Change, Martin Luther King, Jr., British Petroleum and Precinct Caucuses

Combine these elements for a quick look at how change happens.

National media is reporting there's an argument between Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama about who deserves the most credit for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or President Johnson. Clinton said in a recent television interview that King's "dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Black leaders contend that Clinton's remarks diminish King's exemplary leadership.

The simplistic dichotomy of either/or presented by the media is wrong. Complex factors are at play in all major social changes and this was abundantly so in the civil rights movement, one of the most significant events in recent history. Here are a few of the events in the long process of the civil rights movement that culminated in passage of landmark legislation.

President Lydon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, after it was passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate as representatives of the citizens. After Dr. Martin Luther King's awesomely inspiring "I have a dream" speech.

After images of massive public demonstrations and protests involving black and white people, many of them liberal clergy, were transported into American homes through national television. After countless meetings of civil rights leaders and the community to develop strategies and tactics.

After the murder of a white minister, Rev. James Riebe of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC, who had traveled to the South to support the movement, got the attention of the national media. The previous killing of many blacks had been invisible to the outside world.

After many demonstrations and altercations in the South that went unnoticed by national media including police in Winona, Mississippi severely beating and jailing Fannie Lou Hamer, a middle-aged sharecropper who volunteered to join the voter registration drive so blacks could vote for the first time. After Rosa Parks, emboldened by community support and tired from years of suffering the abuses of segregation, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

After African American churches had spent years nurturing the souls and hopes of their congregations. One of these churches was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where a young minister named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had recently succeeded his father, Martin Luther King, Sr. The previous minister, Rev. Vernon Johns, had raised awareness of the inequity of racial segregation and built a strong foundation for change within the community through his insistent powerful advocacy of racial justice.

Change didn't happen because of King and Johnson. It wasn't because of King or Johnson. Change happened because courageous leaders spoke out and organized. More leaders, many of them white ministers and people of faith, answered the call and helped raise public consciousness about the injustice of segregation. And they never gave up.

Then hundreds of thousands of ordinary people became extraordinary by getting involved. Hearts and minds of a critical mass of Americans were transformed from fear of the children of slavery into recognition of our shared humanity and that we are all created equal. Together they created the tipping point that changed America forever.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law because of public demand.

Public opinion coming from the grassroots up through the political process to the Congress and President is one way major social change happens.

Another way change happens is by buying it. For example, British Petroleum is spending countless millions of dollars to create a public perception that they are an environmentally friendly corporation including a new name, BP that can also stand for "Beyond Petroleum," and a logo that looks like a flower. They are investing in alternative fuel while continuing to sell massive amounts of regular fuel that pollutes the environment. The full facts are unknown about how their activities as a socially responsible company will balance their role in global warming.

There are countless ways for ordinary people to make a difference. Unless you own a multi-million dollar corporation, you're probably better off getting involved at the grassroots.

Here are two timely opportunities for citizen participation in democracy:

Precinct caucuses and primaries are being held across the country. You can impact which representatives will be elected to enact laws that fulfill our nightmares or our dreams by being a part of this process.

Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy and the civil rights movement are being honored Monday, January 21. You can reflect on the sacrifices of visionaries and activists who built our democracy and resolve to honor their contribution by giving of your time, money or both to keep the dream alive.

Everyone can and must play a role in transforming America by personally investing in participatory democracy. Future generations will thank us.

Phyllis Stenerson, Minneapolis, MN, is a long time political activist who creates and publishes communication materials that articulate progressive values. Her latest project is a 2008 calendar/journal with quotations from diverse voices, Believe We Can Transform America. For information and links to background on this article go to

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