By Kevin M. Burke, Ph. D., The Root
While much is being made about the new movie Selma’s depiction of the complicated relationship between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson at the summit of the Civil Rights movement, it was actually King’s friendship with a larger-than-life Republican governor that speaks to our more complicated political past. Looking past it, we not only miss a host of intriguing historical surprises but also underestimate King’s deft leveraging of power on either side of the aisle.
Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1908-1979), scion of a mighty oil dynasty, was the four-term governor of New York who also served as vice president under President Gerald Ford and did his best to outdo LBJ’s Great Society by way of his own blended liberal-conservative style, which he described as having “a Democrat heart with a Republican head.” Before being shouted down by his own party at the 1964 Republican National Convention in favor of Barry Goldwater’s conservative forces, Rockefeller thought that energetic governance, to save capitalism by softening its sharpest edges and to advance civil rights in the Lincoln tradition, would be his ticket to the White House. Had he been right, we wouldn’t be talking about LBJ and the Voting Rights Act today.
Before it was fashionable, Rockefeller, more than any other white political executive in his party and far more than most Democrats, recognized King’s potential to lead the march for justice that would redefine American greatness in a Cold War world. Now, for the first time, we get a more complete sense of his support for King in an impressive new biography by noted presidential historian Richard Norton Smith: On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller, reflecting 14 years of research that tracks this remarkable man through his flawed but ebullient life.
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