Giving credit where credit is due for the civil rights movement

January 20, 2008|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

You want to know who deserves credit for the victories of the civil rights movement? Mother Pollard.

She's been largely forgotten over the last two weeks as the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination bickered over who did what in the 13-year epoch that crumbled the walls of American apartheid. Should the lion's share of the recognition go to the president who staked his legacy on enacting laws that made real the promises of democracy? Should it go to the civil rights leader whose courage and eloquence roused the sleeping conscience of the nation?

If you've just got to choose, give it to Mother Pollard. She was one of the elders of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., during the bus boycott of 1955 and 1956. When her pastor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., suggested she go back to the buses because she was too old to keep walking, she told him, "I'm gonna walk just as long as everybody else walks. I'm gonna walk till it's over."

"But aren't your feet tired?" he asked.

"My feet is tired," she replied. "But my soul is rested."

So yeah, give the credit to her. Give it to Charles Morgan Jr., a young white lawyer who, according to King biographer Stephen B. Oates, threw away a promising political career when he laid the murders of four black girls in Sunday school to the intransigent racism of his own people. Give it to Robert B. Hayling, a black dentist in St. Augustine, Fla., who, for protesting white violence against blacks, was abducted, beaten and almost set afire by Klansmen.

Or give it to an 8-year-old black old girl in Birmingham - her name is unknown - who was challenged by a police officer during the demonstrations there. "What do you want?" he demanded. That baby met his eyes. "Freedom," she said.

It is a good thing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama decided last week to cool the rhetoric in the escalating war of words between them and their surrogates over the legacy of the civil rights movement. The fight, which began when Mrs. Clinton seemed to credit President Lyndon Johnson with the realization of Dr. King's dream - "It took a president to get it done," she said - was a silly one. In the first place, Dr. King is the signature figure of the civil rights movement, period; he was its voice, its vision, its one indispensable man. In the second place, the movement could not have achieved what it did on the national level had Dr. King not moved the nation's political leaders into a conviction that civil rights had to be a priority. And in the third place, all of it would have been futile without Mother Pollard, without Charles Morgan and Robert Hayling, without a little girl willing to face down a big, tough cop, without a million people who found within themselves the guts to stand up against the law, against custom, against history itself, and demand what belonged to them.

Dr. King inspired them, President Johnson codified their demands into law, but that act of standing up after a lifetime spent beaten down was theirs, a million decisions made in a million hearts all grown weary of the status quo.

Forty years later, largely because of that decision, the world has changed so drastically that a black man and a woman can mount credible campaigns for the highest office in the land. And there's a sweet, obvious irony there: the most important thing about this argument is not who's right or who's wrong. It is, rather, who's having it.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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