Getting it done

There was a flap in the presidential campaign back in January when candidate Hillary Clinton was quoted saying of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that “it took a president to get it done.” The comment was taken by some to trivialize the contribution that Martin Luther King Jr. made to the enactment of the act.

Unfortunately, no one in that charged election-year interchange referenced the most crucial players in the passage of the act. It was the people slammed into walls by fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala. It was the students who sat peacefully at soda-fountain counters while trouble makers poured milkshakes 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 status quo any longer. And the defenders of the status quo pushed their will to violence, in full view of unforgiving cameras.

As often as not, as the civil rights movement swept across the nation, there were leaders in every community. 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, Ala.—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.

Last week we marked the 40th anniversary of the date King was murdered. Sadly, as one of his biographers put it, we have engaged in remembering him by forgetting huge aspects of his teachings. All the safe manifestations of his legacy—particularly the “I Have a Dream” speech—have been endlessly thrown out there with little intention to convey 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, by and large, of the King who is taught in our schools.

All this made it heartening when local high-school students used the anniversary to put themselves on the line, some ignoring threats of truancy arrests, to express pride in their Latino roots and talk about their belief that more attention must be paid to Cesar Chavez’s legacy. As with King, the movement to bring justice to farmworkers did not come about merely because of one man, but had its roots in the sacrifices of regular people, students and field laborers who went on strike, walked picket lines and fought to make the future theirs.