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Reflections on King, Candidates and Movements

On the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we would do well to remember an observation by the civil-rights organizer Ella Baker: “Martin didn't make the movement, the movement made Martin.”

The same can be said of both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Veteran organizers from around the country have lent their experience, wisdom and passion to both of these campaigns, and a history of struggle for civil rights and women’s rights has catapulted them forward.

Interestingly enough, both candidates lay claim to the mantle of the civil-rights movement.

Clinton, the admitted Goldwater girl, went to Selma and recalled the impact of hearing King speak in 1963 in Chicago as a transformative moment.

In January, on Martin Luther King Day, she also stood in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church and told her audience that it was she who was the daughter and beneficiary of the movement’s victories. She offered her own telling analysis of what she viewed as the linchpin of victory for the civil-rights movement: It was having a president willing to put into law the demands of a mass movement led by King.

Obama laid claim to the inheritance of the civil-rights movement by deeming the freedom fighters of the 1960s as the “Moses Generation” that led black people out of slavery. That makes Obama and his peers the “Joshua Generation.”

At one debate, the candidates were asked why Martin Luther King would endorse them. Obama’s answer was also telling and quite true.

“I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us,” Obama said. “I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable.” And he added: “I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that.”

We forget that lesson at our peril.

Many Americans are so hungry for an end to the horrendous Bush administration that like a love-starved person they view their new prospect through rose-colored glasses.

The lesson from King’s life is that King was not the answer. As Obama often says in his speeches, “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.” Nothing could be more to the point.

Barack Obama won’t save us.

Hillary Clinton won’t save us.

Through our own determined efforts, we have to save ourselves.

That process will continue well beyond November 2008 no matter who is in the White House come January. Editorial Board membe Barbara Ransby, PhD - Historian, writer, and longtime political activist. Dr. Ransby is currently an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Departments of African American Studies and History. She is the author of the award-winning biography, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision.”. Click here to contact Dr. Ransby.


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April 10, 2008
Issue 272

is published every Thursday

Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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