Monday, January 21, 2008

MLK v. LBJ

The official celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a good occasion to reflect on Senator Clinton's recent dig at Senator Obama. Suggesting that Obama is all windy rhetoric to her substance, Clinton compared King to Lyndon Johnson, who, as President, signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It takes a detail-oriented (and white?) President, Clinton suggested, to translate hopes into law.

Putting aside the question of who deserves how much credit for what, it's worth recalling that King himself was a big believer in bringing about legal change. He was not someone who thought that changing hearts and minds was a substitute for changing the law. Rather, he thought that (in today's academic lexicon), it's important to work on both informal social norms and formal legal rules. Or as Dr. King put it much more pithily, "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important."

Posted by Mike Dorf

15 comments:

Jamison Colburn said...

I'm still speechless about that comment. I think more people covering the campaigns should really highlight this contrast that the Clintons decided to draw. If you want more of the politics LBJ engendered (and Caro's biography is ruthlessly telling on that), definitely vote for Hillary this primary season!

Paul said...

It was a foolish comment, but I think she is also wrong on substance.

As we know, and Dr. King's case illustrates it with some irony, the law cannot in fact keep a person from lynching another. All it can do is punish him if he does.

I think the more important function of law on these matters is the setting of social norms - through force - that then overtime become social norms through habit. That is to say, I think the Dr. King is also wrong. The law can make a man love him (given enough time), but in fact can't save his life.

Paul said...

BTW, well dome Giants. I didn't think with the defense I saw from them most of he year they could stop either of the two best offenses in the NFC, much less both of them back to back.

If they can keep up that level of play, the Superbowl could actually be interesting.

Sobek said...

"I think the more important function of law on these matters is the setting of social norms - through force - that then overtime become social norms through habit. That is to say, I think the Dr. King is also wrong. The law can make a man love him (given enough time), but in fact can't save his life."

That's an interesting argument, but I'll point out that decades of civil rights legislation have not made any white supremacist start loving blacks.

By contrast, while the presence of laws on the books obviously won't prevent all people from breaking those laws, the credible threat of enforcement will deter some, or even most, people from breaking them. Part of the problem with the 1950's south is that lynch mobs had little or no fear of prosecution at all, let alone vigorous prosecution. Such laws, obviously, can't protect anyone.

And since today is the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I'll also note that thirty-five years of the Supreme Court attempting to impose a middle-ground compromise on Americans, against our will, has only kept passions on the subject as high as ever. I attribute that fact at least in part to the sense of helplessness that pro-lifers feel in being excluded from self-governance.

Paul said...

I think you illustrate my point.

Extremists, especially those extremists who care more about their cause than their life, can't have their thoughts or actions changed by laws.

Dr. King's murder would not have changed based on laws. Likewise, white supremacists won't have their minds changed by laws. I think, however, the casual racism of the common man did change in large part because of civil rights laws. The laws made punishable the commonplace discrimination faced by blacks at the time, and today we have a very much changed society. I think it is those laws that created the custom or habit of non-racism.

Sobek said...

"...the casual racism of the common man did change in large part..."

But was the "casual racist" really going to go lynch someone anyway? That seems like a bit of a leap.

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