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This month in civil rights history

50 years ago, the nation witnessed seven dramatic days in May, as helmeted policemen used dogs and fire hoses against black children chanting freedom songs and hymns in Birmingham, Alabama. More than 3,000 peaceful demonstrators were arrested. The images from those days, including that of Birmingham police chief “Bull” Connor, are indelibly etched in the minds of those of us who saw them, and many of those who have seen them replayed since.

The events of May helped solidify national sentiment in favor of civil rights for blacks. President Kennedy reportedly said at the time that Connor had done as much for the civil rights movement as Abraham Lincoln. That’s a gross exaggeration. But by June 1963, Connor had done more than Kennedy for civil rights.

Indeed, looking back at reports by major northern newspapers of the Birmingham demonstrations (full disclosure — I was looking for material on baseball, not civil rights), I was struck by the criticism leveled at the Kennedy administration for doing so little on behalf of civil rights for blacks. Kennedy had campaigned hard for the black vote, and he scored a coup late in the 1960 campaign when he came to the defense of Martin Luther King, who had been imprisoned in Georgia. Upon his release, King stated:

I understand from very reliable sources that Senator Kennedy served as a great force in making the release possible. I think a great deal of Senator Kennedy, I have met him and I’ve talked with him on three different occasions since the nomination and I think a great deal of him. But I would not, at this point, endorse any candidate because of the non-partisan position that I follow.

Unfortunately, as of May 1963, the Kennedy administration had proposed no significant civil rights legislation. Moreover, it had often failed even to set the right tone on civil rights.

Among the criticisms I came across in reading newspapers from May 1963 were these:

Kennedy appointed Charles Merriweather to head the export-import bank, even though (according to critics) he had ties to the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council. Kennedy made the appointment on the recommendation of former Alabama governor Patterson, a key Kennedy supporter in the state.

The Kennedy administration rejected the recommendation of the Civil Rights Commission that it move to cut federal aid to Mississippi in response to that State’s treatment of black citizens.

Robert Kennedy failed to defend 10 civil rights marchers who were arrested at the Alabama-Mississippi border when they tried to cross state lines to deliver a petition — as was their constitutional right — to the governor of Mississippi.

Later in 1963, the Kennedy administration finally proposed major civil rights legislation, which became the basis for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it’s not unfair to say that, in this effort, Kennedy was leading from behind — the northern response to the events like those that take place in Birmingham showed that the nation was beyond ready to enact sweeping civil rights legislation. All it took was a president willing to take on Southern Democrats.

Kennedy’s delay, and his tepid support for civil rights in general, is difficult to defend. It appears to be based on political calculation — a desire not to ruffle the feathers of Southern Democrats who, to be fair, held disproportionate power in the U.S. Senate and whose constituents would have a say in the upcoming 1964 election.

Kennedy’s approach to civil rights reminds me in some ways of Obama’s approach to gay marriage and immigration reform. Obama was elected with the strong support of gays and Hispanics. Yet well into his administration, he had done nothing much to promote the pet projects of these groups, and was drawing some fire as a result. That began to change in the run-up to the 2012 election.

But Kennedy’s failure to move seems more cynical than Obama’s. For one thing, the injustices to blacks in the early 1960s far exceeded the injustice, if any, to gays and illegal immigrants. For another, opposition to civil rights legislation for blacks in the early 1960s was essentially regional, which is not the case with the issues as to which Obama was slow off the mark.

In any case, it is worth recalling not just that Republicans were instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (a point often made), but also that, for most of his administration, John Kennedy was no good friend of the civil rights movement.

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