MLK, LBJ, and Grass-Roots Change: Presidential Politics Through Spiritual Eyes

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

In the present Presidential campaign, suddenly the question has arisen whether Martin Luther King or Lyndon Baines Johnson was more responsible for passage of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.

I was there, folks: working on Capitol Hill and then in the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive research/action center. And the answer is – both MLK and LBJ were responsible – AND one might add with some exaggeration, NEITHER. .

The "NEITHER" part -- even though I'm overstating it -- is the most important. The people MOST responsible were, in the beginning, dozens, then hundreds, finally thousands and hundreds of thousands – of grass-roots activists.

This essay will explore more deeply the meaning of that history for us today. And I will make some suggestions about learning effective activism from two books –- one written originally for nonviolent action to make major reforms in the Roman Catholic Church, the other about Jewish efforts toward peace and justice in this decade. Both are translatable to other communities.

Please send your comments as shown at the end of this essay.

Dr. King gave an eloquent voice to the activists' vigor. But he himself was transformed from an earnest but forgettable young minister in Montgomery Alabama into that prophetically eloquent teacher to a nation –- transformed by the mothers and fathers and teen-agers who boycotted Montgomery's buses, who invented ways to get to work and school, who withstood beatings and murder. "Ordinary" people, including King, taught each other to be extraordinary.

What about the more conventional politics of President and Congress in those days? In 1958, as a graduate student in Madison Wisconsin, I did research and rang doorbells for a young lawyer who was expected to lose his quixotic campaign for the House of Representatives. He won. So I went to Washington partly to research my doctoral dissertation on the race riots of the long hot summer of 1919, and partly to work in his Congressional office as a legislative assistant.

My time there was refreshing and instructive. My boss was a pretty unconventional politician. When he gave public speeches, he kept his hands in his coat pockets lest people see they were trembling. He had gone into politics himself because as a very young second lieutenant in 1945 he saw Hiroshima just six weeks after its destruction, and decided to commit his life to make sure that never happened again.

Alongside him in Congress that term were a few others like him – enough to cook up fresh ideas -- but no new laws. Sam Rayburn, an ornery and hide-bound Texan, was the Speaker. LBJ, another orrnery and hide-bound Texan, headed the Senate. They permitted a meaningless "civil rights" law to be passed, but it changed no lives. We put a few spokes in the wheels of ambitious generals who wanted to make biological and chemical war legitimate – but we could not stop the arms race.

In 1960, John Kennedy was elected President. He brought a fresh sound and look, youth and a sense of possibility, to the Presidency. But – his policies? He campaigned about a "missile gap" – presumably, the US was way behind the USSR in nuclear weapons. It was a lie. He sent US troops to Vietnam, the beginning of that appalling lethal quagmire. He dithered as the sit-in movement erupted.

And yet – he mattered. He mattered because he symbolized a fresh new energy. He spoke of a new day, he played touch football, he looked like a new day, though he did little to bring it.

The real change, the real new day, was happening in the streets. Election door-bell ringing. Students defying the House Un-American Activities Committee. Sit-ins. Freedom Rides. Thousands picketing drug-stores all over America because their Southern branches were segregated. Ministers, priests, and rabbis getting arrested for violating segregation laws. Students demonstrating against the threat of nuclear holocaust, questioning the premises of the Cold War.

Yet while Kennedy lived, even this bubbling did not bring much new legislation. His Justice Department was peddling yet another barely incremental civil rights act. Only after his death and many many more civil-rights actions did President Johnson and Congress decide to move forward with a serious civil rights act, and even then it did not touch the official levers of power –- the vote.

In 1964, the President who had with trepidation allowed a strong civil-rights act to pass tried to squash the grass-roots activists of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. He denied them seats at the Democratic Convention, he had the FBI wiretap their offices, as he and Kennedy had allowed the FBI to wiretap Dr. King.

He lifted no finger to achieve voting rights for Southern Blacks until, in 1965, grass-roots activists in Selma Alabama lit a nonviolent match to turn the grass-roots public into a prairie fire, aflame with commitment – where every blade of grass became a Burning Bush, demanding voting rights. They were beaten by the police. But Johnson did nothing.

In Washington, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "Snick") began chanting all night outside the White House, demanding Federal intervention. Finally, the President agreed to meet with them. He told them they were keeping him awake all night. One of them snippily answered, "Mr. President, our people are being killed in the South. I'm not concerned about your losing sleep."

Faced with a prairie fire, LBJ went to Congress for a strong voting rights act, said "We Shall Overcome," and got the bill that became the basis for Black political power in our own generation.

Under the pressure of all this grass-roots energy, he had even begun to think bigger, about addressing poverty across racial lines.

And then he ruined it all, with his obsessive commitment to invading and conquering Vietnam. The war put an end to any chance of a multiracial coalition to unite against poverty. First the grass-roots activists and then Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel and ultimately millions more went into the streets to end this cruel stupidity.

Why am I reciting all this? Because it seems to me the Congressional election of 2006 , like that of 1958, signaled new energy at the grass roots. The new Congress in 1959 (like the new Congress in 2007) accomplished little. It was a symptom of change, not its agent,.

The election of 2008 offers the same prospect as the election of 1960: It could be the product of grass-roots bubbling, not the cause of it. It could teach us once again that change is possible, it could strengthen those who are already grass-roots activists, it could multiply their numbers. It could put in place a President who, like Kennedy, would not so much change policy as energize grass-roots people who would do the changing themselves -- and then get out of their way, instead of repressing them.

Who that person should be, The Shalom Center cannot say. But we can say the call for change must include –

• Healing the earth from the corporate rape of our climate that is causing unprecedented droughts and floods, starving the poor in many countries, unleashing old diseases into far broader territories.

• Walking a whole new path in US "foreign" policy that is rooted in compassion, education, and generosity -- not war and domination.

• Going beyond the sterile debates over immigration as if it were a purely "domestic" argument between building a reservoir of exploitable labor or building an armed, electrified fence, to see the Americas as a household to be cared for in all its parts.

• Using the Justice Department as a beacon of freedom to unearth corruption and war crimes, not as a waterboard to torture and drown the Constitution.

And most important of all, we can say it is grass-roots activism that must move these visions forward:

Grass-roots activists must challenge the EPA's attacks on the earth it is supposed to protect, must multiply efforts by the states to overcome Federal obeisance to Big Oil and Big Auto, must insist that cities switch their auto fleets to hybrid and electric cars, must leaflet Amtrak stations to demand the shift of subsidies from highways to public transport.

In the Army camps where frightened and hopeless young people are trained to be ready to die in order to kill, grass-roots activists must visit the troops with alternatives: decent jobs building the railroads that will diminish global scorching, community-run centers where song and chant, study and sports, can replace both drugs and desperation.

In the prisons where now two million prisoners, most of them Black, most of them convicted of nonviolent crimes, are festering with new rage, chaplains must not just soothe their anger with a fake god of sweet nothings, but encourage them to teach each other the crafts they will need outside, teach them songs of freedom and justice, help them abandon the hate-filled ethnic gangs not for passivity but for shaping shared nonviolent protest against the prison system.

And yes, grass-roots activists must work for the Presidential and Congressional and local candidates who carry transformation as a holy care, who go into politics as deeply committed to end the firestorms that have destroyed Detroit and Baltimore and Baghdad as my Wisconsin Congressman was to prevent new Hiroshimas.

Why does the title of this essay seek to look through "spiritual" eyes? Because where people risk beatings and prison, their jobs and their lives not to kill but to love, where they seek to transform a country addicted to violence and greed, their work is rooted in the Spirit, in the Interbreathing of all life, whether they use the language of God or not.

Martin King, Charles Sherrod, Malcolm X, and Bob Edgar drew on explicit religious traditions. Bob Moses and Carol Cohen McEldowney did not. Charlotte Bunch Weeks began her activism in a religious tradition, and moved into using secular language. I began with secular language and moved into religious covenant.

Inspiration is not enough. Strategy and tactics matter. I commend to you a recent handbook of nonviolent change: Love in Action, by Richard K. Taylor, a veteran grass-roots activist. It was originally written for Catholics seeking profound reforms of their church, but much of it is useful to spiritually motivated activists of any flavor.

How to get this book? One way is to click to -- Then where the page says
"Click here to buy from Powell's Books - a portion of every sale supports the ongoing work of The Shalom Center, " click there. At Powell's independent bookstore, you can type in the author and title.

The other book on activism I recommend is an anthology of articles on Jewish social action -- Righteous Indignation, edited by Rabbi Or Rose, associate dean of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Boston; Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, former managing editor of Tikkun; and Margie Klein, a student at the Hebrew College rabbinical school, and published by Jewish Lights.

Its fascinating array includes essays on the theory of justice and Judaism and articles on specific issues like eco-Judaism, stem cell research, immigration, feminism, Israeli-Palestinian peace, and Abrahamic connections (the last, an article by Rabbi Phyllis Berman and myself). Among the other writers are Martha Ackelsberg, Judith Plaskow, and Rabbis Rebecca Alpert, David Saperstein, Michael Lerner, Melissa Weintraub, and Sidney Schwarz.

There is one important gap in the book. It wonderfully explores the worlds of the marginalized, the disempowered. It does very little with the powerful. A little on oil companies and HMO's, one essay that talks about the "pharaoh of globalization." The story of Exodus, carefully read, could teach us a lot about unaccountable top-down power –- Pharaoh. The Talmud, as well trhe Gospels, could teach us a lot about Caesar. Considering the last seven years of American history, this is Torah we need to learn. And we need to ask ourselves why there is so little in this otherwise excellent collection.

Again, to order it go to Then where the page says "Click here to buy from Powell's Books - a portion of every sale supports the ongoing work of The Shalom Center, " click there. At Powell's independent bookstore, you can type in the author and title.

Please remember to add your comments below.


Shalom, salaam, peace – Arthu


Inactive Categories: