Why We Can't Wait
March 6, 2008 - 2:00pm ET
Why should you take a progressive politics vacation in Washington D.C. March 17-19? Well, if it were me, and I weren't going already, I'd sign up just for the blockbuster panel entitled "Progressive Movement in a Democratic Era: The Lessons of King and the Civil Rights Movement." I find the thought of it mind-bogglingly exciting.
The panelists are Roger Wilkins, who handled civil rights in Lyndon Johnson's Justice Department, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who fought along side King for civil rights in 1966, 1967, and 1968, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, who told the whole astonishing story in his magisterial trilogy that began with Parting the Waters and concluded last year with At Canaan's Edge.
But the best thing about this panel is that it's not about the civil rights movement. It's about the here and now.
Note the title: Progressive Movement in a Democratic Era. In other words, what do progressives do when they have a relatively liberal majority in Congress, and a relatively liberal president in the White House, as we likely will next year? Play tiddly-winks?
King didn't. He pushed, and pushed, and pushed. When LBJ delivered him a public accommodations and employment desegregation law in 1964, he demanded—his movement demanded —a voting rights law in 1965. When LBJ delivered him the Voting Rights Act in 1965, he demanded—his movement demanded —an open housing law in 1966. That bill, however, never passed. Jesse Jackson can tell that story as well as anyone alive: he was there, in the summer of 1966, in the crucible of Chicago, when rock-throwing white working-class mobs told King that civil rights laws that affected only the South were all well and good, but laws that disturbed their neighborhoods would be fought in blood and fire.
Yes, Jackson can tell that story as well as anyone. Except, maybe, for Roger Wilkins, who saw the whole thing unfold from two entirely different angles: watching his uncle, Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, fight out these struggles—both with King, and sometimes, on tactics, against King; Roy Wilkins was famous for his moderation—in the streets and the suites; and serving as LBJ's assistant attorney general for civil rights beginning at the age of 33.
I'm looking at my notes from the LBJ papers on this stuff right now. Here's a memo from Bill Moyers to the president dated March 16, 1966:
I am told that Roger Wilkins prevented another and more serious riot in Watts yesterday by intervening in a case in which a negro was fired on the picket line and the company had refused to bargain. It was getting close to exploding when Wilkins stepped in and got people talking with each other.
He was right there in the cauldron, mediating between militant blacks ready to burn down buildings to get what they wanted and a White House terrified that what would go up in flames with the buildings was the very liberal coalition itself. He was right there in the White House doing his damnedest to convince weak-kneed Democrats that Martin Luther King was an entirely separate voice than the building-burners, that riots shouldn't keep LBJ from daring to press forward with the agenda of justice.
I can't wait to see Jackson and Wilkins reviewing the same events, these arguments, these conflagrations, from their different vantage points. It will be like the astonishing conferences of "critical oral history" in which senior Vietnamese and American officials review notes about the same events from the Vietnam War.
I can't wait to hear the reflections of Taylor Branch, the man who has told this story better than anyone, reacting to the encounter. Afterward, I'll have to sheepishly admit to Taylor Branch that I haven't read his recent book. It came out just as I was finishing mine, on some of the same events. Branch is to me what the literary critical Harold Bloom would call a "strong poet"—a writer who so towers as an influence that subsequent writers working in his wake tremble at the "anxiety of influence."
A fancy way of saying that if I read what Taylor Branch wrote about what happened in Chicago in the summer of 1966, I'd just want to tear up my chapter on same and consider another line of work.
This panel is important—probably the most important at the conference. Because it speaks to what will be the central dilemma for progressives from 2009 on out, as the era of conservatism fades and we struggle to build something better from its ruins. What do you do once you've elected the politicians? How to you push them to be bold, to honor their commitments, to keep them from trimming their sails in the face of cross-cutting establishmentarian winds? How do you honor these progressive politicians of good faith's struggles to ground their vision in political realities which counsel timidity while still scanning the horizon for new vistas of justice to conquer?
How do you maul them when they're about to sell out?
How do you keep your movement together, when you disagree on the tactics to accomplish all that?
Knock wood, that's going to be a huge part of Campaign for America's Future's work once 2009 rolls around. We're thinking about having a conference on the subject. Consider this panel the overture to that crucial future work.
EARLIER: One reason to attend Take Back America 2008: We'll be parting George Bush's Red Sea.
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