It probably was inevitable that sometime during the increasingly acrimonious campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination a line in a speech or an answer to a question would provide an opening for those supporting the first viable black candidate to play the race card. It was as much a certainty as the fact that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's gender is an underlying issue with some voters.
What is surprising is that the highly educated and seemingly worldly Sen. Barack Obama would lend himself to the distortion of Clinton's obviously innocent remarks giving credit to President Lyndon B. Johnson for the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that, as she said, brought the dreams of the Rev. Martin Luther King to realization. Her words were nothing more than an accurate recitation of history.
For those of us who watched that great debate take place 44 years ago, it would be difficult to diminish any of the disparate parts of the cultural reordering of the public places of the South and, finally, in the U.S. Senate where Johnson's influence and that of Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, Obama's home state, staved off the forces of reaction and outright racism to put the hard-won gains of King and his followers into law. It was not an easy battle, particularly for a president whose own upbringing was steeped in the very incivilities he was now opposing.
But Johnson had proven his mettle in 1957 when he took on his Southern colleagues in a similar battle. In many ways only a man of his background, a one-time member of the segregationist caucus from a Confederate state like Texas, could have pulled it off. President John F. Kennedy, who was embarrassed by civil rights leaders into taking up their cause, could not do so. Only Johnson had the standing among his one-time peers to manage the fight that saw almost half of his party's members in the Senate vote against it. In fact, it was the Republicans who carried the day despite the decision of their ultimate presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, to vote against it "on constitutional grounds."
To suggest anything different or to allege that giving Johnson credit for this monumental achievement somehow discredits King's role is utterly ridiculous and akin to claiming that because the Emancipation Proclamation was basically an unenforceable political document that President Abraham Lincoln's role in ending slavery was unimportant, that it was really accomplished by the handful of black leaders and white abolitionists who struggled against it. That, of course, is just plain silly.
King was the first to give credit where it was due and to understand that all his self-sacrificing, courageous efforts would have made little difference without the political support to sanctify it in law, just as the job would have been impossible for Johnson and his allies without the atmosphere of righteous outrage King and others had created so effectively.
Obama's endorsement of the position that Clinton had somehow "dissed" King with her comments lessens his own appeal and plays into the hands of those who would turn this spirited race into a "them against us" slugfest based on something other than the major issues and who is best qualified to meet them. Johnson's huge importance in reinforcing constitutionally guaranteed equal treatment of all Americans long has been overshadowed by the residual anger of the Vietnam era. It is, of course, unfair.
In the end, it was a team effort that produced the landmark legislation that, as Clinton remarked, was to open the door for the realization of King's dreams. That his leadership was taken away at a time when there was still so much to do is one of history's major tragedies. But it does him no disrespect to understand that he needed Johnson, as Johnson needed him.
In the heat of the current campaign, everyone would be better served by some caution. Without prudence, about all that will be accomplished will be to turn the process into a nasty exercise in polemics. If we are ever to get over the problems that have kept a black or a woman from the opportunity to run for the highest office of the land, then there has to be an example of civility. In this case, it was not Clinton who was insensitive or unfortunate in her remarks. It was those, including Obama, who chose to ignore their correctness and distort their intent that should have known better.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)