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What Dr. King would have had to say about Chris Christie on housing

Posted by Adam Gordon on January 16th 2012

Today commemorates what would have been the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 82nd birthday. It is striking to reflect that, absent the tragic end to Dr. King’s too-short life, he very well might still be alive today and, surely, not silent.

So it’s not out of the question to imagine Dr. King being a force in today’s debates about fair housing – a topic that, in the last few years of his life, consumed a considerable amount of his time. Indeed, there are hundreds of people still alive in New Jersey who marched alongside Dr. King or otherwise had the honor of meeting the man. And we have heard from many of them over the past two years. The dominant theme of their words – and likely what Dr. King himself would say – is that Governor Christie is trying to turn back the clock to the pre-civil rights era in letting municipalities choose to keep out whomever they want.

One pastor who marched with Dr. King recently told us that when he heard Christie’s rhetoric on local rights to ban certain people from their community, it sounded a lot like the states rights rhetoric of Southern politicians who resisted Dr. King. Let’s take a look:

“I’ve always believed municipalities should be able to make their own decisions on affordable housing, without being micromanaged and second-guessed from Trenton,” Chris Christie, on transferring the Council on Affordable Housing’s duties to the Department of Community Affairs (which we are currently challenging in court).

“Let the poll tax be repealed, if it should be, at the proper place. We have not yet come to the state of affairs in Georgia where we need the advice of those who would occupy the position of the carpetbagger and the scalawag of the days of Reconstruction to tell us how to handle our internal affairs,” Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, opposing federal legislation on voting rights.

Dr. King recognized, most famously in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, that his most dangerous opponents were not the George Wallaces who militantly declared “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever.” They were the Richard Russells – the people and politicians who claimed to agree with King’s ends, but argued for means that did nothing to advance them and in fact opposed them.

Russell understood this quite well. Robert Caro, in his masterful biography of Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate, which focuses heavily on Johnson’s relationship with Russell, describes a meeting of all southern Senators in the late 1940s. There, Russell successfully convinced all of his colleagues to stop using blatantly offensive terms on the floor of the Senate and instead “keep our speeches restrained and not inflammatory.” He knew that a majority of the country was opposed to him on segregation – but thought that if he could tone down that rhetoric, and focus instead on states’ rights and images of federal bureaucrats, he could keep African-Americans off the voter rolls and out of the lunch counters of the South. And he succeeded, for another decade and a half, until in the words of Isaiah that Dr. King was so fond of quoting, justice rolled down like a mighty stream, flowing too fast for Russell to stop.

Governor Christie similarly knows that most New Jerseyans won’t tolerate bald-faced statements of discrimination such as “We don’t want mentally ill people living here” (Raritan Township, Hunterdon County) or go along with neighbors who mobilize to shut down a Habitat for Humanity development (Summit City, Union County). So, like Russell, Christie talks about local control. But by doing so he can also play to those who simply don’t want “those people” living nearby – as he sometimes does in unscripted moments like telling a town hall questioner that his town simply doesn’t need any apartments and that the Mount Laurel decision was an “abomination.”

If Dr. King were alive today, he would call out Governor Christie, for acting against the fair housing principles he fought so hard for. He would note that — as the Courier-Post reminds us in an editorial today — our state is “among the most segregated in the country,” and Governor Christie’s actions further that segregation. And Dr. King would transcend racial lines – pointing out that while the Governor’s actions to maintain segregation do fall particularly hard on African-American and Latino communities, they also impact working-class white families, people with special needs, and struggling seniors.

But Dr. King is no longer with us. And so it’s up to you. Can you commemorate Dr. King’s birthday today by doing one or more of these things?

  1. Share this blog posting with five friends;
  2. Post a link to this post with a comment on your Facebook page;
  3. Write a letter to the editor to your local newspaper — if you are in South Jersey you may want to respond to the Courier Post’s excellent editorial;
  4. Donate $10, $20, or more to Fair Share Housing Center, or another civil rights organization of your choice, to continue the struggle for civil rights in New Jersey.

Because at the end of the day, Dr. King’s legacy is in all of our hands.