"When I was a kid, President Kennedy did not want to introduce the civil rights bill because he said it wasn't popular, he didn't have the votes for it, et cetera. Dr. King kept putting people in the streets in harm's way to put the pressure on so that the bill would be introduced. That's what finally worked."
I was doing the appearance via Skype, which doesn't allow me to see the faces of those I am speaking with. But suffice to say, both host Alisyn Camerota and fellow guest Symone Sanders were astonished. So, it appears, are others. They shouldn't be.
In fact, I made a comparison between Trump and King deliberately and with reason. Both men used or are threatening to use crisis to pass legislation.
Dr. King, along with President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, was one of my childhood heroes. His direct action was instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act -- introduced by President Kennedy and signed by President Johnson after Kennedy's assassination -- proposed and pushed through Congress. While I didn't mention Dr. King's famous 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," that is exactly what I had in mind on the air.
The subject under discussion was an article
from The Wall Street Journal, which says, among other things, that the President is "threatening to withhold payments to insurers to force Democrats to the negotiating table" and adds that their "abrupt disappearance [from the marketplace] could trigger an insurance meltdown that causes the collapse of the 2010 health law, forcing lawmakers to return to a bruising debate over its future."
I compared the President's words to Dr. King's strategy in the early 1960s. What was that strategy? King described it in his letter from Birmingham Jail
. The letter was written by Dr. King as he sat in a Birmingham jail, arrested for leading a civil rights march. He was responding to eight fellow clergymen who had taken out an ad in the local newspaper calling Dr. King and his fellow demonstrators "extremists" and worse, calling instead for negotiation. Sitting in jail, King wrote his now-famous response.
The reference I had in mind as I spoke on CNN was this section:
"You may well ask: 'Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?' You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."
King continued: "So must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation."
And what is it exactly that the story in The Wall Street Journal said? It said the President was "threatening to withhold payments to insurers to force Democrats to the negotiating table." And that "Their abrupt disappearance could trigger an insurance meltdown that causes the collapse of the 2010 health law, forcing lawmakers to return to a bruising debate over its future."
In other words, whether he knows it or not (and I suspect not) President Trump is using Dr. King's strategy -- in Dr. King's own words --"to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation."
In Dr. King's day, the objective was negotiation that would lead to the passage of civil rights legislation. Today, President Trump is using the threat of crisis to negotiate his stated objective of legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare. Different goals, yes. But the strategy of creating a crisis to obtain a specific legislative outcome is exactly the same.
And there is nothing in the least wrong in saying so.