Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Importance of Being in the Right Place at the Right Time
Now that Barack Obama is president, there are little placards around saying: “Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Barack could run so our children can fly.” This reference to Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus, to Martin Luther Kings organizing marches for equality to Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency is correct and appropriate, but it is not complete.
Rosa Parks had been a long time activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization that spearheaded the civil rights movement before Dr. King established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. What made Rosa Parks’ rebellion possible was the beginning of the proliferation of private automobiles, even for blacks. Black people could successfully protest the inequitable treatment on buses because buses were becoming less and less necessary.
Martin Luther King was born in 1930. He was 15 when World War II ended. So, he was able to take advantage of the progress blacks could make as a result of World War II, without having endured the trauma of combat or service in the military. He was able to take advantage of the educational benefits of desegregation by attending Boston University. He chose the one field where black people could rise to the top, as a minister.
Barack Obama was born in 1961, in Hawaii. He grew up in Kansas and Indonesia. More significantly, even though Obama is black, his black ancestors did not come to the United States by forced slavery. His father came to America for the same reasons most white Americans’ ancestors came, for greater opportunity and the promise of a better life. More significantly, however, the major struggles of the civil rights era and the passage of the voting rights and public accommodations bills were history when Obama was still a boy. As a man, he has been able to take advantage of the fruits of that struggle, an Ivy League college and Law School education, without, like Martin Luther King, having to have done anything to win those opportunities for blacks.
The need to emancipate blacks was not just a moral issue. People had been against discrimination against black people since slavery started, but they always failed to prevail. What changed? One thing that changed was the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. The United States and the Soviets were competing for the allegiance of the new nations in Africa and Asia that were emerging from the collapse of the colonial empires in the wake of World War II.
In 1957, Ghana was the first African nation since World War II to win its independence from Britain. On October 10, 1957 Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, Ghana’s Finance Minister, stopped for a meal at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Dover, Delaware and was refused service. It caused an international incident for which President Dwight Eisenhower had to apologize. The message was clear. If the United States was to prevail in its competition with the communists for the allegiance of Africa’s newly emerging nations (and, incidentally, the huge deposits of uranium, the raw material of atomic bombs, on that continent) it better get serious about treating black people with respect.
The year 1957 saw the passage of the first civil rights bill since reconstruction, engineered by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson. Then, once Johnson became president after the assassination of John Kennedy, and demolished conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 landslide that gave the Democrats lopsided majorities in both houses of congress, he passed the Voting Rights Act and the Public Accommodations Act which gave blacks the tools to liberate themselves.
If that was all Johnson did, Obama still would have lost the 2008 presidential election. Johnson also passed a landmark immigration law that turned the United States from a Eurocentric to a truly global nation. Obama won only 43% of the white vote, but he carried the black vote, the asian vote and the Hispanic vote by lopsided margins. It was Lyndon Johnson’s immigration bill that changed the complexion of the American electorate even more than the civil rights bills.
Even though slavery was always wrong, even though segregation was always wrong, it took the correct circumstances in addition to hard work and incredible bravery to defeat the evil of racial discrimination. This is what Menachem Begin was referring to when he said that, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles isn’t a realist.” The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States fifty-one years after the Finance Minister of Ghana could not drink a glass of orange juice sitting at a table in a restaurant Dover, Delaware shows that sometimes things change slowly and sometimes they change all at once. This is the meaning of living in a digital age. A lot of people never thought they would live to see a black person as president of the United States.