“The Great Society is only a phrase so long as no date is set for the achievement of its promises. It is disquieting to note that President Johnson in his message to Congress on the Demonstration Cities program stated, “If we can begin now the planning from which action will flow, the hopes of the twentieth century will become the realities of the twenty-first.” On this timetable many Negroes not yet born and virtually all now alive will not experience equality. The virtue of patience will become a vice if it accepts so leisurely an approach to social change.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)
What has been missing during this manic presidential election campaign has been the voices of an African-American leadership cadre independent of partisan allegiances. Yes, we have watched black faces on television and heard them over the radio, and viewed their comments on social media, but they have all been aligned with one of the two major political parties. We have not heard an articulation of a framework that supersede partisan talking points or campaign rhetoric, and that lays out a vision of how African-Americans, or the nation for that part, is to reimagine America as a Republic that embraces all of humanity.
Looking back 48 year ago it was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who framed our engagement not in partisan terms but from the point of a human rights imperative. He did so against the counsel of some of his closest advisers, in the face of media scrutiny, contrary to the silence of his fellow clergy, and angering a Democratic political establishment that saw the African-American electorate as key to its electoral fortunes. King felt obligated, by commission, to speak a painful truth of the nation’s moral failures and the oppression of the poor, both Black and white. He did so without concern for the politics of the moment, as he then believed we were truly at a moment of “chaos or community” and all political leadership had fallen short.
Beginning in 1967 when Dr. King broke his silence on the Vietnam War and at the same time began to shift his focus to poverty, he set himself apart from the partisan politicization of Black grievances. What is remarkable about the evolution of King’s advocacy is that it came just two years after a landmark voting rights bill, preceded by an equally historic civil rights law, and after the appointment of the first African-American to the United States Supreme Court. King viewed those as milestones but understood that structural racism and classism were twin evils that had to be dismantled for America to fulfill its potential. And he was developing a global analysis of capital that put the nation’s corporate interests under the microscope.
Dr. King did not calibrate his advocacy according to the election calendar. In fact, the 1968 presidential election while very important, was simply a constitutionally mandated exercise that King knew was a means to an end. In the wake of the almost hysterical pitch of the current election season, it should be remembered that 1968 was almost apocalyptic. A war was raging in southeast Asia, sending tens of thousands of American soldiers home in body bags. The United States and the U.S.S.R. were in a Cold War that posed the threat of a nuclear winter. The country was so divided the incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, opted not to seek re-election. Young people were enraged and taking to the streets in protest against the war. The F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover was working covertly to crush Black dissent, from the measured hope of Dr. King to the more strident critique of the Black Panther Party. Cities were up in flame and political assassinations, first King and then Senator Robert Kennedy during the middle of a presidential campaign, shook the nation to its core. Both political parties faced internal strife. In the end, the presidential race pitted a civil rights supporter but establishment Democrat, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, against a conservative “law and order” Republican, Richard Nixon, and a Jim Crow practitioner in Alabama Governor George Wallace. And if you think racism reared its ugly head in 2016, the whole beast was growling in 1968.
In this environment, it would have been easy for the most visible Black leader of the time, Dr. King, to cozy up to the party that had facilitated two major civil rights victories. He did not. King didn’t take to the television to urge Blacks to support a particular candidate nor did he sing the praises of a political party. He did just the opposite. King wasn’t blind. He knew on paper the Democratic options were more palatable than Nixon and certainly Wallace. He also knew the mathematics of Washington and could calculate that his domestic agenda stood a better chance with a Democratic administration. And he was well aware that Nixon’s “southern strategy” was just Jim Crow in coded terms.
Yet, Dr. King stood in opposition to conventional wisdom because he understood the need to play the long game. He not only opposed the war, a move that took aim directly at Johnson, he chided the nation’s political leadership for failing to address poverty. King had the audacity to launch a “Poor People’s Campaign” and called for the nation’s poor – Black, white, Latino and American Indian – to descend on the people’s causeway in the nation’s capital – the National Mall – during a presidential election year. He countered Johnson, Nixon and Wallace in one stroke – declaring that the poor should not be used as agents to kill while they remain impoverished in America and race and class is used to create artificial divisions between similarly oppressed people. It was not a Democratic or Republican message. It was a message of truth.
It is that prophetic, independent voice that we miss today. Dr. King wasn’t a starry-eyed dreamer but a realist who understood that the protection of human rights trumped partisanship. He was prophetically pragmatic. He knew one of the candidates would win the presidency in November 1968, and understood that electing a Democrat was the more viable option. What he refused to do though was surrender the moral high ground and sacrifice a call for justice for the expediency of a partisan victory. Had he not been assassinated in Memphis it was clear Dr. King was set to carry out his campaign for poor people and continue his outspokenness against the Vietnam War. That much is clear by reading his final book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
We should expect partisans to do what they do – advocate unabashedly for their candidate. And this year political actors have been going at it at a fever pitch. What we have been denied and what we desperately need are leaders or agents, whatever you want to call them, that turn neither right nor left, and express no party allegiance, but look straight at us and speak in a voice with clarity on the priority of human uplift, equality and justice.
We are now just two days away from electing the 45th president to lead this nation. One of these candidates will win and the others will lose. Given the acrimony of this election, tensions will remain and bitterness will not subside. And the same America that existed on November 8, will exist on November 9 and the foreseeable future. As will the myriad of systemic fault lines that keep millions of Americans in poverty, homeless, the victims of discrimination and subject to institutional racism that undermines educational equity, denies them economic opportunity and puts them in the crosshairs of a broken criminal justice system.
We would be mindful to remember Dr. King’s prophetic voice and concern ourselves with the deconstruction of white supremacy and its operating system institutional racism with no regard to the partisan identification of the tenants of power of the moment.
Walter Fields is the Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com