats had not lost in more than 80 years. The losses didn't faze him, and he turned his energies to voting rights for black Americans.
Go read the entire piece.
The bottom line is that revolutionary change requires many people working in many different ways. For me, the way they do it is also critically important. Because of that, to me, the most important part of Dr. King's legacy has been overlooked in the recent controversy. His profound faith and deep belief in the non-violent principles of Gandhi gave this nation's dissidents a spiritual core that transcends religious doctrines, and remains the key to the work that lies ahead. In my life, only a handful of books have affected me to the point of transforming my understanding of politics and the human condition. Dr. King's Strength To Love is one of those books. It should be in every American home.