It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and how it goes will tell us much about the racial and religious politics in the Democratic contest.
Meanwhile, Clinton has long been popular among African Americans, in part due to her public advocacy work and in part due to her husband, whom Toni Morrison once called America’s “first black president.” Clinton and Obama both want to grasp King’s mantle—because they believe in his ideals and because they know his legacy brings sizeable capital.
That goes far to explain the tit-for-tat dustup between the campaigns last week over King’s legacy. It’s not clear what exactly Clinton meant when she said, in New Hampshire shortly before that state’s Jan. 8 primary, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President [Lyndon] Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. It took a president to get it done.” That Clinton sought to minimize King’s importance seems unlikely, but at a minimum the words legitimately raised eyebrows.
What we do know is that in days afterward, when Obama and Clinton traded criticisms and accusations through news media and campaign surrogates, the Democratic Party’s worst nightmare was at hand—a brewing divide over race when the White House is so visibly in sight. Obama and Clinton reached a rhetorical cease-fire on Monday, but this will be tested by the symbolic weight of King’s holiday. But King’s legacy is not only about race. King also was a religious leader whom many Americans—particularly on the political left—view as a model of how faith and politics should connect. And again, the stakes could hardly be higher.
All of this means that Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers a potent moment for Obama and Clinton to embrace faith and emphasize racial equality with public, high-profile events. That two leading candidates for the presidency are doing so is one measure of King’s legacy. That the candidates are a white woman and black man is perhaps an even more remarkable one.
These points are what the candidates should emphasize this Monday if they want to unite the Democratic Party and grasp King’s mantle.