King Would Have Picketed Bush Too
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One of the hundreds of demonstrators that booed and jeered President Bush when he paid tribute at the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that if King were alive he'd have joined their protest. He got it part right. He wouldn't have joined the protest, he would have led it. During his life, presidents did not get a free pass from King. He led massive protests outside the 1960 Democratic and Republican conventions demanding passage of a strong civil rights bill. He relentlessly blasted John F. Kennedy for his go-slow, foot drag on civil rights legislation and his kick and scream reluctance to fully protect civil rights demonstrators brutally attacked by Southern mobs and sheriffs.
King pounded Lyndon Johnson for waging war in Vietnam, and for failing to wage total war against poverty. Kennedy was a moderate, and Johnson a liberal, Democrat. Both are now generally regarded as champions of civil rights. Bush is not a moderate or a liberal Democrat, has a dreadful record on civil rights, has eroded civil liberties protections, and wages what King would denounce as an illegal, unjust war in Iraq. The demonstrator is right. King would have lived on the barricades protesting Bush's policies.
But King would also have been appalled and outraged at the Republican Party's role reversal from firm supporter of civil rights to an archenemy of civil rights. In 1954, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, a Republican, outlawed segregated schools. In 1957, and 1959, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower successfully pushed through two civil rights bills. The bills were weak, and badly flawed, but for the times they were considered a breakthrough on the civil rights front. King repeatedly praised Eisenhower and the Republicans for their support of civil rights.
That changed in 1964. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, riding the first tide of white backlash, opposed the 1964 civil rights bill, railed against big government, and championed states rights. At the Republican convention nearly all the Southern delegates backed him. Despite his landslide loss to Johnson, Goldwater deeply planted the seed of racial pandering that would be the centerpiece of the Republican's "Southern Strategy" in the coming decades. The strategy was simple: court white voters, ignore blacks, and do and say as little about civil rights as possible.
In 1968, Richard Nixon fine-tuned the strategy, picked the hot button issues of bussing, and quotas, adopted the policy of benign neglect and subtly stoked white racial fears. Ronald Reagan picked up the racial torch by launching the first major systematic attack on affirmative action programs, and gutting many social and education programs. And though Republicans like to tout Ronald Reagan for signing the bill in 1983 that made King's birthday a national holiday, they conveniently forget that Reagan signed the bill grudgingly, and only after years of mass pressure to get the holiday.
In 1988, Bush, Sr., made escaped black convict Willie Horton the poster boy for black crime and violence and turned the presidential campaign against his Democrat opponent Michael Dukakis into a rout. Bush and Reagan's thinly disguised racial salvos were too much even for Colin Powell. In his autobiography, My American Journey, the general called Reagan "insensitive" on racial issues, and tagged Bush's Horton stunt, "a cheap shot."
Reagan and the elder Bush made masterful use of the Republican's Southern Strategy to win elections and tighten the Republican grip on the South. But President Bush, more than the other Republican presidents, has benefited the most from the Southern Strategy. In the 2000 presidential election, he bagged the electoral votes of all 11 states of the Old Confederacy. Without the granite like backing of these states, Democratic Presidential contender Al Gore would have easily won the White House, and the Florida vote debacle would have been a meaningless sideshow. Even now polls show that white males by whopping margins favor Bush over any of the white Democratic presidential challengers, and that includes North Carolina senator John Edwards.
The irony is that in a perverse, backhand way, Bush, like Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush, Sr. owes much of his political success to King. The civil rights movement fueled the white backlash that transformed the Republican Party in the South from a political nonentity into a political behemoth. And more then any other civil rights leader, King was the emblem of that movement.
Perhaps it was fitting then that on the twenty-first anniversary of the King national holiday, Bush should lay a wreath on King's tomb. He and the Republicans owe him much. And that's why King would have picketed him too.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.