The Debate Over the Dream

Clinton and Obama clash over history—and the future

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Of all the possible ways for race to emerge as a wedge issue in the Democratic presidential primaries, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. would have seemed the most unlikely. But that was the case when Sen. Hillary Clinton said at a campaign event in January that "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.... It took a president to get it done." That attempt to differentiate herself from her chief rival, Sen. Barack Obama, struck not one nerve but two: How much credit should King get, and which of the two candidates is better suited to serve the needs of black Americans today?

"If you just look at the quote of what Clinton said, out of context, that's a fairly safe statement to make," says Bruce Schulman, author of Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism. "But, of course, she put it in the context of her being a doer and Obama being a talker." Some people took that campaign trail comparison to be diminution of King's responsibility. But historians agree that King and Johnson engaged in a sophisticated partnership, one in which the contributions of each man cannot be so simply parsed.

Strategy. Johnson, a master legislator, is typically given credit only for the political aspects when, in fact, he had a strong, personal commitment to equal rights. "He had civil rights in his heart," says Roger Wilkins, a George Mason University history professor who held various posts in the Johnson administration. "The guy cared really deeply." And King was always more than a mere orator. Nick Kotz, author of Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America, compares King to a general plotting battles. "He was a strategist and organizer, and what finally brought action was this unrelenting pressure of the demonstrations," he says. Schulman notes that "had there been no grass-roots civil rights movement, there would have been no Civil Rights Act."

But in truth, the controversy over Clinton's comments has less to do with the past than with the present. "This argument between Obama and Clinton is hardly about history," says Jeremy Mayer, author of Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000. "It is about fighting for the mantle of national black leadership." Clinton draws from the strong political and business ties to the black community that President Bill Clinton forged. Obama is the most viable black presidential candidate yet, but his political stances are somewhat unknown. Kotz advises the two to take a lesson from history. "What Johnson and King did in situations like this was very, very quickly tamp down [the conflict] because it was counterproductive," he says. Clinton and Obama are "going to destroy each other in an area in which they're probably in total agreement."