[Marxism] JFK and the civil rights movement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 2 14:47:33 MDT 2006

Washington Post, Sunday, July 2, 2006; BW02
A new book argues that JFK sat on the sidelines in the fight for civil rights.

By Jonathan Yardley

John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality
By Nick Bryant
Basic. 545 pp. $29.95

The legend of John Fitzgerald Kennedy has risen and fallen over the years, 
in part due to constant reinterpretation of the known facts about his 
thousand-day presidency by historians and others, and in part due to the 
political mood of any given moment. One aspect of that legend, though, has 
remained remarkably consistent over the years: that at the hour of his 
assassination in November 1963 he was widely admired and loved, especially 
by Democratic liberals.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Cuban missile crisis was by 
then a year in the past, and the glow it had imparted to Kennedy's 
reputation had faded. Though the international situation was generally calm 
and stable -- the long-term consequences of the American "advisers" Kennedy 
had sent to Vietnam were then largely invisible -- the domestic scene was 
troubled, especially with regard to civil rights. Black Americans were 
growing ever more restive. White Americans were still sympathetic to their 
cause, at least outside the South, but hints of the backlash to come were 
evident, especially in the rise of Barry Goldwater and the Republican right.

In this atmosphere of deepening crisis, Kennedy had done . . . not much. In 
June 1963, angered by "threats and defiant statements" by Gov. George 
Wallace over desegregation of the University of Alabama, Kennedy gave a 
powerful television address in which he called civil rights "a moral issue 
. . . as old as the scriptures and . . . as clear as the American 
Constitution" and then proposed significant federal civil rights 
legislation affecting public accommodations and related matters. But 
Congress had shown little interest in acting on the bill, and Kennedy had 
shown little interest in pressing it to do so. His focus was on the 1964 
election. He wanted (and expected) a clear victory, and he did not want to 
give undue offense to those Southern voters who had, arguably, given him 
his narrow victory in 1960, a cliffhanger that still haunted him three 
years later.

So in the fall of 1963, a great many people who had strongly supported 
Kennedy in 1960 were angry with him. They felt that he had given little 
more than lip service to the great political, social and moral issue of the 
day, that he was at best ineffective in his dealings with a balky Congress 
still under the thumb of a bigoted Southern minority, and that there was 
too little substance behind that handsome, photogenic exterior. At the 
instant of his assassination, all that changed and was quickly forgotten, 
but it is a historical truth that needs to be brought back to light.

This is one of the many things that Nick Bryant, a BBC correspondent, does 
in The Bystander , an exhaustive (and, yes, exhausting) examination of 
Kennedy's record on civil rights from his first race for Congress in 1948 
to his death 15 years later. It is a complicated story with as many ups and 
downs as Kennedy's reputation, but overall it does him little credit. The 
subject of African American rights produced "a bewildering range of 
possibilities" in him: "At times, he was capable of genuine acts of 
compassion and thoughtfulness. On other occasions, he was cold, 
disparaging, and notoriously unresponsive -- and never more so than when 
blacks criticized the inadequacy of his policies. Even at moments of great 
crisis, he could display a numbing indifference to violence and bloodshed." 
He "tended to be cold and calculating when organized civil rights 
protesters tried to pressure him into taking a political stand. He was much 
more sympathetic to individuals who had suffered directly from the violent 
outrages of segregation."

Now, more than four decades later, it is easy to forget just how violent 
those outrages could be. It was during Kennedy's presidency that James 
Meredith's attempt to enroll in the University of Mississippi met with mob 
violence abetted by state and local law-enforcement officers; that Bull 
Connor's cops turned high-powered fire hoses on black protesters (many of 
them children) in Birmingham; that four schoolgirls were killed when the 
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in that same city was bombed. Yet it was 
all too characteristic that after this last outrage, Kennedy said nothing 
-- nothing -- in public. This was three months after Kennedy had called 
civil rights "a moral issue," yet about the deaths of those four girls in 
what was transparently an attack motivated solely by bigotry, he had 
nothing to say.

This, Bryant argues, is further evidence that Kennedy "still did not fully 
comprehend what blacks were up against in pockets of fierce segregationist 
resistance, like Birmingham." Doubtless this is true, and doubtless it 
reflects certain obvious realities: the isolating effect of the wealth and 
privilege Kennedy had enjoyed all his life and the additional isolating 
effect of the Oval Office. The only black American with whom Kennedy spent 
much time was George Thomas; they had a mutually friendly relationship, but 
Thomas's "job each morning was to lay out the president's clothes." Beyond 
that, he simply wasn't very interested in domestic issues except as they 
affected his political standing; he believed that the first job of the 
president was foreign affairs, and during his term many things happened -- 
the Berlin Wall, the missile crisis, Vietnam -- that obviously confirmed 
him in that belief.

It is also true, as Bryant emphasizes, that "temperamentally and 
ideologically, Kennedy was a gradualist." He did not have an ounce of the 
zealot in him. Even with regard to the Cold War, about which he had strong 
feelings, he was clinical and detached. Indeed, the effect of American 
racism on the Cold War mattered more to him than its effect on America and 
its black citizens; he knew that instances of bigotry and segregation gave 
the Soviet Union a powerful propaganda weapon against the United States, 
and he wanted to neutralize it as much as possible.

He was essentially passive on the moral issues raised by segregation and 
manipulative on the political ones, yet his record as president was far 
from bleak. He and members of his administration did many things that had 
powerful symbolic effect, from appointing a number of blacks to visible 
positions to boycotting the Metropolitan Club, "where the only blacks 
allowed into the dining room were stewards with napkins folded over their 
arms," to staging festivities at the White House where blacks were 
prominent as guests and performers. This may seem tame today, but in the 
early 1960s it bordered on the revolutionary, and "the very gestures that 
black leaders and liberals derided as token were, in fact, highly effective 
in terms of sustaining widespread black support."

Yet it was also Kennedy who appointed several outright segregationists to 
the federal bench -- most notoriously William Harold Cox, a buddy of 
Mississippi's racist senator James O. Eastland -- and who repeatedly 
equivocated as the sit-ins spread and as black demands became more 
insistent. As a young congressman, he had "battled hard for new civil 
rights legislation and fought tenaciously on behalf of black residents in 
the District of Columbia," but once he entered the White House in 1961, he 
made a "decision to back away from civil rights." He stuck with that 
decision until May 1963, when events in the South convinced him "that 
further equivocation could engender further violence." Yet only four months 
later, he kept his silence on Birmingham.

Bryant understands that Kennedy's instincts were decent but that he was 
ruled by innate caution and a keen sense of political realities, at least 
as he understood them. Bryant also believes that the nation was far more 
ready for vigorous action on civil rights and that by failing to seize the 
moment, Kennedy may have contributed, however unwittingly, to white 
resentment and resistance. Bryant, who studied American history and 
politics at Cambridge and Oxford, is that genuine rarity: a Brit who 
actually understands the United States. The Bystander does retrace too much 
familiar ground in too great detail, but it is solid, knowledgeable and 
perceptive. ?

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj at washpost.com.

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