Nicolaus Mills writes in Dissent:
LIKE SO many of my generation who did voter registration work in the South during the 1960s, I have been saddened by the debate that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sparked over whether Martin Luther King or President Lyndon Johnson was responsible for the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination in hiring and public accommodations. Instead of providing voters with a thoughtful view of the recent past, Clinton and Obama combined to offer a crude, "great man" theory of history in which King's vision and Johnson's pragmatism were portrayed as antithetical forces.
The debate has quieted down. But it should not be allowed to fade from the headlines without a reminder of the lesson this controversy threatened to obscure—blacks and whites across America relied on one another to make the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a reality.
The act had its legislative origins in a June 11, 1963 speech that President John Kennedy delivered on national television after Justice Department officials, aided by federal marshals, forced Alabama Governor George Wallace to stand aside while two black students were admitted to the previously segregated University of Alabama. "If an American, because his skin is dark . . . cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?" Kennedy asked the country.
But Kennedy's speech, which was followed hours later by the murder of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, did not guarantee a speedy passage of civil rights legislation. A coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans stood in the way and the best that Kennedy could do before his November 22 assassination was to get his civil rights bill voted out of committee.
It fell to President Lyndon Johnson to get Kennedy's civil rights legislation enacted.
We cannot know exactly what Johnson and King, two coalition builders, would say about the efforts to portray them as civil rights rivals. But it is hard to imagine that both would not have seen comparisons that pit them against each other as inimical to the civil rights movement they believed in. As King observed of the struggle for racial justice in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."