Next Friday will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. Bad as things may seem today, I reflect upon the state of our nation fifty and more years ago.
Negroes were a subculture. When most people though about America – both our citizens ad foreigners – unless they themselves were black that meant white America. Nearly the only place that Negroes were highlighted in US newsreels were as an individual “credit to his race” or in some Harlem hop – and then with a superior and dismissive attitude. People weren’t intending to be insensitive that was just as it was. Most of those I knew in those days did see civil rights as desirable – but gradually. How strange that seems to me today, that a right be considered something to be acquired gradually as though it were a gift. Equality was seen as something to be earned and full integration as a mere dream. Black Americans shared this view, hence Black Power and separatism were to develop in the 70s, for a time threatening Dr King’s vision of a white and a black boy sitting together on the red hills of Georgia. Even well meaning whites thought of full participation in American life as something to be earned by individually pulling themselves up by their boot straps, ignoring the fact that Blacks had little opportunity to have the boots of equal education or opportunity in labor union. They certainly did not think that equality meant living side be side, hence the panicky flight to the suburbs in the nineteen-fifties even by those who were not racist by the terms of the day; for they envisioned their property values plummeting. There was discontent but little support nationwide for the extremes of the Klan or white citizens groups, in part because the same media which had ignored the plight of African Americans hated such obvious racism. They had seen enough of that a few years before in Nazi Germany. Yet all who were short sighted, white and black, were wrong and Dr King and the other true civil rights leaders in large part fulfilled their unbelievable dream. Personally I find it unfortunate that Dr King’s birthday is commemorated as such rather than as a rights day on which we remember all the leaders; Justice Marshall, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Abernathy, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and dozens of others including whites like Mrs. Malcolm Peabody the mother of the then-governor of Massachusetts, the Berragan brothers who were priests, and Viola Liuzzo who was murdered in Alabama. These only occasionally made headlines. Thousands of other local leaders and workers, white and black, never did get into the national newspapers unless they were jailed or killed.
President Eisenhower, whom I revere above any other American of the 20th century was typical and conventional in his thinking; and not just about American Negroes. He supported civil rights but was a gradualist. It was President Truman who had ordered the armed services to be integrated but it didn’t happen until the president was also a five star general. Eisenhower did not like the speed with which Negroes were urging desegregation but he did believe in enforcing the law, as he did in Little Rock where he sent in the national guard to enforce school desegregation.
Ike also failed to see the anti colonialist writing on the wall in Asia. He disdained the Stalinist Mao Zedong in China in favor of supporting the western puppet warlord Chiang Kai-shek. He ignored Ho Chi Minh as a possible partner in South east Asia, instead supporting French colonialism for fear of a communist “domino effect” of peasant revolutionaries across Asia. In this he was like Winston Churchill, a giant who was King Arthur returned in Britain’s darkest hour, but who could not bear to “preside over the dissolution of the British Empire” in Asia and Africa.
It was the Texan, President Johnson who named the Negro civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshal to the Supreme Court. It was he who first acknowledged that Negroes were a full part of “American” society. After the killing of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi he went onto radio and television. He did not mildly say that the federal government would no longer tolerate killing Negroes. Angrily, he said: “WE shall overcome. “That was perhaps the first time that a president had spoken of our African American population not as an “other” in America but as us. Much as I loved JFK and revered Ike I cannot see either of them using the word “We” when speaking of Negroes and American society. Whatever else he may be blamed for, LBJ was the first president to openly, consciously, and forcefully associate himself and the presidency with the nation’s oppressed minority and its poor. His “war on poverty” including the food stamps and Head Start programs improved the lot of Negro-Americans while appearing to be about Appalachian whites, at that time still more politically palatable.
It was not an easy trip. 1968 was the worst year in my lifetime. Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King were murdered. Bobby had seemed to be the only hope for a kinder and gentler future. Now Vietnam was pitting Americans against each other not only on race at home but in the army, which was disproportionately composed of Black draftees. In that country the Viet Cong launched the Tet offensive which seemed in the press at the time to be an American military defeat. There was rioting at the Democratic National convention and the Chicago mayor presided over what came to be known as a police riot against self-important antiwar protestors calling themselves Yippies. Our own troops committed the infamous Mai Lie massacre of Vietnamese civilians including children. Later, our own President Nixon, was to appear sympathetic to the only officer to ever face court marshal for that atrocity and he got off with a wrist slap.
The nation has come a long way and today’s disputes between Americans seem manageable by comparison. We’re only angry with Congress.