On Wednesday, Joe Biden was inaugurated as president. He promised change after a dark period of division.
Dr. King’s relationship with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson offers instructive lessons for today’s movement for justice.
Kennedy, inaugurated after eight years of Republican Dwight Eisenhower, brought new energy to Washington.
During his campaign, his call to Coretta Scott King when Dr. King was jailed, helped him capture immense Black support in a razor-thin election.
Yet, he was wary of King, unhappy that King and the movement kept demonstrating and forcing change. King appreciated Kennedy but understood the conflicting pressures he faced. The movement continued independently.
Johnson and King
Kennedy’s assassination brought Lyndon Johnson, the master of the Senate, to the presidency. Johnson decided to push civil rights legislation and put his enormous skills behind passing it. King conferred with Johnson and helped put pressure on legislators who were reluctant.
King wasn’t simply interested in protest; he wanted a change in policy and was prepared to work with LBJ to get it.
Johnson, like Kennedy, was wary of King. He often besmirched him in private, angry that King would not stop the demonstrations.
Today the situation is different.
Reaffirming in Biden
Black voters were critical to Biden’s election victory.
He chose Kamala Harris as his vice president. He has reaffirmed his commitment to criminal justice reform, to addressing the continued disparities in education, housing, health care and opportunity.
What African Americans still seek is an even playing field. On economic justice issues, our agenda speaks to all: the right to a job, the right to health care, the right to a high-quality education, retirement security.
To drive reform, the lessons of the 1960s still apply. The movement for justice must continue to organize nonviolent protest, challenging the entrenched systemic racism that still pervades our institutions.
It must continue to build, as Dr. King did, a poor people’s campaign across lines of race and region. The movement can’t follow Biden’s timetable; it must continue to build on its own agenda.
Once more, the movement for justice must not be silent about the administration’s priorities. Biden’s inauguration offers new hope and new energy.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is president and CEO of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.