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Sanders, Clinton, King

I was reading a note about last night’s debate, in which Paul Waldman writes that Bernie Sanders’s idealism and Hillary Clinton’s pragmatism clash in debate. The headline is more or less accurate. Mr. Waldman points out that Senator Sanders rejects incremental change as being, well, incremental, and Hillary Clinton rejects radical reform as being, well, radical. Gentle Readers will remember that I think it’s very important to have both arguments in the Party, to have powerful people in the Party who demand fundamental change as well as those who are willing to get their hands dirty and make whatever deals can be made in order to get things done that need doing. It’s not only that I find them both valuable, but that I feel that either approach works best with the other view powerfully articulated.

So when I was looking through the archive of Dr. Martin Luther King’s writings, as I do on this day, I had in the back of my mind this tension of radical change and incrementalism. And I was struck by This 1955 letter from the Montgomery Improvement Association to the bus line that became the focus of the boycott that was, in some ways, the start of the widespread Civil Rights Movement in this country. OK, well, in the Story that we tell ourselves of that movement, the bus boycott plays an enormous role. And you all know that story: Black folk have to sit in the back of the bus, until one day Rosa Parks sits in the whites-only front of the bus and is thrown off, Martin Luther King, Junior has a dream, and then segregation ends. It’s a pleasant story, innit? Y’all don’t have to be told that it’s more complicated than that.

Anyway, Rosa Parks is arrested on December 1, the boycott starts December 5 (here’s a leaflet and a speech from that day that is worth reading) and on December 8, there was a meeting between the Mayor, a representative of the bus company, and the Montgomery Improvement Association. The demands presented to the bus company and the town at that meeting, and then in the letter to the national bus company, are these:

  1. Courteous treatment by bus drivers.
  2. Seating of Negro passengers from rear to front of bus, and white passengers from front to rear on “first-come-first-serve” basis with no seats reserved for any race.
  3. Employment of Negro bus operators in predominantly Negro residential sections.

Not, you understand, a demand that black and white folk can sit anywhere they please. Not a demand that the black people of Montgomery be treated the same as white people, by law and custom. Martin Luther King is not asking, at this time, for the front of the bus. He’s asking that if there are empty seats, that people are allowed to sit in them. Incremental change, he’s asking for.

He doesn’t get it.

He gets Browder v. Gale: We hold that the statutes and ordinances requiring segregation of the white and colored races on the motor buses of a common carrier of passengers in the City of Montgomery and its police jurisdiction violate the due process and equal protection of the law clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.. The Birmingham News quotes Rev. King as saying it is true we got more out of this (boycott) than we went in for. We started out to get modified segregation (on buses) but we got total integration. That was December 21, 1956.

It turns out that in practice, in the world, incrementalism and idealism aren’t all that easily separated. This year, on this year’s Martin Luther King Day, I will try to think about how the constant struggle for incremental improvement can be kept open to the possibilities of transformative change, and how the struggle for transformative change can be furthered by the constant demand for incremental improvement. I may yet vote for Bernie Sanders, I may yet vote for Hillary Clinton, but today I’m thinking about Martin Luther King.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,