An unfortunate exchange of words between the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama this week threatened to explode into real conflict, involving the always volatile U.S. issue of race. The dust-up was as unexpected as it was unfortunate, and was sparked in part by comments made about the respective roles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson in achieving the historic goals of the civil rights movement. But race is the wrong way to view this escalating war of words (with operatives on both sides doing their political jobs of trying to gain from the controversy). Both of these candidates have records on civil rights and racial justice that deserve to be trusted. The truly historic significance of an African American and a woman emerging as leading candidates for president should not be diminished by bad campaign exchanges over race and gender. In last night's debate, they returned to higher ground.
The real issue here is the more complicated relationship between social movements and national politics; between moral leaders and elected officials in bringing about social and political change.
The great practitioners of social change - like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi - understood something very important. They knew that you don't change a society by merely replacing one politician with another. You change a society by changing the political wind. Change the wind, transform the debate, recast the discussion, alter the context in which political decisions are being made, and you will change the outcomes. Move the conversation around a crucial issue to a whole new place, and you will open up possibilities for change never dreamed of before. And you will be surprised at how fast the politicians adjust to the change in the wind.
The story of the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 is a good historical example.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just won the Nobel Peace Prize and was ready to come home from Norway. The freedom movement had achieved a great victory in securing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and King was honored as the newest Nobel laureate. But the civil rights leader decided to stop by Washington, D.C., before heading back home to Atlanta-because he needed to meet with the president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
King told Johnson that the next step on the road to freedom was a voting rights act, without which black Americans in the South would never be able to really change their communities. But the nation's master of realpolitik told the U.S.'s moral leader that he couldn't deliver a voting rights act. Johnson said he had cashed in all his "chits" with the southern senators to get the civil rights law passed and that he had no political capital left. It would be five or 10 years, the president told King, before a voting rights act would be politically possible. But we can't wait that long, said King. Without voting rights, civil rights couldn't be fully realized. I'm sorry, Johnson reportedly told King, but a voting rights law just wasn't politically realistic. They would have to wait.
But Martin Luther King Jr. was not one to simply complain, withdraw, or give up. Instead, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began organizing-in a little town nobody had ever heard of called Selma, Alabama.
On one fateful day, SCLC leaders marched right across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, alongside the people of Selma, to face the notorious Sheriff Jim Clark and his virtual army of angry white police. On what would be called Bloody Sunday, a young man (and now congressman from Atlanta) named John Lewis was beaten almost to death, and many others were injured or jailed.
Two weeks later, in response to that brutal event, hundreds of clergy from all across the nation and from every denomination came to Selma and joined in the Selma to Montgomery march. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel came down from New York to march beside the black Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr.
The whole nation was watching. The eyes of the U.S. were focused on Selma, as they had been on Birmingham before the civil rights law was passed. And after the historic Selma to Montgomery march for freedom, it took only five months, not five years or 10, to pass a new voting rights act: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King had changed the wind.
It was a great thing that Johnson responded to the challenge as he did (other presidents might not have), but it was King, not Johnson, who had painted a vivid picture for the world to see that changed the winds of public opinion and made a voting rights act now possible. The Selma campaign had transfixed the nation, dramatically shifted the public debate, and fundamentally altered the political context to make a new voting rights law politically realistic.
It is a good lesson for this year's presidential race. Change must go deeper than politics. In fact, unless change goes deeper, politics won't really change. No matter which candidate finally wins this presidential election, he or she will not be able to really change the big things in the U.S. and the world that must be changed, unless and until there are social movements pushing for those changes from outside of politics. Because when politics fails to resolve or even address the most significant moral issues, what often occurs is that social movements rise up to change politics; and the best social movements always have spiritual foundations.
Even a candidate who runs on change, really wants it, and goes to Washington to make it, will confront a vast array of powerful forces which will do everything possible to prevent real change. Politics is unlikely to be changed merely from within - no matter who wins, and no matter how sincere they are, we will not see significant change unless, and until, the pressure increases from the outside. Remember, President Lyndon Johnson didn't become a civil rights leader until Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks made him one.