News Release

How Important Is the President?


“I would point to the fact that 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, the president 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 are going to do it,’ and actually got it accomplished.”
— Hillary Clinton, Jan. 7, 2008

“No president has really done very much for the American Negro, though the past two presidents have received much undeserved credit for helping us. This credit has accrued to Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy only because it was during their administrations that Negroes began doing more for themselves. Kennedy didn’t voluntarily submit a civil rights bill, nor did Lyndon Johnson. In fact, both told us at one time that such legislation was impossible. President Johnson did respond realistically to the signs of the times and used his skills as a legislator to get bills through Congress that other men might not have gotten through. I must point out, in all honesty, however, that President Johnson has not been nearly so diligent in implementing the bills he has helped shepherd through Congress.”
— Martin Luther King Jr., remarks published posthumously in January 1969

Distinguished professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, Reynolds is author of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.

He said today: “The recent tiff over who was responsible for civil rights — Martin Luther King or LBJ — brings up an important issue in American history: To what extent does social progress result from reform movements as opposed to presidents and Congress? History suggests that more often than not reform movements have led the way in changing society, and presidents have been slow to follow.

“Take slavery. Without the unyielding activism of a small group of visionary reformers, slavery may have remained a fixture in America for a very long time. In 1858, two years before winning the presidency, Abraham Lincoln predicted that slavery would take perhaps a century to disappear. (Imagine slavery existing in America until 1958!) Although Lincoln opposed slavery, he was a politician, not a reformer. He denounced the abolitionist movement, since he feared the social convulsions that an effort to free the nation’s four million enslaved blacks might cause. His views on slavery were distant from those of abolitionist reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, who called for immediate emancipation even if it meant breaking the country apart, or John Brown, whose 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia reflected his conviction that slavery would disappear only through what he called ‘very much bloodshed.’ John Brown was right. It took the bloodiest war in the nation’s history to uproot slavery. Lincoln, who had formerly shared his era’s racial prejudice and had opposed immediate emancipation of the slaves, in time set in motion the processes that led to the legal end of slavery. Like LBJ, he was following on the heels of reform movements that had long fought social injustice.

“Frequently, presidents go where reform movements have led.”
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Zinn, author of the bestseller A People’s History of the United States, recently wrote in a piece titled “Election Madness”: “This election hysteria seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students. …

“Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate … that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.
“The unprecedented policies of the New Deal — social security, unemployment insurance, job creation, minimum wage, subsidized housing — were not simply the result of FDR’s progressivism. The Roosevelt administration, coming into office, faced a nation in turmoil. The last year of the Hoover administration had experienced the rebellion of the Bonus Army — thousands of veterans of the First World War descending on Washington to demand help from Congress as their families were going hungry. There were disturbances of the unemployed in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle.

“Without a national crisis — economic destitution and rebellion — it is not likely the Roosevelt administration would have instituted the bold reforms that it did. …

“The Democratic Party has only broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.”
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For more information, contact at the Institute for Public Accuracy:
Sam Husseini, (202) 347-0020; or David Zupan, (541) 484-9167.