The people’s voice

In January, there was a flap in the presidential campaign when candidate Hillary Clinton was quoted saying of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that “it took a president to get it done"—a comment that was taken by some to trivialize the contribution that Martin Luther King made to the enactment of the Act.

Unfortunately, no one that we saw pointed out the most essential players in the passage of the Act. It was the people slammed into walls by fire hoses in Birmingham. It was the students who sat peacefully at soda fountain counters while troublemakers poured milk shakes on them. It was the workers who walked to work for more than a year to avoid using a segregated municipal bus line.

It was the ordinary indomitable people who put themselves in harm’s way because they were angry or tired or just plain fed up and unwilling to tolerate the evil status quo any longer and the defenders of the status quo pushed from daily indignities to enforce their will to violence, in full view of unforgiving cameras.

As often as not, as the movement swept across the nation, there were no leaders. That was particularly true of the lunch counter sit-ins. It was a movement that bubbled up among young people and brought the leaders along. Jesse Jackson once pointed out that Lyndon Johnson didn’t campaign in the 1964 election as an advocate of voting rights. Rather, it was those who marched at Selma—and were ridden down, gassed, clubbed by police for the crime of trying to register to vote—who got the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enacted.

Since Rev. King was murdered, we have, as one of his biographers put it, engaged in remembering him by forgetting him. All the safe manifestations of his legacy—particularly the “I have a dream” speech—have been endlessly substituted for his real meaning. His harsh criticisms of indifference toward class divisions and the working poor ("The poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery…") and of the U.S. government ("the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today") have been cored out of the King who is taught in our schools.

That makes it all the more heartening that ordinary people are still trying to keep King’s actual legacy alive. And it takes on added import in this week of remembrance for Cesar Chavez.

On page 10, we provide details of an event this weekend hosted by Reno’s First Methodist Church to mark the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination. At that event, good people—not leaders—will participate in workshops on techniques like community organizing and nonviolent direct action, and issues like immigration. It is in such events, and not in the agendas of political figures who follow instead of lead, that remedies can be found for indifference, inaction and our violent government.