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Race, Politics, Dr. King and the Primaries in South Carolina

StoryJanuary 15, 2008
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On the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, we take a look at how Dr. King's life and legacy have factored into this year’s Democratic presidential race. And we examine the upcoming Democratic primary in South Carolina, the first state to hold a primary or caucus with a sizable black population. South Carolina has a long history as a battleground in the civil rights struggle. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


Today is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. He would have been seventy-nine years old. On next Monday’s edition of Democracy Now!, we’ll broadcast our annual hour-long Dr. Martin Luther King Day special. But we end today with a look at Dr. King’s life and how his legacy has factored into this year’s Democratic presidential race. This is Senator Hillary Clinton speaking recently on Fox News.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do; presidents before had not even tried. But it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people’s lives, because we had a president who said, “We’re going to do it,” and actually got it accomplished.


That was Hilary Clinton on Fox. In response, Senator Barack Obama and several African American leaders said Clinton had minimized Dr. King’s role in securing the Civil Rights Act. Last night, the campaigns agreed to call a truce in their spat over racial politics.

But race could play a major role in the upcoming Democratic South Carolina primary. South Carolina is the first state to hold a primary or caucus with a sizable black population. Roughly half of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate is African American. South Carolina has a long history as a battleground in the civil rights struggle. Up until 2000, it was the only state to fly the Confederate flag atop its capitol building. Even though it was taken down, the flag still remains on display in the State House grounds. South Carolina was also the last state to recognize Dr. King’s birthday as a paid holiday for state employees.

Dr. King invoked South Carolina in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in Washington.

    REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering.

    Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.


That was Dr. Martin Luther King speaking August 28, 1963.

We go now to Columbia, South Carolina, where I’m joined by Kevin Alexander Gray, longtime civil rights organizer in South Carolina, former president of the state ACLU. He managed Reverend Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in South Carolina in 1988, author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics and the forthcoming book, The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Kevin Alexander Gray. Can you talk about South Carolina today, the legacy of Dr. King, the civil rights struggle in South Carolina as the backdrop to the primary we are about to see take place?


Well, you know, it’s odd that you’ve mentioned Dr. King mentioning South Carolina, because with the history of John C. Calhoun and the nullifiers — the nullifiers, of course, wanted South Carolina to secede from the Union because of the issue of slavery and expand slavery across the Union. So when you look at the history of race in the United States, the majority of Africans brought into this country, brought in through Sullivan’s Island, and then the legacy of John C. Calhoun and all the Southern governors and Southern politicians that came after, that followed his lead to deny Africans and African Americans the right to vote, the right to citizenship, South Carolina has always been in the center of the racial conflict of our country. So it’s always — to me, it’s appropriate that the so-called black primary be held in the state that a lot of African Americans feel like is the home state for most Africans across the country.


And talk about the battle that’s been going on. I mean, this is a race not just between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Of course, in fact, John Edwards won the primary in 2004. He comes from South Carolina.


Yeah, you know, it’s odd. A lot of people tend to make the race the horse race between Senators Clinton and Obama, and John Edwards won four years ago with 130,000 votes. He is from Seneca, South Carolina. I’m from the upstate. Seneca is in the upstate. And his people worked in the mill. I worked in the mill. My people worked in the mill.

So I tell people, you know, now, Barack Obama is black, and if you only used his being black as a reason for voting for him, then maybe I might consider voting for him. But if you think about, for me, John Edwards and I having the same heritage, I probably have more in common with John Edwards than I do with both Obama and Clinton.

And, of course, I look at Clinton and Obama as coming from the DLC, and John Edwards was probably the first candidate that raised the issue of working people, that talked about working people, that used the word or the terms “working people.”

So I think that the race is still wide open, although it’s gotten kind of — well, it’s gone to race. Of course, we knew it was going to go there, and the Clintons have always been good at playing racial politics. So you have to wonder if, in fact, they kind of nudged Obama, who was trying to stay away from race, which is why he wasn’t doing so well in the early parts of this campaign in South Carolina, because he appeared to not want to take on black issues, not want people to really look at his —- you know, because I’m trying to be real careful with this. You know, Barack Obama is black; that is obvious. But this idea that you can stay away from the issues that are crucial to black people for fear of offending white people, I think that kind of hindered the senator. And now that it appears as though the Clintons are laying claim to their base, their so-called black base, coming into a state where the majority of the voters in the Democratic Party or primary are going to be black, it seems that at one point you don’t want to be black, but now when your chances of being president are threatened, then you go back to being black, or you start being blacker. So that’s what we’ve witnessed thus far.

Now, you know, with the comments by Bob Johnson with BET yesterday, there’s a lot of sympathy going swinging over towards Senator Obama’s way, because of -—


Explain what Robert Johnson said, head of BET, Black Entertainment Television.


Well, Robert Johnson tried to make a veiled — he tried to make a veiled allusion to the confession of Senator Obama that he did drugs as a teenager in his autobiography. And he tried, of course, to defend the Clinton’s record with the black community, saying that the Clintons have been deeply involved with the black community for years.

Now, a lot of us don’t buy that. A lot of us look at the Clinton administration, because when you look at it, where a lot of what Hillary Clinton relies on for black support is the black support that her husband had, it’s not that Hillary Clinton has a history in the black community, Bill Clinton has a history in the black community. But I’m one of those people that say Bill Clinton doesn’t have a great history in the black community. 100,000 more black men went to prison under Bill Clinton than under Ronald Regan. And, of course, he passed that 1997 crime bill that expanded the death penalty. When he ran for president in ’92, he did his Sister Souljah bit when he — of course, he executed Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black kid. He didn’t have a civil rights bill in his state. So some of us don’t see Clinton as the soul brother that he would like to be.

But now, this idea that you’re going to raise Obama’s past drug use, well, of course, that’s playing on all the stereotypes that a lot of races play on. And races can be black and white. But, you know, to raise that issue, to say we don’t know what he was doing — well, we knew what he was doing back in the neighborhood, as in he was doing them drugs and hanging out, well, that’s what that was about. And a lot of people took offense at that. And I think that that’s moving some people into Barack Obama’s direction.


We’re talking right now to Kevin Alexander Gray in Columbia, South Carolina. The Republican primary is January 19th. The Democratic primary January 26th. Talk about your congressman, James Clyburn. He is the only African American congressman from South Carolina, one of the leaders in Congress. He’s overseas right now, appears to be extremely angry about what has been happening.


Well, he hinted that he might support Obama, but I don’t think that that’s going to happen. Jim — first of all, you know, people say Jim was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Jim was the head of the State Human Affairs Commission before he ran for Congress. And Jim has kind of been the pick of the status quo established white community for a long time. So I don’t see Jim leaving too far off of that plantation and bucking the party establishment in the state by picking somebody.

But, of course — and then, of course, you know, there is some — a kernel of truth to what the senator said about a president or a lawmaker having to take protest the next step. I mean, you can throw rocks at city hall, you can march down the streets, but you still have to have some sort of legislative action at the end of the day. Now, that’s not to say that consciousness and black consciousness and the people’s consciousness with their condition, with their oppression, that spurs them to move this out into the street, isn’t important, or the catalyst that Dr. King was, you can’t diminished that role. But, you know, I look at Lyndon Johnson, as opposed to John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson was a good civil rights president. He was wrong on the war, and of course that war was started by a Democrat, John F. Kennedy, but Lyndon Johnson did pass significant civil rights legislation, and you have to give him credit for that. Now, to listen to Hillary Clinton say that and to think that that diminishes the role of Dr. King, well, I don’t know if I agree with that.

But Jim did express a bit of anger. I thought that he should look at the comments by Senator Clinton in context. And, of course, some of this was in response to the fact that the Clintons are masters — or at least Bill is — at playing race politics.


Kevin Alexander Gray, we only have two minutes. I wanted to ask you about the key issues in South Carolina today. I wanted to ask you about the subprime mortgage crisis, how it affects South Carolina, about the war in Iraq and the number of people from South Carolina who are sent off to fight, and how much of an issue has that become in this race. It hasn’t been a major issue in the other states.


Well, you know, South Carolina is a pro-military state. I was an Army officer. I have three brothers. They were all in the service. My father spent twenty-seven years in the service. It seems like it’s in the water here. But the black community has been resolutely against the war from the start. So it hasn’t been the big issue.

The big issue in South Carolina has been the housing problem. Now, people talk about the subprime mortgage problem, but we’ve had a 50% foreclosure rate in the black community probably for almost the last decade. Of course, we have a high school dropout rate among black kids that’s high. Only 30% of black males and 40% of black females are graduating from the public high schools. And then you have the unemployment problem, recession problem, the drug war. 85% of those kids in youth jails are black. 65% of those males in adult jails are black, most of it due to the drug war. Nobody wants to talk about the drug war.

So the issues here are economic. They’re job-related up in the upstate, where I’m from. Of course, the textile industry has been hurt. So it’s bread-and-butter issues, and we have been trying to make the candidates address these issues, and some of them are now at least on the subprime mortgage issue.


On this day that Dr. King was born seventy-nine years ago, South Carolina is the last state to recognize Dr. King’s holiday as a paid holiday for federal employees — or for state employees?


Yes. Well, you know, as you said at the opening, we were the state that flew the Confederate flag over the dome, State House dome, because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


I want to thank you very much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Alexander Gray, longtime civil rights organizer in South Carolina, former president of the state ACLU, his upcoming book is called The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.

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Up Next

60 Years After “I Have a Dream”: Gary Younge on MLK’s March on Washington & the Fight for Racial Justice

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