Clinton decries growing U.S. political polarization

Ex-president, in Humphrey school speech, sounded alarm that we are ‘drifting apart’


By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Barack Obama, or for that matter Jimmy Carter, or even former president Bill Clinton himself would not have been elected U.S. president if it wasn’t for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, said Clinton during a June 9 speech last week at the University of Minnesota Northrop Auditorium. The school’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, named after the late senator and vice president Hubert H. Humphrey, has co-sponsored a yearlong series of events to reflect on the 50th anniversary year of the law’s passage that’s largely believed to have ended de jure segregation in this country, primarily in the South.

President Bill Clinton Photos by Onika Nicole Craven
President Bill Clinton
Photos by Onika Nicole Craven

University of Minnesota Trustee Emeritus Dr. Josie Johnson, who introduced Clinton, told the audience that everyone should “challenge misinformation and seek truth.” She reiterated afterwards to the MSR that “the focus on justice, equity, civil rights, etcetera” must continue. “I wish we could create an environment where we could talk together,” she said.

“Until we can pass legislation that opens opportunities for all of our children, and when our children understand their place in history and in society, until we do that I don’t think the future of our civil rights resonates with our children. I am concerned that our African American children don’t know their history,” Johnson said.

Josie Johnson
Josie Johnson

Clinton, the 42nd U.S. president, elected in 1992 and reelected in 1996, was among “some 20 individuals from a broad range of perspectives” invited to speak on the law and the progress achieved since. He also was given a Humphrey public leadership award.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was “also paid for by the blood of martyrs,” stated Clinton. “I think about Americans who fought in World War II [like] the Tuskegee Airmen, who then came home and found out, depending on where they lived, [they] couldn’t live or eat where they wanted to… Medgar Evers; Emmett Till; the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing; Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, who were killed in Mississippi. Still, in the end there had to be action by a system that the [country’s] founders set up that is creaky and slow… and requires compromise.”

Politicians “must risk” not being elected or re-elected and speak more honestly on issues concerning all Americans, said Clinton, whose nearly one-hour speech was part reminiscence about the past and part insistence on the present need for bi-partisanship in Washington. Today’s elected officials must be willing to “risk an honest debate…to have the courage to say” things that might be unpopular but needed, said the former president He reminded the audience that it wasn’t easy, but the lawmakers 50 years ago, especially Humphrey, saw the bigger picture.

“…As deeply and passionate as he was about the politics and the ideas behind them, he was still a politician,” said Clinton of Humphrey, of a time when Humphrey, then Senate floor leader, helped end a filibuster that sustained debate on the bill. “As strongly as he felt about civil rights, there was something about his makeup that, even though there were some that disagreed with him, they could do it without hating him. The ultimate case of the Civil Rights Act was the common humanity.”

However, Clinton admitted that one of his last messages to Congress before he left office in 2000 was that the work to eliminate all racial disparities and inequalities was incomplete. “Government’s job is to do for the people who cannot do for themselves. Hubert Humphrey understood that.”

Instead, Clinton pointed out, too many Americans “are believing that government can do nothing for them so they should vote to make sure that government do nothing to them.” Clinton said that he believes the current polarization in this country dates back to the mid-1970s after Watergate. Now both elected officials and ordinary citizens alike would rather “hang with our own crowd. We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.

“We have been drifting apart…politically, philosophically and physically” in this country, said Clinton. “We need a little more [trust] in Washington today. Humphrey had that — people trusted his word. Without trust, no matter how close you [link] something, the other side will find wiggle room. Once destroyed, [trust is] hard to rebuild.”

(l-r) Dr. Mumbi Mwagi and daughter Njeri Clement
(l-r) Dr. Mumbi Mwagi and daughter Njeri Clement

Njeri Clement, a St. Cloud State University graduate student, and her mother, Dr. Mumbi Mwagi, both attended the Clinton event. It was the first time that both mother and daughter heard the former president speak in person.

“We have to focus on our challenges and work together,” said Clement in agreement with Clinton’s key points.

“I felt I was in church because he was so inspirational,” added Mwagi, who came to the U.S. over 15 years ago.

Clinton advised the audience “to not only know the basic facts, but [also] to ask yourself what does this all mean today” and to continue working “to extend the opportunity to embrace our common humanity, to give people access to a better life.”


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