Political History

As a political junkie, and later a student of politics, I have been able to witness political history, noting things that some others might have seen, but perhaps offering a different slant on events.

For example, I was ten years old (about to be 11 in May) when my mother and I watched Lyndon Johnson tell the country that he “would not accept” the Democratic nomination for another term as President, an act that touched off 8 or 9 months of the most tumultuous, destabilizing, violent and scary times in American history.

Already an avid observer of the politics of American life (how many 10 year olds do YOU know who will watch a presidential speech?) I watched as events, unbelievable events, happened, seemingly one after another, each one seeming more devastating than the one before, and, at the end of it all, the country elected Richard Nixon, and the political life in America was forever changed – but that was to be in the years ahead – while 1968 had it’s own story.

Today people get all excited about someone making a mis-statement, saying the wrong word, and claim that they are somehow displaying “political courage” because they are willing to attempt to make a mountain out of such molehills. During1968 two leaders were killed – assassinated – when they chose to show actual political courage, the courage to stand up for what was right. This was a violent year, in a violent time, and yet in only 40 years we have come to believe that “political courage” means appearing on a slanted cable news network and calling your opponent names and deliberately twisting their words.

So you want to hear political courage? read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on the day before he was killed:

And they were telling me, now it doesn’t matter now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

That is political courage.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

That’s Robert Kennedy, speaking to an all black crowd in Indianapolis, breaking the news to them that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed. That he chose to speak to that crowd that night showed political courage, that he ran the risk of losing his own life because he believed that it was for best for the country, THAT’S political courage.

It seemed like from April until November there were murders or riots every week, people were making decisions on where we were going as a country based on fear, but not the trumped up fears fed to us by the right wing today, these were real fears – people were dying all around us, they were dying in Asia, they were dying in Europe – and I question the decisions that were made.

A lot of my strongly held beliefs were forged during the fires of 1968. I go back and read the speeches given by MLK and RFK and I wonder: where are leaders like this today? The crucible of those times gave us Nixon and the distrust in government that led to all of the partisanship and media nonsense we see today, the “politics of personal destruction” really began with Nixon, and I can’t help but wonder down what different paths we might have gone if Robert Kennedy had not been killed.

I do see some light now, 40 years later. Barack Obama will make his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of MLKs “I Have a Dream” speech. When he takes the podium in Denver, I am hoping to hear echoes of those long lost voices of the past, see in him something of the political courage we need and have needed since we let it slip away during those darkest days in American history.

I hope, but I am skeptical.