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

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