During the throes of the Civil Rights Movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed profound disappointment with those whites in positions of power who remained silent in the face of the blatant racism toward blacks.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King bemoaned their actions as a lack of courage and vision for creating a fair and just America. 

“I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action,” King said. “They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality.”

John Dingell, the longest-serving member in Congress, who died Feb. 7, at 92, was among those few in quantity King talked about for his courage and tenacity to stand up for civil rights when it was politically risky to do so. He helped sponsored the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In fact, Dingell would later describe his support of the bill for civil rights as the single most important vote of his political career.

“I knew it was going to hurt me. But I thought somethings you’ve simply got to do something about, and if you have to pay a price for it then by golly you’ve got to do that,” Dingell said in an interview.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, who replaced her husband in 2015 after he retired as Dean of Congress, told me the day after his death that he did not shy away from doing the right thing.

“He knew what the country was doing back then wasn’t right,” Dingell said. “When he voted for the civil rights bill, the Wall Street Journal said he didn’t have a chance of getting re-elected. A cross was burnt on his lawn. John knew what was happening in this country was wrong.”

Dingell said civil rights hero and Georgia Rep. John Lewis will speak at the funeral, which is slated for Tuesday. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and a former top aide to King, praised Dingell as a principled legislator.

“What Congressman Dingell did in supporting the rights of black people was not popular. You had the Southern Jefferson Davis Democrats and the Northern Democrats against us. That was a strange alliance,” Jackson said. “He stood with us. He was a working person’s person. Many families have been fed today because of him. He was an example of leadership of substance that does not follow opinion polls.”

Jackson added, “By taking principled positions, whether it was workers’ rights or civil rights, he worked to advance this nation. And whether you agreed with him or not, he was principled and honest."

Bernard Lafayette, another civil rights veteran, who was coordinator of King’s 1968 Poor People’s campaign, said Dingell’s alliance with the Civil Rights Movement helped push their demands further for equal rights.

“Napoleon said no revolution is won unless you win the sympathy if not the active support of the majority. Dingell was in the majority, and we invited white allies because we wanted to be inclusive and show in our actions what our goals were,” Lafayette said. “This was about humanity and to demonstrate that blacks and whites can work together.”

For state Rep. Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, a close friend of the Dingells, the passing of the Dean is a reminder of how today’s politicians can remain relevant and consistent.

“John Dingell stood up when we needed him the most. With his support for the civil rights bill he made a significant contribution to this country,” Peterson said. “What he did was bold and almost risked his political career. What we have now are Democrats who won’t stand up for what is right. Very few Democrats have the kind of courage and boldness that Dingell showed when it was not comfortable back then. He never ran from an issue and made himself accessible. He did not send aides. He showed up himself to the meeting. We’ve lost a dear friend in the black community.”

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