FROM HUFFPOST | JANUARY 16, 2006
Martin Luther King Day seems to have passed with even less than a whisper, which given today’s political culture is unsurprising. It’s difficult to envision a wider gulf between the principles that animated King and the civil rights movement, and the Beltway bandits of 2006. And not just King. Who today speaks, as John F. Kennedy did in June of 1963, of the pressing need for reform? Kennedy described civil rights as “a moral issue...as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution,” he declared. What good is freedom, that president wondered, if an American citizen, whatever the color of his skin, “cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public; if he cannot send his children to the best public schools available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him?”
Lyndon Johnson, assuming office after Kennedy’s assassination, picked up that mantle. “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law...to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color.” King represented the grass-roots movement that had struggled for decades, and he was met by politicians in Washington, from the south and north, from today’s red states and blue states, who may have been dragged to the altar but once there made good on the promise.
Those days, forty years ago, seem as distant as the American Revolution. It is, literally, inconceivable that someone with power in Washington today would embrace a grass-roots reform movement — one that is not motivated by fierce opposition to the legacy of the 1960s. But the point of remembering this history is it is conceivable, and sooner or later, the pendulum will swing. It always does.
American history has always been marked by extreme shifts from left to right, from political activism to apathy, from reform to corruption. Today is no different. The venality of the late 19th century Gilded Age, when political offices and judgeships went to the highest bidder and the idea of public service was nearly absent from political life, gave rise to the Progressive Era, which was one of the most significant periods of reform the country has ever known. But...it took decades for that movement to emerge as a dominant force. The easy corruption of the 1920s was only reversed after the pain of the Depression and the emergence of the New Deal. Actions beget reactions, but not without pain and struggle.
Contrary to the shrill rhetoric on all sides today, there is nothing particularly out of character about the present moment. Americans have never been as pure as we romantically remember. Johnson the civil rights reformer was also Johnson of the Tonkin Gulf resolution and the Vietnam War. Teddy Roosevelt the anti-trust crusader was also TR of the Big Stick and easy intervention in Latin America. Iraq is not our first invasion of a sovereign nation not sanctioned by the international community (anyone remember Panama and Noriega??) and until there is another military capable of challenging ours, not likely to be the last. Alito is not the first conservative, and hardly the least qualified who has been nominated and confirmed.
This isn’t a free ticket for passivity, and this too shall pass only because many, many people work to make that happen. But our history is a reminder that the apocalypse isn’t nigh, and that saying that it is doesn’t make it so. In fact, it prevents us from looking at who are and who we have been — always flawed, but often redeemed.