Martin, Bobby and the will to change

Martin, Bobby and the will to change
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In this last year of civil rights remembrances of 50 years past, it’s time to remember that the times again are extraordinary, and Americans need an attorney general who can grow in the job. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE’s nominee, William Barr, held the position from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush. Then, he encouraged more incarceration, not less, and showed little sensitivity to civil rights issues.

It is almost forgotten now, but Bobby Kennedy once was like this in many important ways. As attorney general under his brother, President John F. Kennedy, he went after people — the right ones — like a rabid dog. But his main targets were corrupt Teamsters Union and Mafia bosses, then violent forces. The problem with Kennedy was that he saw civil rights movement protesters not as patriots who deserved White House protection, but as nuisances rudely interrupting his brother’s foreign policy agenda. He saw them as people to be contained, not understood.

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Martin Luther King was one of those irritants. As a 1960 Democratic presidential candidate, it was John F. Kennedy’s phone call to Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver, to make sure that a jailed King was not abused by prison authorities, that earned JFK the crucial black vote. But in the White House, the Kennedys needed the support of white Southern Democrats — then called “Dixiecrats” — and, therefore, viewed the evils of segregation as a regional social problem, not a series of never-ending human rights abuses that spat upon the U.S. Constitution.

So in May 1963, Kennedy asked for a private meeting in New York City with some black artists and leaders. Writers James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, singers Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, and a small number of grassroots organizers attended. Kennedy hoped he could get the group on his side and spur it to convince King and other established civil rights leaders off the administration’s back.

The attorney general was profoundly disappointed, and more than a little upset, by how the meeting went. Jerome Smith, a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) activist who had been a part of the Freedom Riders, reportedly told Kennedy he would never volunteer to fight for the United States against communist Cuba because “I’ve seen you guys stand around and do nothing more than take notes while we’re being beaten. … I’m close to the moment where I’m ready to take up a gun (to defend myself against white racists).”

Baldwin, Hansberry and the other artists defended Smith. Kennedy, blindsided by understandable rage, felt outnumbered and unappreciated. But he had learned that there was more to learn.

Some people can learn and change, if they wish. Lyndon Baines Johnson, for example, rose from the margins of Dixiecrat congressional politics to, as president, push through legislation that helped more black people, and other dispossessed people, than any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. King and Johnson viewed each other as often-feuding partners in the work to make democracy apply to all Americans.

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That desire does not appear to be within the current Washington reality. I testified during Barr’s confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill last week: “The presidency itself is teetering on the brink, with news breaking daily about actions by Donald Trump and top officials to undermine the rule of law. Under Trump, we have witnessed the worst erosion of civil rights in recent history, not only for the African-American community but for each and every community protected by our federal civil rights laws.”

We now see erosion where once there used to be slow progress. Bobby Kennedy grew mountain-size as a result of that turbulent 1963 meeting and, six months later, his brother’s  assassination. As a 1968 presidential candidate, he began to understand American history and politics from the bottom up, and saw America’s potential to provide freedom and opportunity for all of the nation’s disadvantaged. He had begun to earn the trust of the civil rights movement leadership after King’s murder. And, two months after King’s funeral, he was martyred because of the fear, the backlash, created by that evolution.

As upholders of the legacy of King and the ideals of advancing our communities with our nation in tow, the NAACP stands strongly against the return of William Barr as U.S. attorney general. We stand against him for many reasons, not least of which is his obstinate refusal to change. Like Trump, he represents anachronistic egotism, which has no place in a nation that must continually evolve to live up to the prideful ideals it flaunts to others. Unlike Bobby Kennedy, who evolved and became great in response to criticisms from King and others in the civil rights movement, Barr forever will be remembered as a key figure in the rise of the new Jim Crow: mass incarceration.  

As Americans celebrate the holiday honoring King, we have to say now that Barr still believes what he believes, and still represents a president with no clue how to evolve as a human being, a man, or a leader. Maturity is necessary to prevent any more Washington gridlock. If Barr returns to the attorney general post, he is only going to increase the damage that former Trump attorney general Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLewandowski says he's 'happy' to testify before House panel The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Nadler subpoenas Lewandowski, former White House official for testimony MORE started. Whether Trump speaks to a joint session of Congress or not, the state of our union is stagnant and about to go into reverse.

King was killed 51 years ago this April because he was trying to bring us forward. He said: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Kennedy eventually learned that. That is the kind of attorney general America needs.

Derrick Johnson is president and CEO of the NAACP. Follow him on Twitter @DerrickNAACP and @NAACP.