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Bad Beginnings to a Big Year
The guests began to line up outside the Southwest Gate of the White House in the early evening of February 12, 1963. The temperature, barely above zero all day, was dropping fast. The queue, eleven hundred invitees long, moved slowly; women shivered in their cocktail dresses, men popped their suit collars. They had come from all corners of the country—Atlanta, Chicago, Texas—but few grumbled at the inconvenience. They were about to be received by President and Mrs. Kennedy themselves before proceeding to a lavish reception in the East Wing.
The event, an hour-long reception to mark Lincoln's birthday during the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, had brought together a nearly comprehensive roster of the nation's black leadership: college presidents, ministers, and civil rights leaders rubbed elbows with government officials and black entertainers. Howard University president James Nabrit was there; so was Sammy Davis Jr. The poet Langston Hughes filed in, as did NAACP president Roy Wilkins.
Well-stocked bars and an extensive buffet—shrimp creole, curried chicken, roast turkey, tongue—kept the guests occupied while they waited to have their photographs taken with the president. Others danced to the sounds of the Marine Corps band. "It would be impossible for any reporter to name all the 'big shots' who were there," wrote an unnamed "special correspondent" for the New Journal and Guide, a black newspaper from Norfolk, Virginia, "simply because he could not possibly have seen them all in the mass of humanity that flowed in and out of a dozen corridors and ballrooms."
To many observers, the function was a blatant, brilliant attempt by Kennedy's Democrats to co-opt the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the nation's first Republican president and the man whose memory still brought millions of black voters to the GOP. Lincoln's birthday had long been a high point in the party's political calendar, a day when Republican legislators headed home to their states and districts to trumpet their successes and lambast their opponents. This year was no different: at a reception in Binghamton, New York, Senator Jacob Javits attacked the Kennedy administration as "stand pat" and "lacking in impulse and the momentum to innovate." But while reports of similar criticism filtered back into the nation's leading newspapers, they were drowned out by coverage of the White House event. "Pity the poor Republicans!" chided Jet magazine. "Once they had a day for themselves—Lincoln's birthday. Now the Dems have snatched this away."
But the real political theater—darker, cynical, less interested in the morality of civil rights than its political advantages and risks—played out behind the scenes. Kennedy, aware of how racial discrimination in America was hurting the country's global image, had stormed into office promising to make real progress on civil rights, only to drop the issue before even taking office. But by late 1962, Kennedy's inner circle had begun to take seriously the liberals' warning that inaction on civil rights could hurt the president in the 1964 election. The black vote had arguably put him over the top in 1960, and he would need it again in his run for reelection, especially if he were pitted against a liberal Republican like New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. To win over blacks, his advisers said, the president had to do something high profile and substantive to show that he took civil rights seriously.
Not everyone in the White House agreed. Kennedy had a broad agenda—tax cuts, space exploration, urban renewal, education—all of which, they calculated, could be derailed by a divisive campaign for civil rights legislation. So far, Kennedy, while sympathetic on civil rights, seemed to concur. He had offered a milquetoast voting rights bill in mid-1962 that had withered under a Southern filibuster, and he had signed a weak executive order banning discrimination in new homes built with federal subsidies—at the time a small fraction of the nation's housing stock. Kennedy made clear that those measures were as far as he would go for the moment.
The complaints against Kennedy were legion: not only had he failed to send major civil rights legislation to Congress, as he had promised to do in his campaign speeches, but by appointing a series of federal judges with demonstrated racist proclivities (as a sop to Southern Democrats), he had in fact made the situation worse for blacks in the South. W. Harold Cox, whom Kennedy appointed in June 1961 to the Southern District of Mississippi, was a particular embarrassment, given to using gross racial epithets on the bench. (In 1964 Cox would dismiss charges against all but two of the men indicted for the murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi.) Some black journalists even spoke of a political revolt against the Democratic Party. "President Kennedy will impose a great strain on his Negro supporters and on Democratic left wingers in general if he bypasses civil rights action in the coming session of Congress," wrote the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper.
Kennedy wasn't alone in looking beyond civil rights; the country in general seemed to have let the issue slip from its consciousness. In an article that spring for the Nation, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that 1962 was "the year that civil rights was displaced as the dominant issue in domestic politics."
Despite the violent clashes in October 1962 over integration at Ole Miss, "there was a perceptible diminishing in the concern of the nation to achieve a just solution to the problem." Part of the blame "must be laid to the administration's cautious tactics," King wrote. "Even in the shadow of Cuba, such issues as trade legislation and tax reform took the play away from civil rights in editorial columns, public debate and headlines." But it was also the unintended consequence of Kennedy's sunny New Frontier promise: who wanted to dwell on an intractable problem when the nation seemed to be moving forward, fast, in almost every other pursuit? The nation was moving forward, but it was leaving black Americans behind.
Civil rights leaders continued to push for further action. The president's administration overlapped with the centennial of Lincoln's, and among other things King had been lobbying Kennedy to issue a "Second Emancipation Proclamation," to come one hundred years after the first. He had even sent the president a suggested text, much revised after internal debates among King's advisers, in May 1962. Though this final version was short and unremarkable, even then it was too strong for the cautious Kennedy. The president did not respond.
Still, as the new year began, Kennedy agreed that something needed to be done. He fastened on to an idea put forth by two members of his inner circle, his in-house intellectual Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Louis E. Martin, the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee: rather than a pithy statement that would upset the president's allies among both the Southern conservatives and the racial liberals, why not a social event, pegged to Lincoln's birthday? There had never been anything like it, Martin said, a fact sure to push the black press into positive coverage. At the same time, it would not leave a trace—managed correctly, the white press would ignore it, and a few days later it would be forgotten by all but the attendees. Tellingly, only one momentary crisis marred the evening in the president's eyes: at one point Kennedy saw Sammy Davis Jr. with his Swedish wife May Britt, who was white. "Who invited them?" he fumed at his aides. The couple was a hot item in the press, both for their celebrity status and, much more so, their differing skin tones. If a photographer caught the president with them on film, the resulting coverage could stick him on the front page—and in the middle of the "race issue" the president had sought so assiduously to avoid. Kennedy ducked and weaved around the crowd, and managed to avoid the pair completely—at least when the cameras were around.
Kennedy may have won points with some members of the black elite with the Lincoln Day cocktail hour, but those with a sharp political eye knew the event was a distraction, a PR stunt. Even Jet magazine, which otherwise fawned over the White House's attention on Lincoln Day, issued a warning to Kennedy at the end of its coverage of the reception: "The VIPs appreciate the hospitality but for the rest of the year they'll be quietly paying for the air tickets, the clothes, and the hotel reservations. The brother who didn't get to see the inside of the White House wants some civil rights relief."
Missing from the crowd that night were three civil rights leaders who would do more than most to shape the remaining months of Kennedy's term: A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the patriarch of the civil rights movement; Clarence Mitchell, the chief lobbyist for the NAACP; and Martin Luther King Jr. himself. All three had declined the invitation in polite protest of the administration's weak record on civil rights. While many of the guests inside the White House were flattered by Kennedy's hour of attention, these three took it as a challenge: if the president offered shrimp creole in lieu of efforts to address racial injustice, they would find new ways to make the political system turn in their direction. By that point King was already well into his plans for a mass demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama. Randolph was beginning to formulate his own demonstration plans, this time for a rally in Washington that summer. And Mitchell was brainstorming ideas for forcing the White House to act on civil rights legislation. By the year's end, these three, acting separately, would combine to push the White House and Congress toward civil rights legislation more sweeping than anyone at the president's reception that cold February evening could have predicted.
Seasoned civil rights leaders were used to disappointment. Though the 1950s and early '60s were later remembered for a string of incremental civil rights victories, the era was a series of frustrations for those who lived through it. It is striking to consider that on the eve of the Civil Rights Act, civil rights as a cause was in every way stymied, compromised, and ignored by the government and large swaths of the American public.
The postwar years had started out optimistically. Though Franklin D. Roosevelt had hardly been a close friend of the civil rights movement, his administration had taken a few small but important steps to help blacks, most notably a series of executive orders during World War II that created and strengthened the Fair Employment Practices Commission. That body, which was intended to root out employment discrimination in companies with government contracts, enjoyed mixed success. But after almost a decade of New Deal legislation that largely excluded blacks at the behest of Southern legislators, the FEPC showed that Roosevelt was not completely ignorant or unmoved by the plight of African Americans, and it offered hope that more action might soon follow.
His successor, Harry S. Truman, at first built on and seemed to exceed his predecessor's commitment to helping blacks. In June 1947 he stood in front of a civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial, 10,000 strong, to declare "new concepts of civil rights ... not the protection of the people against the government, but the protection of the people by the government." That October his Civil Rights Committee issued a landmark report, "To Secure These Rights," which laid out the case for government action against discrimination and outlined a federal infrastructure to do it, including the creation of a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice, a permanent Civil Rights Commission, and a joint standing committee on civil rights in Congress. And in July 1948, Truman issued both Executive Order 9980, which established a fair employment practices office within the Civil Service Commission to monitor discrimination within the federal government, and Executive Order 9981, which banned discrimination in the armed forces.
Truman and the federal government were not the only ones pressing civil rights in the postwar era. States and cities were active as well, particularly in the industrial North. In March 1945, New York State passed the Ives-Quinn Act, which vested a fair employment commission with cease-and-desist powers, modeled on the National Labor Relations Board. That body in turn became the basis for similar state-level agencies across the country. In 1949 states enacted more civil rights laws than ever before; by the turn of the decade, eight of them had their own employment discrimination laws.
But the burst of activism in the 1940s was short-lived. Truman's words, however heartfelt, were just words, and after his paper-thin victory in the 1948 election, and a failed campaign to reform the Senate's filibuster rules, there was almost no chance of seeing those words turned into deed. Truman and his allies in Congress submitted a sheaf of civil rights bills anyway—including measures against the poll tax and lynching—only to see them defeated, one by one. In May 1950 Southern senators even filibustered an FEPC proposal that made compliance strictly voluntary. Nor were the state and municipal laws a clear sign of success: many were voluntary, staffed by unpaid or part-time officials, given meager legal recourse, and starved of funding—in other words, window dressing for cities with growing populations of black voters.
And for every step forward, it often seemed like there was at least one step back. On Christmas Day 1951 the Florida NAACP coordinator, Harry T. Moore, and his wife were assassinated, two of scores of black activists killed in the wave of violence and intimidation that crashed over the South in the late 1940s and early '50s.
It did not help that most of official Washington preferred to ignore civil rights during the 1950s. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, though hardly a defender of Jim Crow, believed that aside from protecting voting rights and enforcing court orders, the federal government had no obligations in the field. And the Democrats, after adopting an aggressive civil rights plank in their 1948 platform—and seeing a sizable chunk of the South bolt for the Dixiecrat ticket—beat a broad retreat at the next election, adopting a much weaker plank and nominating Alabama senator John Sparkman, a segregationist New Dealer, to run as vice president alongside Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois.
Stevenson was joined by such public moralists as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who called on liberals to slow their civil rights activities because the South had made "steady progress in racial justice" and it would "be a calamity if this progress were arrested by heedless action." Southern moderates had succeeded in convincing liberals like Niebuhr that the region's advances were real but fragile, that the South was particularly sensitive to pressure or criticism from the outside, and too much noise from liberal Democrats could kill off those buds like an early April frost. Such realism and practical moderation were the new watchwords, said Eleanor Roosevelt: "It means going ahead one step at a time in accordance with the realities, and the priority of importance." Niebuhr and Roosevelt were not being callous; they did in fact believe strongly in civil rights. But like most Americans in the 1950s, they also believed that the postwar spirit of centrist consensus, right-thinking liberalism, and steady, pro-growth economic policies would soon alleviate, if not eliminate, America's racial shortcomings.
And in any case, the liberals argued, there was little point in pushing for civil rights legislation when there was no chance of it passing. The experiences under Truman were seared into the liberal brain. The Southerners had batted away bill after bill with brutal, effortless efficiency. The caucus had held a full nelson on the American legislative process for decades, but never was it more effective than in the 1950s. Under the leadership of Georgia senator Richard B. Russell, the Southerners—who by 1963 were technically bipartisan, having added Texas Republican John Tower to their caucus in the 1962 midterms—were the true masters of the Senate. They controlled the majority of the Senate committees, including Judiciary, Armed Services, and Finance, giving them almost total control of the flow of legislation through the upper chamber.
Excerpted from THE Bill of the Century by Clay Risen. Copyright © 2014 Clay Risen. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS.
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