Monday :: Jan 21, 2008

MLK's Effect On Hillary Clinton

by Jeff Dinelli

In 1961, because of overcrowding, Hillary Rodham was transferred from all-white Maine East High School, near Park Ridge, Illinois, to racially mixed Maine South. It was during this year of enlightenment, being exposed for the first time to black teachers, ministers and friends, that Hillary's best friend's grandfather took the two girls to see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at the Chicago Sunday Evening Club. King spoke of racial segregation in both the North and South. This night, fourteen-year-old Hillary first realized that America's black children were the poorest and most vulnerable.

Perhaps the one most important thing that drove Hillary's political and social development was the idea that this nation's horrible, tragic issue of race must be corrected. It was one of the things that attracted her to Southerner Bill Clinton, who seemed to her an enlightened, determined man with the same goal. Later, many of her closest friends were black. Her professional advisor in law was Marian Wright Edelman, the African-American founder of the Children's Defense Fund, for whom Hillary went to work for as a legal advocate for neglected and extremely poor children. In the White House her chief of staff was black, as were many of her senior aides, who liked to jokingly refer to Bill and his aides as "the white males in the West Wing."

As a junior in high school, while volunteering for the Goldwater campaign (apparently she hadn't quite figured out which side of the political aisle matched her ambitions), she did some canvassing of the infamous Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, a housing project that would eventually be destroyed as a symbol of poverty and racism. Seeing up close how black people lived and survived day to day left a deep impression.

Hillary's life-long spiritual advisor, the Reverend Don Jones of Park Ridge, took her and other kids to see a return visit of Dr. King at Orchestra Hall in the fall of '61, following the summer of the Freedom Rides in the deep South. King's sermon, "Sleeping Through the Revolution," alluded to in Meteor Blades' post today which Turkana linked to below, aimed at the listeners' conscience: "Vanity asks the question Is it Popular? Conscience asks the question Is it Right?" King also spoke of Jesus' story of the man sent to hell for not helping those in need.

She stuck with King's nonviolent philosophy during the rash of college students nationwide who were openly challenging universities' authority in the war-torn late 60's, even after King's assassination by a bigot's bullet in Memphis, April '68. Hearing the news of April 4th, Hillary, visably shaken, stormed into a dorm room, threw her book bag against a wall and screamed, "I can't stand it anymore! I can't take it!" King stood for black America's hope, and, it could be argued, white America's as well. He was the man Hillary most admired, having sat spellbound through two of his speeches, having shaken his hand, having watched, on television, the March on Washington in '63, her sophomore year of high school.

Wellesley students, in the days following the murder, were organizing hunger strikes if the school's administration didn't heed to demands for more black professors and students, and for the Massachusetts town to improve conditions in areas where African-Americans lived. Using her position as student body president, Hillary worked as a go-between, and helped avoid a potentially very ugly campus clash.

At Wellesley's graduation ceremony, serving as the college's first ever student commencement speaker, Hillary threw away her prepared speech and spoke angrily off-the-cuff, in part because the featured speaker who preceded her, Senator Edward Brooke, expressed disapproval of Civil Rights activists' tactics, defended the war in Viet Nam and Richard Nixon, and didn't even mention the assassinations of Dr. King or Robert Kennedy. The fiery, at times rambling, but no doubt impassioned speech caught the attention of Life magazine, featuring picures of Hillary wearing her Coke-bottle glasses.

Working for Marian Wright Edelman, whom Hillary met as a student at Yale when Edelman came to speak, Hillary was finally able to put King's ideals to work for the first time. She developed information for a Senate investigation, headed by Senator Walter Mondale, into the living and working conditions of migrant farm laborers and their families. Hillary knew something about this issue, having babysat migrant workers' children and taught them in Sunday school back in Chicago. Her findings studying migrant camps owned by Coca-Cola led to some of the most dramatic testimony during Mondale's subcommittee hearings. As in the Chicago ghettos of her childhood, Hillary discovered the people who suffered most at these migrant camps were the children, with no schooling, sanitation facilities, or even substandard housing.

The plight of children has always been the issue closest to Hillary's heart, perhaps heeding Dr. King's encouragement to help those most in need. At Yale Law School, she focused on how the law effects children. Hillary represented foster children and parents in family court and worked on some of the earliest studies creating legal standards for identifying and protecting abused children. After graduation, she took a job as staff attorney for the Children's Defense Fund. After marrying Bill, Hillary ran a legal aid clinic for the poor when she first got to Arkansas and handled cases of foster care and child abuse. Years later, she organized a group called Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. When she was just 30, President Carter appointed her to the board of the United States Legal Services Corporation, a federal nonprofit program that funds legal assistance for the poor.

When Bill was elected Governor of Arkansas, Hillary continued to advocate for children, leading a task force to improve education in Arkansas through higher standards for schools and serving on the board of the Arkansas Children's Hospital, helping them expand and improve their services. She also served on national boards for the Children's Defense Fund, the Child Care Action Campaign, and the Children's Television Workshop, continuing the fight for those most in need.

A fight that continued as first lady, where she traveled the globe speaking out against the degradation and abuse of women and standing up for the powerful idea that women's rights are human rights. Hillary led efforts to make adoption easier, to expand early learning and child care, to increase funding for breast cancer research, and to help veterans suffering from Gulf War syndrome who had too often been ignored in the past, again, helping those most in need.

Today, Hillary Clinton campaign staff and volunteers will honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy by marching in holiday parades and assisting with local service projects across America.

"Dr. King’s strength and courage continue to inspire me and remind all of us of our ability - and our obligation - to fight injustice," said Hillary. "To commemorate Dr. King’s life and legacy, my staff and supporters across America will march in Martin Luther King, Jr. day parades and participate in volunteer projects in their communities. Staff and volunteers will honor Dr. King’s leadership during the civil rights movement by making common cause with the millions of Americans who continue to raise their voices, roll up their sleeves, and work for justice."

(Information for this post was culled from her two books, "It Takes A Village" and "Living History," “Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” by Jeff Gerth, and Carl Bernstein's "A Woman In Charge.")

Jeff Dinelli :: 12:40 PM :: Comments (11) :: Digg It!