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Moderation and Morality: John F. Kennedy and the Black Revolution

ISSUE:  Winter 1978
John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction. By Carl M. Brauer. Columbia. $14.95.

A is the case with so many of the artifacts of American popular culture, the politician possesses the characteristics of built-in obsolescence and instant disposability. Few political leaders truly stir the popular imagination when they are active; fewer yet are remembered when they are gone save by scholars and aficionados. John F. Kennedy was one of the exceptions. He aroused intense feelings during his lifetime and appears today to be of unusual interest to college students barely old enough to remember him. Anything but a common man, JFK became an object of reverence to millions of ordinary people, their numbers growing in proportion as one moves down the American social class structure.

Myth-makers invariably appropriate such individuals and in the process usually tell us more about themselves—their values, their hopes, their disappointments—than about the subjects of their mythology, In the case of Kennedy, we are all acquainted with the Camelot myth of style, grace, social vision, and national purpose. More recently, we have been subjected to a counter-myth that proclaims Camelot a place of sexual infidelity, dirty tricks, and assassination plots. It is difficult for scholars to avoid entanglement in such dialogues; Carl M. Brauer, a young professor on the history faculty at the University of Virginia, is largely successful in doing so.

Kennedy became a nationally known political figure at about the same time the Supreme Court ruled against “separate but equal” educational facilities. As he laid plans to capture the presidency, he functioned within a national political environment on racial issues that was composed of Southern massive resistance, cautious Northern liberalism, and presidential indifference. As an Irish Catholic he may have vaguely felt a sense of belonging to a group that had suffered from discrimination, but he had encountered little in either his personal life or his political career to make him especially sensitive to such problems. His support of the civil rights movement, while genuine enough, was also limited and cerebral. As an amateur historian in the 1950’s, he was capable of describing Reconstruction as “a black nightmare the South never could forget.” As a politician attempting to build national support, he cultivated both Northern civil rights advocates and Southern segregationists. In the main, he appears to have considered blacks just one of several important interest groups to be juggled within the framework of the Democratic coalition.

One may argue that the structure of the Democratic party in the 1950’s virtually dictated this attitude, and one wishes that the author had undertaken a somewhat fuller exploration of this theme. Major political groupings routinely contain antagonistic elements, but seldom are they as irreconciliable and as equally important to a party’s success as the white South and the Northern black vote in the forties and fifties. The first was the traditional bastion of the Democratic party, a region that, if it held solid, might provide nearly half the electoral votes needed for a presidential victory. The second was growing in strength and militance as a voting bloc in the large Northern swing states. Roosevelt, Truman, and Stevenson all had attempted to accommodate both groups. The logic of party leadership, as much as personal conviction, determined Kennedy’s course.

Brauer reminds us of the intensity of the pressures for accommodation. After President Eisenhower reluctantly sent troops to Little Rock, Ark. to enforce a federal court desegregation order, liberal Democrats tended to focus their criticism upon him rather than upon the Southern Democratic governor whose demagoguery had precipitated the crisis. Stewart Udall, for example, accused the president of practicing “massive retaliation” at home. It became an article of faith among Democratic presidential candidates, Kennedy among them, that troops would not again be sent into a South presumably still traumatized by Reconstruction. Rather the Democrats would practice conciliation; if a federal presence became absolutely necessary, it would come in the form of US marshals, not soldiers. Dispassionate observers at the time realized that such a policy had scant chance of success; Kennedy eventually would learn the lesson at Ole Miss, In the short run, however, the party’s survival instinct overrode reality.

Kennedy won the presidency partly because in dealing with racial issues he was more adept than his opponents at carrying water on both shoulders. During his four-year campaign for the Democratic nomination, he courted both Northern blacks and Southern segregationists. His Senate stance on civil rights was “moderate,” allowing him to sell himself as a working, compromising politician trying to produce real legislation, enabling him at the same time to present a reassuring image to Southerners. As a presidential candidate, he employed his running mate, Lyndon Johnson, to appeal to traditional Southern loyalties. He also won the support of many blacks with an ostentatious expression of concern over the arrest and temporary imprisonment of Martin Luther King, Jr. and with calls for more executive leadership on civil rights issues. “He had reassurred white Southerners that he would not favor a reinstitution of Reconstruction,” Brauer observes, “yet he had promised Negroes a wide range of Presidential action on their behalf.”

However contradictory the Kennedy campaign may have been, it had worked politically. It is not surprising that the new president and his brother, the attorney general, attempted to continue the juggling act. They customarily cleared new federal judges for Southern districts with segregationist senators, refused to support any effort to ban the poll tax by simple legislation rather than by constitutional amendment, and engaged in protracted negotiations with state officials in attempts to find compromise solutions for one racial crisis after another. The president waited almost two years before signing a long-promised executive order barring discrimination in federally assisted housing, and then the order was noticeably limited in its application.

The administration appealed to the black community with methods that some might condemn as “token” but that were nonetheless effective. The president and his associates appointed prominent blacks to important, and visible, offices; undertook an informal offensive against discrimination in Washington social life; strengthened the equal employment opportunity program for the federal service; used federal marshals on occasion to protect civil rights demonstrators; encouraged voter registration projects; enlarged the civil rights activities of the Department of Justice; and extended what Brauer describes as “a new degree of rhetorical support to the civil rights cause.” Black leaders complained that much more was necessary, but Kennedy appears to have become quite popular with their constituencies.

By mid-1963, however, Bull Connor’s fire hoses and police dogs had dealt a shattering blow to moderation. The confrontation between the integrationist movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the segregationist power structure of Birmingham was too stark and too prolonged to permit a politics of waffling. To a much greater extent than the violence of Ole Miss or the “schoolhouse door” charade of George Wallace, it left Americans and their political leaders feeling that they had to make a fundamental choice. Kennedy now came forth with a full-scale civil rights bill, worked hard for its passage, and placed himself at the center of the drive for equality. His moderation had been grounded between two forces: Southern rejectionism and black militance.

The Southern determination to maintain white supremacy made the existence of the Southern Negro difficult to a degree hard to recall after a decade and half of progress. His economic problems were great but appeared even less urgent than the systematic deprivation of his basic rights of citizenship. He routinely faced segregation in every direction, was frequently excluded from fair legal treatment, and usually unable to vote. Brauer illustrates the situation forcefully: “In Mississippi, for example, jury lists were made up from voter lists, but blacks were generally denied the vote. A Negro who was deprived of the franchise could be attacked by a sheriff for trying to register, and the sheriff would be exonerated by an all-white jury which approved every effort to maintain all-white hegemony. In several documented cases precisely this series of frightening events occurred.”

Brauer makes it clear that a broad segment of the Southern white population considered any change unacceptable. Time and again, Southern leaders, including Ross Barnett and George Wallace, had a way of behaving with considerable restraint in private negotiations with the Kennedys; the author reveals that even Senator James Eastland was something of a closet moderate. Yet in public the same politicians engaged in rhetoric that amounted to an incitement to violence. They were not bloodthirsty men; Barnett especially seems to have been appalled by the results of his bellicosity. They were, however, astute political leaders attempting to hang onto power by giving their constituents what they wanted— emotional rejectionist manifestoes.

It is hardly surprising that blacks countered by taking to the streets in protest. Faced with Northern moderation and tokenism as the reformist alternative to Southern rejectionism, their options were few. By selecting non-violent, Christian direct action as their mode of protest, they embarked upon a course that was morally praiseworthy and tactically certain to demonstrate, sooner or later, the fundamental fascism of segregation and the impulses behind it. Martin Luther King proclaimed that individuals had a “moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” but he also admitted that his purpose in Birmingham in 1963 was “to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

President Kennedy’s response to this was not necessarily predetermined. He might have disavowed both sides. King, after all, sought confrontation, and he used thousands of small children as demonstrators, exposing them to possible serious injury. Kennedy, moreover, certainly realized that advocacy of strong civil rights legislation could only hurt him politically. He had abandoned his early moderation, Brauer argues, because he had come to believe that civil rights legislation was a moral imperative, an objective to be pursued, despite the cost, because it was right.

Kennedy still attempted to maintain some ties with the South, and he consistently worked to achieve passable, not ideal, legislation. In the process, he irritated some liberals who were offended by any compromise; but in the minds of most whites on both sides of the issue he had made a decisive choice, and to the vast majority of American blacks he had become a hero. It must remain a moot question whether he would have been capable of shepherding civil rights legislation to a satisfactory passage. Brauer, taking note of the understandings Kennedy had achieved with prominent Republicans, is guardedly optimistic that he could have done so.

In large measure, Kennedy had been forced to act by circumstances. But, Brauer reminds us, it would be fallacious to assume that any president would have reacted as Kennedy did. In fact, he argues, the pro-civil rights side of Kennedy’s moderation did much to make the situation of 1963 possible: “What would have happened had Richard Nixon been elected President? Would he have sent marshals to-Montgomery, would a Voter Education Project have been created, would the Justice Department have dramatically stepped up enforcement under the guidance of someone like Robert Kennedy, would thousands of blacks have demonstrated in Birmingham, and, most important, if they had, would Nixon have responded by proposing and working for enactment of sweeping civil rights legislation?” The entire impetus of the Kennedy presidency was toward the encouragement of change, toward the future, not the past; the new tone it attempted to impart in many areas of American life stimulated the civil rights movement. Thus Kennedy “was significant not only for what he did, but for what he started.”

Brauer’s story is a familiar one, but he tells it in richer detail than it has yet been told, and he tells it very well. Moreover, he displays intellectual balance in the best sense of that phrase. His deeply-felt commitment to the civil rights cause is unmistakable, but he does not indulge in the simple moralizing that is fashionable in the contemporary intellectual world. He understands the historical context of his topic, and he accepts his characters on their terms. The civil rights activists were, quite properly, moral absolutists single-mindedly committed to the pursuit of justice for a long-oppressed people. Kennedy was, also quite properly, a politician seeking to gain and hold office, a president necessarily concerned with a wide range of issues and facing shifting priorities; his role foreclosed an absolute commitment to any cause, Brauer’s understanding of the differences between moral leadership and political leadership and of the ambiguous interplay between the two is perhaps the most impressive feature of this excellent first book.


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