What Four Essays Published by The Nation Magazine Can Teach Those Seeking Change in America (Part Two)
Martin Luther King Jr. was a revolutionary spirit whose work as a civil rights leader came to be revered by people all over the world. President Ronald Reagan begrudgingly chose to give in calls to honor King each year. But, what we celebrate, many liberals or progressives understand, is a sanitized version of King. Americans celebrate his "dream" but rarely discuss his opposition to militarism. They rarely discuss his resentment toward the liberal establishment as they accepted "token" victories instead of pushing fully for radical change that could address poverty and racism.
In the Sixties, King had four essays published by The Nation magazine. A previous article discussed King's political philosophy as it appeared in two of the four essays, "A Bold Design for a New South" and "Hammer of Civil Rights." Now, to explore the two other essays.
Published in March of 1965, "Let Justice Roll Down" illuminated the power of demonstrations and offered analysis on what it meant to be a "consensus president." King believed that the civil rights movement should and would not end with civil rights legislation. King thoughtfully and critically examined the "high respect" President Johnson was earning as he sought to advance civil rights. At this point, the Civil Rights Act had been passed but President Johnson had yet to pass the Voting Rights Act.
"The New York Times in a perceptive editorial on December 20 asked if Mr. Johnson really means to be a "consensus President." It pointed out that such were Coolidge and Eisenhower, who "served the needs of the day but not of decades to come. They preside over periods of rest and consolidation. They lead no probes into the future and break no fresh ground." The Times then added, "A President who wants to get things done has to be a fighter, has to spend the valuable coin of his own popularity, has to jar the existing consensus....No major program gets going unless someone is willing to wage an active and often fierce struggle in its behalf."
The Times is undeniably correct. The fluidity and instability of American public opinion on questions of social change is very marked. There would have been no civil rights progress, nor a nuclear test-ban treaty, without resolute Presidential leadership. The issues which must be decided are momentous. The contest is not tranquil and relaxed. The search for a consensus will tend to become a quest for the least common denominator of change. In an atmosphere devoid of urgency the American people can easily be stupefied into accepting slow reform, which in practice would be inadequate reform. "Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream," said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard. This could be the worst possible moment for slowing down.
King grasped what could happen to efforts for change if efforts were slow. Presumably, he understood that the American public could lose interest and as the struggle waged on question why change was taking so long. He knew that people even liberals would accommodate power unless a vibrant movement was keeping the fire of revolutionary change alive. He recognized the importance of presidential leadership, especially because such leadership could make it evident that the need for change was urgent. But, he cautiously warned against leaders who constantly sought to be consensus leaders:
A consensus orientation is understandably attractive to a political leader. His task is measurably easier if he is merely to give shape to widely accepted programs. He becomes a technician rather than an innovator. Past Presidents have often sought such a function. President Kennedy promised in his campaign an executive order banning discrimination in housing. This substantial progressive step, he declared, required only "a stroke of the pen." Nevertheless, he delayed execution of the order long after his election on the ground that he awaited a "national consensus." President Roosevelt, facing the holocaust of an economic crisis in the early thirties, attempted to base himself on a consensus with the N.R.A.; and generations earlier, Abraham Lincoln temporized and hesitated through years of civil war, seeking a consensus before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the end, however, none of these Presidents fashioned the program which was to mark him as historically great by patiently awaiting a consensus. Instead, each was propelled into action by a mass movement which did not necessarily reflect an overwhelming majority. What the movement lacked in support was less significant than the fact that it had championed the key issue of the hour. President Kennedy was forced by Birmingham and the tumultuous actions it stimulated to offer to Congress the Civil Rights Bill. Roosevelt was impelled by labor, farmers and small-businessmen to commit the government in revolutionary depth to social welfare as a constituent stimulus to the economy. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation under the pressure of war needs. The overwhelming national consensus followed their acts; it did not precede them.
King, if he were still alive today, would regard President Barack Obama as a technician. What former policy director for Obama's senate campaign Raja Krishnamoorthi told the Financial Times in 2008, "He has the rare ability to cut to the heart of issues very quickly and make decisions that synthesize the various views on the table. It is really something to behold. It is not an instinct everybody has," would not be reason for celebration. And, the prime reason would be that consensus to the civil rights movement would have meant finding agreement with the Ku Klux Klan or proponents of the white power structure that was oppressing black communities.
Liberals on the ground should consider King's words on consensus. They should wonder if they could have won better health reform if they had known the wisdom of King. They should ask if they were wrong to back off when the power of the Tea Party's wholesale sabotage and obstruction of health reform and Blue Dogs like Sen. Max Baucus became a force that stunted the possibility of advancing Medicare for All and even a public option. Their willingness to let Obama and Democrats in Congress determine what the scope of reform would be ensured the insurance companies got the kind of legislation they could emasculate and manipulate now as they work with leaders in Washington to write regulations.
There is no movement for health care for all making noise right now. That noise could further advance an agenda to address poverty and economic inequality in this country. That noise could empower and help protect labor, which is now facing persecution from Democratic and Republican governors that believe they must fight public workers in order to balance state budgets. But, sadly, there are few individuals in the streets fighting to end injustice.
"Let Justice Roll Down" was also instructive on the power of a grassroots movement. Nowadays, many are skeptical of the utility of activism or resistance. People question why people even try to take on the elites or oligarchy through protest because they do not see it making a difference. King confronted that skepticism: