The Kennedys and the Civil Rights Movement [re Stanley Levison and the Garrow article in Atlantic Monthly]

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at
Tue Aug 20 06:59:36 MDT 2002

Note by Hunterbear:

I'm greatly indebted to David McReynolds for passing along the link to the
recent David Garrow Atlantic Monthly [July/August 2002] article on Stanley
Levison and the Communist Party and Martin King et al. I had not seen the
article until now.  [I've attached the Link to the Atlantic piece at the end
of this post of mine.]  I do have several comments on the article which
constitute  direct disagreement with Garrow's conclusion.  I should add that
this is a friendly difference of significance with a constructively
productive American historian.

>From the conclusion of the David Garrow Atlantic article on Stanley Levison:

"Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Morris and Jack [Childs] traveled the globe
as the CPUSA's international ambassadors. In Moscow on November 22, 1963,
Morris witnessed and attested to the utter shock and dismay of the Soviet
Union's top leaders at the assassination of John F. Kennedy; after returning
from a visit to Havana six months later, Jack passed along Fidel Castro's
comments to him about the Kennedy assassination. Jack and Morris represented
a huge intelligence coup. The firsthand information they provided to the FBI
about Stanley Levison's secret financial work for the CPUSA in the years
before Levison became Martin Luther King's most important political
counselor changed American history in a profound way. If the Childs brothers
had never signed on with the FBI, or if Jack had not heard about his old
comrade Levison's newfound friendship with Martin Luther King, the Kennedy
and Johnson Administrations would most likely have embraced both King and
the entire southern black freedom struggle far more warmly than they did".
[David Garrow]

Back to me -- Hunterbear:

I was actively involved in the Southern Civil Rights Movement from the
Summer of 1961 into the Summer of 1967.  My basic bio in this context [and
to some extent beyond] can be quickly found at the website of Civil Rights
Movement Veterans

To be blunt about it, I do not see  Stanley Levison [who left CPUSA in '56
or so] as being that significant a factor at all in the Kennedy's oft-fickle
affair with the Civil Rights Movement. I have never seen John nor Robert
Kennedy as being natural friends of the Civil Rights Movement -- any more
than they were of the Labor Movement.  With those dimensions of civil rights
and labor that they were able to influence to the point of control, they
were relatively OK -- in comparison, say, to the gray and bleak years of the
Eisenhower administration and its AG, Herbert Brownell and other

But, if the Kennedys could not control a Movement, they actively worked to
subvert it.

On matters of Left radicalism, Communist Party USA or otherwise, the
Kennedys were as much witch-hunting redbaiters as the predecessor
administrations of Eisenhower and Truman.

For example, the Kennedys continued the vicious Subversive Activities
Control Board attacks on various Left organizations -- and very much so
against International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers which was  the
recipient of the most relentless Federal witch-hunting attacks against any
union since the Wilson campaign involving the I.W.W. in the World War I and
Red Scare epoch.  As I've noted in many earlier posts, Mine-Mill [always
consistently attacked as well by "goons, ginks and company finks" ]
ultimately defeated every single Federal legal attack.  The SACB proceeding
against Mine-Mill was effectively killed by the US Court of Appeals in late
1965.  It's well to remember that the Kennedys pursued Jimmy Hoffa and the
Teamsters with the passion of Ahab -- and that the Landrum-Griffin Act, an
offspring of Taft-Hartley, is known to many of us as the
Kennedy-Landrum-Griffin Act.

As I've pointed out in previous posts, the CPUSA -- which was undergoing
extraordinary vicious Federal witch-hunting persecution beginning in the
latter 1940s and continuing onward through most of the '60s and which had
gone through tremendously wrenching factionalism in 1956-57 -- had no Dixie
involvement in any directly meaningful sense in the Southern Civil Rights
Movement. Its media, along with that of several other radical organizations,
was quite helpful. Its people often played key support roles in the North,
East, and West Coast areas but were not in any significant fashion at all
involved -- as Communists -- in the Movement in the South itself. The
earlier achievements of CPUSA in the South of the late 1920s and into and
through the '30s and much of the '40s, with some involvements in the early
'50s, are indisputable and obviously quite positive.  But CPUSA, through no
fault of its own, was not a  factor of reality in the Southern Movement --
in Dixie --  from the late '50s deep into the '60s.

In the Civil Rights Movement context, the Kennedys got on well -- very well
indeed -- with the essentially then conservative national leadership of the
NAACP. They were certainly wary of CORE's inherent radicalism and grassroots
independence.  I knew CORE's long-time director, Jim Farmer, to some
extent -- along with many of its officials and grassroots leaders.  Floyd
McKissick, its national chair and later its director, was a very close
friend and colleague  over many, many years.

Obviously, the Kennedys were deeply concerned -- and surreptitiously
involved as much as they could -- in the affairs of the also inherently
radical and essentially independent SCLC.

The Kennedys were very much worried about the very independent SNCC -- the
most pervasively radical of the larger civil rights movements.  While the
Kennedys had some rapport with a few SNCCers, it had none at all with
most -- who were deeply and frankly and justifiably very suspicious of the
Administration.  The smaller, quite Left Southern Conference Educational
Fund [SCEF] -- for which I was Field Organizer during a rich and substantial
period -- was viewed with extreme wariness and hostility by the Kennedy and
Johnson administration.

My own FBI files -- those which I've been able to recover via FOIA -- are
about 3,000 pages and cover the period from the latter 1950s to 1979.  I was
listed on Section A of the Reserve Index, on the Security Index, and on the
Rabble Rouser Index.  Much of this was during the Kennedy administration. [I
have several typical pages in various places on my large website ]

Here are  just a few representative civil rights items from the Kennedy

The first Federal judge appointed by JFK was Harold Cox of Mississippi --
close friend of the utterly venal and vicious U.S. Senator Jim Eastland
[chair of the Judiciary Committee and active leader of the Senate Internal
Security Subcommittee.]  Judge Cox, from his Federal bench as he had all of
his life, often compared Blacks to "chimpanzees."  [I was involved in
several proceedings in the Cox Federal court -- and fortunately I had Bill
Kunstler as my faithful attorney.]

The Kennedys levied a vicious Federal "criminal case" attack on civil rights
workers at Americus, Georgia -- in what Bill Kunstler rightly called "a bone
thrown to the segregationists."

Both JFK and RFK, with an eye on the 1964 election period, did their best to
reach a "political solution" with Mississippi Governor Ross R. Barnett
during the Ole Miss desegregation crisis in the summer and fall of 1962.  In
playing patty-cake with the fanatically racist governor -- himself a key
member of the white Citizens Councils -- the Kennedys allowed the
Mississippi and environs racist pot to boil to an extremely dangerous point
which erupted in massive and armed segregationist demonstrations at Jackson
[which I and my wife and baby daughter saw first-hand right on the scene
itself] and then into a bloody and destructive white riot at the university
town of Oxford.  The Kennedys finally acted but they acted very dangerously
late in the game.

The Kennedys, inherently conservative, did their best to slow militant
freedom movements and to divert those away from large-scale nonviolent
grassroots demonstrations [which they saw as volatile and politically
dangerous to themselves.] One example was at Danville, Virginia.  And a
classic example would be the massive Jackson [Mississippi] Movement which
climaxed in May and June, 1963.  I was Advisor to the Jackson Youth Council
of NAACP  which ignited this Movement initially as a very successful boycott
in late '62.  With help from soon-to-be-martyred NAACP Field Secretary
Medgar Evers and activist adults such as Mrs Doris Allison, President of the
Jackson Adult NAACP [with whom I'm in close touch to this present moment],
we were able to broaden the boycott movement into a massive nonviolent
grassroots upheaval.

>From the beginning, the national leadership of NAACP was wary of our direct
action approach and, when the Movement became huge, did its best -- with the
active assistance of the Kennedy administration -- to retard and to kill it.
The result was that we had to fight not only the racist legions of
Mississippi and their supporters from across the Deep South, but also a
conservative faction within our Movement itself.   I was Chair of the
Strategy Committee of the Jackson Movement, and I've covered this in great
detail in my own book, Jackson Mississippi: An American Chronicle of
Struggle and Schism [1979 and the somewhat expanded Krieger edition, 1987.]
In the end, in this most massive grassroots upheaval in the whole history of
Mississippi, we cracked Jackson and shook Mississippi's foundations to the
core -- and sent deep, deep tremors across the rest of the South.

As SCEF Field Organizer, I worked a broad area across the intransigent
South.  Early in 1964, I began to organize a very large-scale multi-county
movement in the extremely racist and hard-core Northeastern North Carolina
Blackbelt.  This often violent region was poverty-stricken, heavily
Klan-infested,  rigidly segregated, and pervasively anti-union. In this
broadly repressive context, Black and Indian voter registration was
extremely minimal -- although Blacks were a heavy majority population-wise
in all of these counties.  We started in Halifax County, where we organized
a large-scale voter registration effort [Blacks and some Indians] -- and we
were met by stalling and chicanery by voter registrars and much official and
vigilante violence and large-scale economic reprisals.

 I directly asked the Kennedy Justice Department to intervene and it did not
even acknowledge my request.  We went into Federal court in Raleigh [Bill
Kunstler and Morton Stavis and other top civil rights lawyers] and won, in
May, 1964, a sweeping Federal voting rights injunction -- a year before the
Voting Rights Act: Alston v. Butts.  As a result, and with the continuing
perseverance of our grassroots people, we were able to register several
thousand Black [and some Indian] voters.  The US Attorney for North
Carolina, present as an observer in one of the  extremely tense and heavily
crowded Federal court sessions concerning the case, told Bill Kunstler and
myself, "We [Justice Department] should have brought this action ourselves."
Our North Carolina Blackbelt Movement was eminently successful over the
whole vast area [and I have much regarding it on our website  ]

The Kennedys and the Johnson people provided no significant protection for
civil rights workers in the South during this entire period.  Essentially,
we were on our own.  However, as I've pointed out, a great many of us were
very much on-going targets of the FBI which frequently worked closely with
Southern "lawmen."

In the late Fall, 1979, I was privileged to be one of the speakers at the
very large civil rights retrospective conference -- with a focus also on
contemporary and futuristic dimensions -- at Jackson.  It was sponsored by
both Tougaloo and Millsaps colleges.  I spoke in the large Christian Center
at historically white but long desegregated Millsaps College -- into whose
all-white context Jackson police and dogs had been called in the Spring of
'63 when I took my Tougaloo students [Black] to hear the Three Penny Opera.
[We had earlier been successful in politely "crashing" the Center and
listening to Miss Eudora Welty -- who was visibly supportive of us and our
civil rights thrust -- at the Southern Literary Festival gathering. But were
forced out of the Opera!]

 In any event, in the concluding section of my '79 speech, focused mainly on
the great Jackson Movement, I denounced "the subversion by the corporate
liberals of New York and the self-styled "pragmatism" of those splendid
scoundrels residing in Camelot on the Potomac."  This drew a very noisy
standing ovation from every one of the more than a thousand persons present.

Miss Ella J. Baker [1903-1986], discussed in the Garrow Atlantic article,
was a  dear friend of mine and close colleague from the very early '60s
onward.  We kept in touch all the way through until her death.  Present at
the '79 conference, though in failing health, Ella certainly approved of my
comments on the Kennedys and said many of the same things herself.
Together, on a SCEF-sponsored  several weeks speaking tour in late '63
building support for the Civil Rights Bill, Ella Baker and I had strongly
made the point regarding the Kennedys' serious civil rights limitations  at
a large press club gathering at Tucson only a very few days after JFK's
murder. While some media people understood our position, many others became
immediately hostile.  We weren't surprised at either reaction.

The Kennedys and their frequent opportunism and obvious Machiavellianism
epitomized the cautious -- and oft-dangerous "liberalism" -- of the
Democratic Party. That situation obviously continues today.

 In the final analysis,  the challenge is always to build strong and
militant and democratic grassroots movements which vigorously and
effectively reflect the hopes and the aspirations of the "people of the
fewest alternatives."  These movements have to keep one eye on the immediate
needs of the here-and-now -- but always, always, on the radical New World
Over the Mountains Yonder. We cannot run away from the Winds of Challenge
and Change.  We have to take History and ride with it.  Always ahead, always
toward the Sun.

Fraternally/In Solidarity - Hunter Gray [Hunterbear] [formerly John R
Salter, Jr]

The Link to the Garrow Atlantic Monthly article:

Hunter Gray  [Hunterbear] (strawberry socialism)
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