Leadership and Followership on Civil Rights

In yet another fine offering from the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, our editor Haley Sweetland Edwards interviews MLK biographer Taylor Branch about a much-forgotten but momentous incident of Civil Rights history: King’s unsuccessful effort to convince John F. Kennedy to issue a “Second Emancipation Proclamation” (initially on the centennial of the First) declaring Jim Crow laws invalid as unconstitutional. The White House responded with a long series of evasions (and also more legitimate complaints of Cold War distractions), and King then shifted to a request that JFK issue the Declaration–now intended to be mainly hortatory rather than issuing a direct constitutional challenge–on New Year’s Day of 1963 (the 100th anniversary of the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation). Nothing happened, of course, and according to Branch, this convinced King to dramatically change his strategy:

It was after Kennedy blew this second deadline that King realized he had nothing left to wait for. He had to “go for broke,” as he called it, and head down to Birmingham, Alabama, which was considered the toughest bastion of racism in the South. It’s hard for people to understand what a big leap that was for him, but one way of understanding it is that he didn’t tell his own father, or the board of his protest group, that he was going. He didn’t want them to try to stop him.

The outbreak of civil rights demonstrations in Alabama, and the brutal response of state and local authorities, generated vast sympathy (not just nationally but globally) for the civil rights movement as a whole. Only then, in June of 1963, did JFK propose major legislation tearing down Jim Crow. And it took, of course, Kennedy’s assassination (and LBJ’s legislative audacity) to create the atmosphere necessary for quick enactment of the Civil Rights Act as a legacy tribute to the slain president.

Branch believes that King made the right decision in investing his hopes not in White House negotiations but in brave displays on the ground of the injustice and immorality of segregation. And that’s not just because JFK was too politically timid; the never-timid Johnson felt similarly, says Branch:

People are always tempted to say that presidents and leaders should supply all the initiative, but in fact what worked in the civil rights movement was the combination of an aroused citizenry, which claimed rights and changed the political mood, and responsive national leaders. President Johnson later said that if, at the right time, King and the priests and ministers who were risking their lives down in Selma changed the political climate enough, then I can and will propose the voting rights bill. And he did. And that was really the pinnacle of cooperation between citizens taking responsibility for their government and government leaders responding to a political climate—a political climate created by the citizens themselves.

On the eve of the annual MLK commemoration, that’s a lesson we need to learn all over again.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.