Why Mandela Forgave the Butchers

Mandela with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Mandela with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Back in the early 1960s, black South African lawyer and activist Oliver Tambo was asked to describe a colleague who had just gone to prison for resisting white minority rule in that country. He replied that this man is “passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage.” Tambo was talking about his law-firm partner, Nelson Mandela—remembered today for his grace, humor, and empathy, as well as his remarkable courage and leadership.

What happened to Mandela in prison, what changed him so radically, is still a bit of mystery in my mind. He was often asked about a slice of this question—how he let go of the anger he felt specifically toward whites—and his responses were usually of a fairly standard therapeutic variety. Bill Clinton, in an interview aired last night by CBS Evening Newsrelated one such exchange with Mandela.

I said, “Now, Mandela, you’re a great man but you’re a wily politician. It was good politics to put your jailers in your inauguration and put the heads of the parties that imprisoned you in your government. But tell me the truth, when you were walking to freedom the last time, didn’t you hate ‘em?” He said, “Yes. Briefly I did. I hated them and I was afraid. I hadn’t been free in so long. And then I realized if I still hated them after I left, they would still have me. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go.” He said, “That’s what you have to do. That’s what we all have to do. We have to let it go.” I mean, that’s the kind of thing he would say to me just in ordinary conversation.

“They would still have me.” How true. But does this explain the difference between the petulant man sized up by Oliver Tambo, circa 1963, and the Nelson Mandela we came to know and revere? Former Time managing editor Richard Stengel, author of Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage, has offered some further insight into Mandela’s personal transformation during his 27 years locked up in a tiny cell. Asked in an interview if prison was one of Mandela’s great teachers, he said:

Yes. Because prison changed that young man, and it burned away a lot of the extraneous parts of his character. And again, part of it was through his own self-analysis, but part of it is through this imposed control that prison has on you. I mean, the only thing you could control when you were in prison for all those years was yourself.

I mean, I remember when I first went to his cell in Robben Island. And I walked in, I walked—nearly walked in, but I gasped when I saw it, because—I mean, Nelson Mandela, as you know, is a big man. He’s 6’2″ inches tall, he has big hands and a big head. And he is larger than life in a literally and figurative way.

And this prison cell—I mean, he couldn’t even lie down and stretch out his legs. I mean, it could barely contain him. But what he learned and what he taught himself was how to contain himself, how to practice the self control that he actually didn’t have before he went into prison.

I don’t know if even this explains how someone becomes a strikingly different human being, although prison has been known to bring about extraordinary changes in people. What’s clear is that Mandela left prison with forgiveness in his heart—but there’s no getting around the politics.

Mandela’s Politics of Forgiveness

Mandela understood the difference between personal forgiveness and forgiveness in politics. In one of many symbolic and deeply personal gestures, he made his white jailer an honored guest at his presidential inauguration in 1994. But he knew that something else was needed in dealing with the larger ranks of white South Africans (often in the police and military) who had committed terrible human-rights violations. Mandela did not, as is widely believed, simply let those people go free, unconditionally. They had to do something in return for political amnesty. And that something was enshrined in the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he set up with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chairman.

Human-rights abusers had to go before this tribunal, whose proceedings were televised, and tell the whole truth about their atrocities. They had to reveal, in some cases literally, where the bodies were buried, and they did so often in grisly detail. Or else, they faced criminal prosecution.

This is not garden-variety forgiveness. It is not a single, unconditional act of letting bygones be bygones. Political forgiveness is different. It is a process, usually a negotiated one. It calls for truth and acknowledgment, if not necessarily repentance, and there are trade-offs and conditions. Without the conditionality, forgiveness loses a vital link to justice and restitution. It ceases to have a reason for being in politics.

Mandela knew this. At the same time, he realized that justice alone (investigations and prosecutions) was not the answer. For one thing, there might not have been a negotiated settlement with the apartheid regime, without clear provisions for amnesty. In other words, there might have been the bloodbath between white and black South Africans that many had predicted.

Beyond that, Mandela had other pragmatic considerations that didn’t arise simply from the goodness of his heart. His clear-eyed view was that the stability of the New South Africa depended on a well-calibrated process of reconciliation. He went down this road at least partly because there was no real alternative. As a politician as much as a person, Nelson Mandela knew there was no future without forgiveness.

Posted today also at Tikkun Daily. …read more

JFK Understood

JFK and MLKDuring this past week of JFK commemorations, a number of commentators have pointed out that Kennedy’s thinking on civil rights “evolved” during his three years in office. That’s always a pretty safe way to describe a gradual change in policy, which clearly did happen in the Kennedy administration. But what this explanation misses is that Kennedy, from the start, understood what African Americans were saying about their subjugation in the Deep South—unlike Eisenhower before him. At the same time, Kennedy was also able to compartmentalize the challenge of civil rights, as he was known to do with issues in his private life.

The two-part PBS documentary marking the 50th anniversary of his assassination offered a snapshot of this civil-rights compartmentalization. Kennedy went before Congress in May 1961, shortly after the Freedom Riders boarded their integrated buses, and he said not a word about them and their near-slaughter at the hands of a segregationist mob in Alabama. In that special joint session of Congress, he turned attention to what he saw, at that early moment, as the transcendent cause of his time: the liberal Cold War.

Still, for a white man of power, Kennedy had a rare grasp of African American self-understanding. It was an existential understanding—especially of those black leaders who had run out of patience with puny steps toward civil rights. Kennedy talked about these questions repeatedly with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and even when he was being contrary with King—usually for political or strategic effect—he knew better.

During a June 1963 meeting at the White House, Kennedy was advancing the argument that the civil rights movement should refrain from street protests while the administration negotiated with Congress on a civil rights bill. King was there with four other civil rights leaders; also present were RFK, Lyndon Johnson, and labor chief Walter Reuther.

Kennedy told King—according to a paraphrase by King biographer Stephen B. Oates—that he “understood only too well why the Negro’s patience was at an end.” But the president warned that more high-profile demonstrations would give some wavering members of Congress an excuse to say (in Kennedy’s words, quoted by Oates in Let the Trumpet Sound): “Yes, I’m for the bill, but I’m damned if I will vote for it at the point of a gun.”

Kennedy was arguing specifically against plans for a March on Washington (which materialized two months later). King replied, “It may seem ill-timed. Frankly, I have never engaged in any direct action movement which did not seem ill-timed.” Then King added, invoking the successful demonstrations that spring in Birmingham, Alabama: “Some people thought Birmingham ill-timed.”

At that moment, Kennedy interjected, no doubt with a smile—“Including the attorney general,” RFK. Aside from seizing an opportunity to tease his little brother in the room, John F. Kennedy was acknowledging in his witty way that, yes, “the Negroes” could not wait any longer for their God-given human rights. JFK understood. …read more

Was the March on Washington Really Part of a Violent Struggle?

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

There have been many threads of coverage and commentary surrounding the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary, and one of them is naturally about nonviolence: The nation’s leadership had assumed that the march would turn violent, but August 28, 1963, turned out to be one of the most notably peaceful days in the history of the District of Columbia.

Still, the nonviolent character of the movement that the march defined is being questioned. There has been some interesting historical revisionism surrounding Rosa Parks and other civil rights figures who, unlike Martin Luther King, were less-than devoted to nonviolence as an abiding moral principle. (For my take on that, go here.) And now comes a book that, among other provocations, makes the case that King’s struggle was arguably a violent one.

The author is Benjamin Ginsberg, and his forthcoming title is The Value of Violence (Prometheus Books). This month, the Johns Hopkins University political science professor summarized his thesis in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Ginsberg declares in the article that the tactics used by proponents of nonviolence (he names King and Gandhi) “were far from nonviolent.” How so? Because they were “designed to provoke violent responses” from local authorities and thus elicit sympathy from the public.

He cites the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama (though a much better example would be the Birmingham crusade in the spring of ’63, which was clearly aimed at getting Bull Connor to respond with brutal force). He also points out that the Selma action led to the Voting Rights Act passed five months later and—more significantly in his mind—to an “army” of federal law-enforcement officials in the South. These authorities “wielded the power to suppress white resistance to the registration of black voters.”

Ginsberg contends that “in essence,” the Selma protest succeeded because “the protesters’ allies”—meaning the feds—“had an even greater capacity for violence than their foes.” (A bold assertion, considering the foes included men who had a capacity for lynching.)

It’s not a new idea. During the movement’s early years, the representatives of respectable opinion, including those in the Kennedy administration, argued similarly. They worried that the civil rights campaigners were fomenting violence in reaction to their confrontational brand of nonviolence. For his part, King explained in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail that those who engage in such resistance merely “bring to the surface” and shine a light on the violence inherent in an unjust system. It’s a long stretch to call this violence.

The confusion was understandable at the time. Those were the days before people had any real grasp of nonviolence as a strategy of social change. Circa 1963, you were either a pure pacifist (passive, in other words) or someone who preferred the violent approach. There was no separate category for active nonviolent resistance, as there has been since not only the civil rights victories but also other great nonviolent struggles, notably the ones that toppled Communism in Eastern Europe.

Now there is such a well-known category, although not quite in Ginsberg’s thinking. Police dogs, peaceful (though provocative) protests—they’re all the same. They’re all part of the scheme of political violence, as he sees it.

I should quickly add that Ginsberg, who chairs the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at Johns Hopkins, isn’t critical of the historic civil rights movement, on that score. He has a broader agenda—to debunk the now-familiar view in some quarters that violence is “not the answer” to our problems. It is very often the answer, he asserts. “Violence and the threat of violence are the most potent forces in political life,” he writes contrarily, in a challenging thesis that bears revisiting when the book comes out. …read more

The Moral Minimum: Part 2

Filed under the heading of everybody-and-his-aunt-wants-a-higher-minimum-wage:

Madeline Janis, on "Moyers & Company"

Madeline Janis, on “Moyers & Company”

And we kept seeing this, something that we thought was wrong. We had to be in an Alice in Wonderland story or something. We would see a “Romney for President” sign and a pro-Tea Party for Congress and “Yes on the Living Wage,” all on the same lawn. And that’s because the idea of a living wage for people and their neighbors to be able to spend money in local stores resonated.

Madeline Janis made this comment in a Bill Moyers PBS interview earlier this month. She led a campaign in Long Beach, California, to enact a startling $13-an-hour minimum wage—specifically for hotel workers in that city. That’s almost six dollars above the $7.25 per hour federal minimum. The measure appeared on the ballot last November and passed easily with 63 percent of the vote.

In the interview, Janis’s main point was that small business owners rallied behind the voter referendum. Their reasoning was, “We want more customers. We want these hotel workers to be able to buy our clothes and our food,” as she related.

But surely, this is an anomaly. Or is it? Small business owners are typically cast as dogged opponents of the minimum wage. Is it possible that most are actually in favor of jacking up the minimum?

It’s more than possible.

Late last month, the organization Small Business Majority released the results of a national poll on raising the minimum wage. Small business owners were asked whether they agree or disagree with the following statement:

Increasing the minimum wage will help the economy because the people with the lowest incomes are the most likely to spend any pay increases buying necessities they could not afford before, which will boost sales at businesses. This will increase the customer demand that businesses need to retain or hire more employees.

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of those surveyed agreed with this boilerplate case for a more generous minimum wage. What’s more, 67 percent of these business owners agreed with the idea of taking a higher minimum (a dollar figure wasn’t specified) and “adjusting it yearly to keep pace with inflation.”

You might ask: Was the polling sample skewed toward bleeding-heart-liberals, the kind who set up shop in hip districts of Boston and southern California? It doesn’t seem that way. Forty-six percent of the respondents identified themselves as Republican, 35 percent as Democrat, and 11 percent as independent.

People like me often talk about the need to nurture a moral consensus on important questions facing our society. But I find it hard to talk that way, when it comes to the minimum wage. And that’s because we already have a moral consensus on that issue. (See my previous post, on public opinion.)

Apparently, most Americans agree pretty much with Martin Luther King: “There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American [worker] … ” But for some reason, our political system today is unable to process this conviction. The minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, remains lower than it was when King fell to the assassin’s bullet in 1968. Special interests are trumping national consensus.

It’s clear that public sentiment in favor of a higher minimum wage is powerful. The problem is that the American people aren’t.

TheoPol will skip the week of Memorial Day and resume the following week. …read more

Inertness, U.S.A.

Posted earlier today at Tikkun Daily.

Part of what fascinates me about the civil rights struggles of the 1960s is that, through these upheavals, America changed. Compare that to today’s inertness: we can barely budge on gun control and the minimum wage (for examples), despite overwhelming support among Americans for change on those fronts.

Yes, there are real questions about how much progress towards racial justice we’ve made. What’s clear is that a little over a year after the May 1963 “children’s crusade“ in Birmingham, Alabama, we had the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And five months after the Selma to Montgomery march came the Voting Rights Act of ‘65. Which particular piece of landmark legislation has followed the Occupy Wall Street protests?

More to the point: How did change happen, half a century ago?

That question often comes up—and is answered all too readily. Many are quick to credit the vision, courage and sacrifice personified by the civil rights heroes. Others just as quickly recite with Bob Dylan that the times they were a-changin’. (Consider the reforms that washed over the Catholic Church during those years at the Second Vatican Council, which bookended Birmingham and the Civil Rights Act from 1962 to 1965.) Many still would single out the strategy of nonviolent confrontation, the purpose of which was to create an air of crisis.

One could also be impressed by the accidents of that history, arguably including the career of Martin Luther King. Earlier this year, I wrote about how, in 1954, the young MLK had a dream—to become a tweedy tenured theology professor. A year later, Rosa Parks sat on the bus and catapulted the reluctant neophyte pastor into the leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was no turning back.

Add to this the accidental presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. One could argue we wouldn’t have had a Civil Rights Act in 1964 or a Voting Rights Act in 1965, without LBJ in the White House. Or those landmarks might not have been enacted until later. But it’s also true that King, Parks, and other storied figures, with their moral vision and mass movement politics, expanded the realm of the possible. That enabled Johnson to work his legislative magic.

Mysteries of Social Change

In their 2010 book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath made the simple observation: “For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.” Nonviolent direct action was one clear innovation. As King explained in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, those who engage in such resistance are not “the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” in an unjust system. In Birmingham, the explicit strategy was to bring the brutality of segregation into the open by provoking it.

In addition, during the early 1960s King and other spiritual radicals—notably his friend, Abraham Joshua Heschel—resurrected the tradition of prophetic discourse. That is, the style of denouncing social evils and chastising the powers that be, while envisioning a radically better future, as King did in his “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963. Such a religious challenge to the status quo was a distant cry from the soothing spiritual happy talk of the 1950s. King and company issued their jeremiads, but they also usually managed to join prophecy with civility, social struggle with social friendship.

Those varied elements converged in Birmingham 50 years ago. In early May of 1963, thousands of children as young as six years old strode out of schoolhouses to join in the marching downtown. And, in a bracing display of cognitive dissonance, King declared: “Bomb our homes and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you.”

During the protests, King projected through his megaphone not only resoluteness, but also a longing for what he had limned on other occasions as a “beloved community.” It was a vision of solidarity between whites and blacks, rich and poor. And it was vitalized—with not just love but power, with both confrontation and a spirit of cooperation.

Whether that rare combination of moral and political sensibilities made the civil rights crusade successful is hard to say with certainty. There are too many imponderables. It should be noted too that King, depressed and guilt-ridden at the end of his abbreviated life, began to see himself as a failure, partly due to the unrealized dream of economic justice for all, both blacks and whites.

What we know is that by the end of the Birmingham campaign, there were thousands of freedom-chanting children jamming the city’s prisons. There was the thick air of crisis that King and others had prayed for, and there were the heartfelt pleas for love and reconciliation in the throes of intense agitation. All that provided what every movement for social change seems to need—the element of surprise.

I wouldn’t venture much further in trying to explain the developments of May 1963, any more than I’d pretend to unravel the mysteries of change. Perhaps these are best left as perennial questions. …read more

May 2, 1963

D-Day in Birmingham

D-Day in Birmingham

On this day 50 years ago, African American children began laying their little bodies on the line, in Birmingham, Alabama. Streaming out of schoolhouses by the thousands, they poured into downtown to join in the civil rights demonstrations led by Martin Luther King. My friend Kim Lawton has crafted the best piece of broadcast journalism I’ve seen or heard, on that extraordinary moment in America’s history.

This past weekend she filed the report for PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, and one of the people she tracked down was Freeman Hrabowski III, now president of the University of Maryland in Baltimore. He was 12 years old when he came up against the arrayed forces of Bull Connor. The police chief issued the order to turn fire hoses and unleash German Shepherds on the young, nonviolent protesters.

The water came out with such tremendous pressure and, uh, it’s a very painful experience, if you’ve never been hit by a fire hose, and I thought, whoa. You know, I got knocked down and then we found ourselves crouching together and trying to find something to hold onto. People ran, people hid, people hugged buildings or whatever they could to keep the water hoses from just—just knocking them here and there.

After Lawton further described the scene with the police dogs and billy clubs, Hrabowski continued.

The police looked mean, it was frightening. We were told to keep singing these songs and so I’m singing, [he sings] Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round … keep on a-walk’n, keep on a-talk’n, march’n on to freedom’s land. And amazingly the other kids were singing and the singing elevates when you can imagine hundreds of children singing and you feel a sense of community, a sense of purpose.

And then …

There was Bull Connor, and I was so afraid, and he said, “What do you want little nigra?” And I mustered up the courage and I looked up at him and I said, “Suh,” the southern word for sir, “we want to kneel and pray for our freedom.” That’s all I said. That’s all we wanted to do. And he did pick me up … and he did spit in my face, he really—he was so angry.

For weeks, the protests against Birmingham’s segregated public facilities had been for adults only. Those acts of civil disobedience (marching without permission) had little effect, however. They were petering out by the time of the so-called “children’s crusade.” It was during April of ’63 that King also wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but that literary classic fell on deaf ears at the time, as Robert Westbrook relates in his piece about the 50th anniversary of the letter, in the April 8 Christian Century. (A half-century later, King’s letter has finally received a proper reply from a group of tardy clergymen, as Adelle Banks reported last month in Religion News Service.)

The children’s crusade turned around the Birmingham campaign—and the nation. It prompted John F. Kennedy, a month later, to go on national television and call for civil rights legislation.

In a recent post, I floated a broader question: How did it happen? How did America change so quickly (there’s room for debate about the degree of change), and on the most polarizing issue of the time, race? I’ll get back to that next week. …read more

When Liberals Feared Equality

This piece was posted earlier today at Tikkun Daily.

Late one evening in April 1963, Dick Gregory came crashing through the door of his Chicago apartment – drunk – and was informed by his wife that the president of the United States was looking for him. As Diane McWhorter related in her 2001 book, Carry Me Home, about the drive to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, the comedian returned the phone call to the White House and spoke with John F. Kennedy, who reportedly told him, “Please, don’t go to Birmingham. We’ve got it all solved. Dr. King is wrong, what he’s doing.” Gregory, a celebrity at 30 years old, replied – “Man, I will be there in the morning.”

Kennedy and his aides were hardly the only ones pleading for racial calm in that place, 50 years ago. Birmingham’s liberal white clergy and even its black newspaper had urged Martin Luther King Jr. (who died 45 years ago, on April 4) to jettison plans for a campaign of nonviolent direct action. They feared that an escalation of tactics would only make the segregationists angrier.

It’s not that the city’s men of the cloth were devoted to milder tactics. Christian pastors had looked upon civil rights not as a moral problem, which would rightly claim their attention, but as a political one, which would not; Jewish leaders, opting to sit out the battle of Birmingham, viewed segregation as a “Christian problem” between whites and Negroes, McWhorter notes. The campaign was foundering in early May when King, desperate, resorted to letting schoolchildren join in the civil disobedience (which essentially involved marching without permission).

A month later, Kennedy – who had said publicly that he was “sickened” by televised images of police dogs and fire hoses mowing down children – sent a civil rights bill to Congress. A year after that, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

That struggle for racial justice is often held up as an example of how change is possible. And its stories have helped teach many movements of nonviolent resistance, in countries ranging from the Philippines to Poland to South Africa. But how was change possible at that time?

These days the lack of progress in our politics is a given, and it is usually chalked up to fierce polarization, chiefly between Democrats and Republicans. As today, the national politics of 1963 (certainly on the domestic front) was deeply fractured along ideological lines between liberals and conservatives if not strictly between Democrats and Republicans. Still, change happened – and on the most flammable question, race.

How?

I’ll let that question float for now. And I’ll listen in on conversations this month surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham campaign. …read more

“What the Hell’s the Presidency for?”

On Monday of this week, the police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, formally apologized to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, for what the police did not do in May 1961—protect Lewis and the other young Freedom Riders who arrived at the city’s Greyhound Bus station and were summarily beaten by a white mob. The day before the ceremony (the first time anyone had ever apologized to him for that particular thrashing, the congressman noted), Lewis, Vice President Joe Biden and 5,000 others joined in an annual reenactment of the 50-mile March from Selma, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. On that occasion 48 years ago, state troopers took a less passive approach and brutalized Lewis and others themselves. A few days before the reenactment, President Obama unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks that will stand permanently in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, making her the first African American women to be so honored.

One name that doesn’t figure notably in these various commemorations is that of Lyndon Baines Johnson. But it should. At least that’s my feeling after reading Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power, the latest in his magnificent series of Johnson biographies. The writer makes it clear that Johnson wasn’t just a pragmatic politician who acceded to the prophetic demands for action on civil rights. LBJ made it happen, partly out of a visceral identification with the “dispossessed of the earth,” as Caro puts it.

True, there probably wouldn’t have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964 (not that year, anyway) if Parks had lost her nerve on the bus in Montgomery, in 1955, and given up her seat to the white passenger, or if King hadn’t led his nonviolent warriors into the streets of Birmingham in 1963. And the same goes for the Selma marchers and the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court now seems poised to undo). But it’s also true that civil rights legislation was heading nowhere in the administration of the Brothers Kennedy.

JFK and RFK meant well, once they decided to push a bill of that kind. But they didn’t fully grasp what Johnson saw, which is that powerful southern lawmakers would be able to slam the breaks on civil rights, just as they had blocked other liberal domestic reforms ever since the late 1930s. A new strategy was needed to break open the dams of progressive legislation.

Dixie Democrats, in union with sympathetic Republicans, had perfected the art of legislative hostage taking in Congress. They would stall a critical piece of legislation, such as an appropriations bill, or something else that key lawmakers absolutely wanted, until the progressive measure was withdrawn. That’s how they fought off higher minimum wages, expanded unemployment insurance, greater federal aid to education, and other initiatives beginning in the Roosevelt administration (after the early-to-mid-thirties onslaughts of New Deal legislation).

When the Kennedy administration decided to press for a civil rights bill, in June 1963, they sent it up to Capitol Hill along with other must-pass items. Johnson, as vice president, had warned against doing exactly that. He had told Kennedy and his senior aides that they needed to shepherd the other bills through the process, before trotting out civil rights.

Relating a conversation between Johnson and Kennedy confidant Ted Sorensen, Caro writes:

He tried to explain to Sorensen how the Senate works: that when the time came for the vote on cloture [halting a filibuster], you weren’t going to have some of the votes you were promised, because senators who wanted civil rights also wanted—needed, had to have—dams, contracts, public works projects for their states, and those projects required authorization by the different Senate committees involved, and nine of the sixteen committees (and almost all of the important ones) were chaired by southerners or by allies they could count on.

The vice president was ignored as usual—frozen out of the administration’s legislative efforts, partly due to the machinations of RFK, who detested him. The Kennedy people thought they understood legislative realities better than the man who had been “the Master of the Senate,” as Caro dubs him, and they proceeded to play straight into the hands of southern tacticians, who bottled up the civil rights bill. Because of that, Kennedy did not live to see progress on that front.

The general wisdom is that his assassination is what galvanized the country behind his legislative program. And, as shown in The Passage of Power (covering the years 1958-1964), Johnson did move at breakneck speed to capitalize on that momentum. At the same time, he resisted calls to send civil rights to Congress right away, together with other bills deemed necessary—calls issued by Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights heroes. Johnson waited. He kept his eye on the hostage takers, realizing that the best way to thwart them was to not hand them any hostages. He let other bills (appropriations, foreign aid, etc.) pass first. Then he mounted his attack. That’s how civil rights became law in the summer of 1964.

Don’t Leave out Lyndon

Caro points out that many have questioned the sincerity of Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. The author says those people should pay closer attention to words he let out during a meeting with governors at the White House (days after the Kennedy assassination), about why they should fight inequality and injustice: “So that we can say to the Mexican in California or the Negro in Mississippi or the Oriental on the West Coast or the Johnsons in Johnson City that we are going to treat you all equally and fairly.”

Note the “Johnsons in Johnson City,” Texas, where he grew up. Caro analyzes:

He had lumped them all together—Mexicans, Negroes, Orientals and Johnsons—which meant that, in his own heart at least, he was one of them: one of the poor, one of the scorned, one of the dispossessed of the earth, one of the Johnsons in Johnson City. What was the description he had given on other occasions of the work he had done in his boyhood and young manhood? “Nigger work.” Had he earned a fair wage for it? “I always ordered the egg sandwich, and I always wanted the ham and egg.” Nor was it financial factors alone that accounted for his empathy for the poor, for people of color—for the identification he felt with them. Respect was involved, too—respect denied because of prejudice.

Caro continues, relating what President Johnson said as he further reflected on his experiences as a young man teaching impoverished Mexican American children near San Antonio:

He had “swore then and there that if I ever had the power to help those kids I was going to do it.” And now, he was to say, ‘I’ll let you in on a secret. I have the power.” “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Lyndon Johnson is not known as one of the prophetic personalities of the civil rights era, and shouldn’t be. It was King and others who shaped the vision (in King’s case, of a “beloved community”) and expanded the realm of the possible, which enabled the “Master of the Senate” to work his legislative magic. Still, it’s hard to picture a Civil Rights Act of 1964 or a Voting Rights Act of 1965 without LBJ as well as MLK on history’s stage at that moment. That ought to be recognized more often than it is.

This item was first posted yesterday at Tikkun Daily.

Rosa, We Hardly Knew Ye

Rosa Parks and Jeanne Theoharis, author of the first scholarly biography of the civil rights legend.

Nonviolence as a tool of social change has often been underestimated and misunderstood. The British thought Gandhi was nuts when he predicted they would simply pick up and leave India without the Indians firing a shot. Black militants sneered at Martin Luther King’s program of nonviolent direct action. And many southern whites assumed African Americans were too undisciplined to collectively turn the other cheek. Or they reasoned curiously that King’s approach was actually violent because it provoked violence in response.

During this Black History Month, new questions about nonviolence and the Civil Rights Movement have bubbled up, thanks to an important new book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press), by Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis. Her subject is the presumably quiet, unassuming seamstress who refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger because her feet were tired. But aside from her act of resistance, Parks was not that person, according to Theoharis.

For one thing, Parks often dismissed the fabled narrative about how she remained seated because of her tired feet. “I didn’t move, because I was tired of being pushed around,” she clarified. As Theoharis shows, black radicalism ran deeply in her family, and she came to sympathize with the Black Power movement that challenged King’s ethic of love and nonviolence.

This storied figure of nonviolent struggle always believed in what she called “self protection.” Like most blacks at the time (including King, very early in the movement), Parks and her husband owned guns. But once the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, she knew many whites were wishing it would turn violent. That would give them “an excuse to dramatically crush the protest,” Theoharis relates.

Parks took a both/and approach:

For her, collective power could be found in organized nonviolence, while self-respect, at times, required self-defense: “As far back as I remember, I could never think in terms of accepting physical abuse without some form of retaliation if possible”…. Parks saw nonviolent direct action and self-defense as interlinked, both key to achieving black rights and maintaining black dignity.

Still, she felt that nonviolent resistance during the bus boycott served as a rebuke to white citizens who regarded blacks as too feckless and “emotional” to carry out such a disciplined strategy. “Parks had delighted in the power of it,” her biographer writes.

The ultimate message about nonviolence is mixed, in the book. Both the author’s narrative and Parks’s own words years later (she died in 2005) suggest a historical revision—a sense that nonviolence was, in the end, not so effective. Here’s Parks:

Dr. King was criticized because he tried to bring about change through the nonviolent movement. It didn’t accomplish what it should have because the white establishment would not accept his philosophy of nonviolence and respond to it positively. When the resistance grew, it created a hostility and bitterness among the younger people, who worked with him in the early days, when there was some hope that change could be accomplished through his means.

This sounds just a little odd to me—as though all hope of racial justice and equality was quickly dashed. There certainly was and remains much unfinished work. But in view of the remarkable social change that took place during the King years, you have to wonder: If he wasn’t successful in effecting change, then who was?

From Montgomery to Cairo

In his Times column on the revised Rosa, Charles M. Blow treated her militancy as a stunning revelation. And it might well be, as far as her children’s-book image goes. Echoing Theoharis, he wrote on February 1, “The Rosa Parks in this book is as much Malcolm X as she is Martin Luther King Jr.”

But does this compelling biography demand a larger retelling of the role of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement? Not really.

What it does is throw light on the distinction between nonviolence as an absolute principle and nonviolence as a useful strategy. As his biographers make clear, King knew that African Americans (and people in general) were far more likely to embrace the tactic than the belief system. In King those two perspectives—the practical and the philosophical—merged. More recently they blended also in the witness of other moral and spiritual figures. These included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who convinced his fellow black South Africans that they and their country had “no future without forgiveness,” and Pope John Paul II, who inspired armless resistance in his native Poland and who spoke of war as an “adventure with no return.”

But it’s fair to say that most who have taken to the streets peacefully—in places ranging from the Philippines to Poland to Egypt—have not been true believers in the gospel of pure nonviolence. They’ve merely delighted “in the power of it.” …read more

When MLK was Old

King at Boston University

A new study published in Science magazine invites a fresh take on Bob Dylan’s refrain, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” The study of 19,000 adults found that most people realize how much they’ve changed in the past ten years but seriously underestimate how different they’ll be in the future. People of all ages think they’ll stay pretty much the same—incorrectly, according to the Harvard and University of Virginia researchers. They call it the “end of history illusion.”

That’s to say, we think we’re so much older and wiser, but we’re younger than that now. There’s more growth to experience—different values, preferences, and personality traits to make our own. I don’t know if that’s necessarily comforting. Depends on how much you want to stay “just the way you are” (with apologies to Billy Joel). There were helpful summaries of the study and its methodology in Science Times and the Boston Globe, and at NPR online.

With Martin Luther King Day coming up, it’s worth asking how many of history’s great figures would have predicted how different they’d be, ten years out. I don’t think MLK, sprinting to his doctorate in theology at Boston University in 1953, had a clue.

Absorbed in Hegel, Tillich, Niebuhr, and others, King had what he saw as a clear picture of his future self. It involved standing at the front of a class in social ethics at a seminary or university, preferably a northern institution. As Stephen B. Oates recounted in his 1982 biography of King:

He hadn’t all the answers, by any means. He realized how much more he had to learn. But how he enjoyed intellectual inquiry. He would love to do this for the rest of his life, to become a scholar of personalism [the philosophical school that engaged his mind at B.U.], the Social Gospel, and Hegelian idealism, inspiring young people as his own mentors had inspired him. Yes, that would be a splendid and meaningful way to serve God and humanity.

King—on track to become a tweedy tenured theology professor—was so much older then.

A year later, he accepted what he assumed would be a sleepy temporary pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama. Newly married to Coretta, he took the job at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a relatively affluent congregation, figuring he’d get a little pastoral experience and draw a paycheck while wrapping up his doctoral dissertation.

Coretta wanted to get out of the Deep South as soon as possible. But on December 1, 1955, a 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, and was escorted to the police station. Uproar ensued, and King’s fellow clergy, a fairly timid bunch, drafted the 26-year-old into the leadership of what became the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was no turning back.

Postscript

Last week, the Bible that MLK used in his early ministry made news. It was announced that Barack Obama would take the oath of office with his hand on King’s Bible as well as Lincoln’s. That’ll come at the highpoint of the January 21 inauguration ceremony, which happens to fall on the King holiday.

On the inaugural platform, you won’t have to look far to find a living person whose identity changed in unexpected ways. Just keep an eye out for Barry Obama. …read more