Anyone who has wondered just what was said inside the White House during the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s can get an inside look with the new book Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice.
Authors Jonathan Rosenberg and Zachary Karabell weave in actual transcripts of secret recordings that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson made about the racial turmoil in America in the early 1960s, including heated phone calls between Kennedy and government leaders in Birmingham, Ala., and late-night conversations that Johnson had with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here is an excerpt.
Chapter 1: The Twentieth-Century Struggle
"Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us put aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole." So declared President Lyndon Johnson, in a speech to the nation on a July evening in 1964, the day he signed the Civil Rights Act into law.
The Civil Rights Act was a milestone in the history of the U.S. civil rights movement. In the eyes of many, the complex legislation, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodation, employment, and federally funded programs, was the most important civil rights law in nearly a century, and leaders in the struggle for racial justice hailed its passage enthusiastically. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth described it as "the second emancipation of the America Negro," while the NAACP's Roy Wilkins likened it to the Magna Carta. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the country's foremost African American leader, declared that this "monumental" legislation had emerged from the cauldron of mass meetings and marches, and was then "polished and refined in the marble halls of Congress." The result, he said, was an "historic affirmation of Jefferson's ringing truth that 'all men are created equal.' "
In asking Americans to "help eliminate the last vestiges of injustice" from their country, Lyndon Johnson, the first southerner to occupy the White House since Woodrow Wilson, noted that the bill was the product of months of "careful debate and discussion," which had been initiated by John Kennedy, "our late and beloved president." While true in the narrowest sense, Johnson's observation did not convey a larger and more significant truth, namely, that the 1964 legislation was the product of decades of toil by countless men and women who had devoted their lives to working for racial justice in twentieth-century America.
If the movement to abolish American slavery was the noblest cause of the nineteenth century, then the civil rights struggle was the most heroic crusade of the twentieth. Indeed, the quest for racial justice in modern America was a continuation of the historic effort of a century before, when a group of determined individuals sought to compel the nation to end slavery and realize America's age-old promise. While it had taken a bloody war to sweep slavery from the national landscape, the twentieth-century civil rights movement was wrenching in its own right and, if not as cataclysmic, nearly as dramatic.
The story of the civil rights crusade has become part of the mythos of America, as towering heroes, possessed of great dignity and greater courage, labored energetically in the quest for justice. Arrayed against them were less noble figures, who, with equal zeal, worked to thwart the aspirations of the reformers. Whether a particular figure was a hero or a villain was of course a matter of one's perspective.
Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks; Bull Connor and George Wallace — the names have become part of the nation's collective memory, as have the events that brought them to prominence. The 1954 Supreme Court decision, which famously declared segregation in education to be "inherently unequal"; the determination of the residents of Montgomery, who chose to walk rather than ride on Jim Crow buses in December 1955; the gathering on a peaceful August afternoon in 1963 when thousands came together in the nation's capital; and the shocking murder of four little girls in Birmingham that same year-the story of the struggle is etched in the minds of Americans, whether they lived through the events themselves or viewed them on the film clips that have become a staple part of the diet of American schoolchildren.
While many recognize the significance of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, few recall that the struggle began not in those years but decades earlier. Emerging late in the nineteenth century, the modern quest for racial justice was peopled by extraordinary figures, many of whom are now remembered only dimly or not at all. Black and white freedom fighters worked tirelessly and often at great personal risk to extract justice from the heart of a nation that had long proclaimed itself the source of freedom and democracy in the world. That the United States was unwilling to provide either to all its citizens was one of the supreme ironies of the struggle, a campaign that unfolded slowly but inexorably over the first half of the twentieth century.
To have believed early in the last century that schools would one day be integrated and legal racial discrimination ended would have seemed a case of hope vanquishing reality. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s, it would begin to happen, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented the culmination of years of work. With its passage, and the enactment the following year of the Voting Rights Act, the legal wall that had stood for so long between African Americans and full citizenship came tumbling down.
The history of the struggle has been told many times before, often as the story of courageous African Americans whose collective actions forced a reluctant federal government to defend and protect the rights of all Americans against a system that had long denied justice to blacks. And that is as it should be told, for what finally compelled the federal government to act were the assiduous efforts of black Americans who were determined to end legal discrimination.
Unlike earlier civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, the legislation of 1964 mandated an aggressive expansion of federal power and represented a convergence between grassroots activism and decisions made on the national political level. For a variety of reasons both noble and pragmatic, the Civil Rights Act was supported by northern and western legislators, Justice Department officials, and the White House, all of whom responded to the words and deeds of civil rights leaders and activists who had worked for racial justice in the 1950s and 1960s. The law's passage in 1964 was the product of local efforts and federal activism. Neither by itself would have been sufficient, a fact amply demonstrated by decades of unsuccessful efforts to enact civil rights law. But together, grassroots reformers and national political leaders overcame formidable obstacles that had long made the passage of effective legislation unlikely if not impossible.
In many accounts of the civil rights movement, the federal government has been portrayed as either passive or, worse yet, hostile to the aims of the reformers. It has been said that Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy were unwilling to kneel before the altar of civil rights and that it was not until Lyndon Johnson entered the White House that the executive branch demonstrated a genuine commitment to work for change. And there is much to commend this view, although Truman and Kennedy were considerably more supportive of the movement's aims than Eisenhower was. If Truman and Kennedy feared that endorsing civil rights would spell the end of their political careers or the fragmentation of their party, Eisenhower seemed at best ambivalent about the moral necessity of the domestic struggle. The former general evinced little willingness to lead the country toward confronting institutionalized racial discrimination in the 1950s, and just as white Americans preferred to maintain the status quo, Eisenhower was content to do the same.
The tape recordings made by John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson open a new window onto the civil rights struggle. Although they do not invalidate earlier pictures of presidential uneasiness with civil rights reform, they do demand that we consider the obstacles two presidents faced in working for change. By allowing us to examine more clearly than before each man's commitment to the domestic crusade, these transcribed conversations reveal a dimension of the civil rights story that has never been fully considered, and they show that the White House played an active and constructive part in the quest for racial justice.
In highlighting the role played by the executive branch, the tapes in no way minimize the determination, skill, and heroism manifested by countless black Americans —leaders and followers — who helped transform the landscape of American race relations. The story of the struggle over civil rights should not be written according to the rules of a zero-sum game: there is not a fixed amount of credit to go around. Adding to the list of those who contributed to the passage of the 1964 bill does not mean that others need to be removed.
Until midway through the Kennedy administration, the White House was a reluctant partner in the civil rights struggle, as the President and some of his advisers viewed the demands of the movement's leaders as politically naive and even unreasonable. But that changed in 1963, largely because of the brutal events in Birmingham that May, which made an often apathetic country sit up and take notice. In response to the violence in Alabama, the Kennedy administration proposed legislation more sweeping than any federal civil rights reform since the 1870s, and while Kennedy never fully overcame his ambivalence about the bill, his reservations were political not moral.
But Lyndon Johnson would be different, for unlike his predecessor, he was wholly determined to do whatever was necessary to pass effective civil rights legislation. About this, Johnson was passionate and adamant, and he staked his political future on passing the 1964 bill. Had Johnson not made civil rights the number one priority of his first months in office, it might have been some time before Congress passed meaningful legislation. While Johnson has rightly been blamed for his failings in Southeast Asia, it is appropriate to credit him for his achievements on civil rights at home.
To be fair, the two Presidents faced different challenges, and the transcripts highlight different aspects of their presidencies. A substantial portion of the Kennedy tapes shows the President responding to crises, whether at Ole Miss or Birmingham. Confronted with dangerous and unpredictable situations, Kennedy did not have the luxury of careful deliberations, and his primary concern was to contain the chaos that threatened to engulf the South. Johnson, on the other hand, faced only a legislative crisis. The moral stakes may have been high, but violence and social disorder were not immediate concerns. Only in the weeks before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, confronted with the murder of three volunteers in Mississippi and the specter of a white backlash against the act, did Johnson have to contend with the same level of immediate danger on a civil rights issue as Kennedy had to in 1962 and 1963. Kennedy's ambivalence toward reform, therefore, may have been aggravated by his understandable sense that the South was a tinderbox waiting to ignite, while Johnson had the more straightforward task of dealing with a complicated congressional morass.
Both Kennedy and Johnson were political animals, who rarely made a decision without closely considering its political consequences. But civil rights had long been framed as a moral question, and those who led the campaign for race reform based their demands not on the ephemera of domestic politics but on timeless questions of right and justice. In the discussions and debates on the 1964 bill, the moral and the political were often merged. In the halls of Congress as well as in the Oval Office, advocates and opponents of the bill made it clear that what was just would have to be reconciled with what was possible in Washington and throughout the country.
This tension between morality and pragmatism has led some to question the motives of those political leaders who championed civil rights in the 1960s. Johnson has been susceptible to the charge that he endorsed civil rights reform largely to enhance his political standing, while Kennedy has been criticized for not moving more aggressively on the matter because he feared the political consequences for himself and his party. But if politics was never far from the mind of either man, the morality of civil rights weighed on both. Indeed, Johnson, the quintessential Texan, was more committed to civil rights than was Kennedy, a son of Massachusetts, home of the abolitionists. Just as many said that only a hard-line anti-Communist like Nixon could go to China, it is perhaps equally true that only Johnson — the southern politician par excellence — could engineer meaningful civil rights reform.
But the question remains: Why did Kennedy and Johnson come to believe that civil rights reform was the single most important domestic issue facing the nation and decide it was worth fighting for? What the tapes depict is an unfolding process between 1962 and 1964. At first, a reluctant Kennedy resented civil rights leaders for their failure to understand the obstacles to change. But as events proceeded, his position shifted, and he became determined to craft meaningful reform, even as he remained unsure about how far to go. Then, in the Johnson period, we see an administration willing to move without hesitation to ensure the passage of the 1964 act. Perhaps most interestingly, the tapes suggest that for both administrations, any attempt to separate moral from political concerns is a futile enterprise.
It is impossible to determine whether Kennedy cared more about the justness of civil rights than about the domestic political implications of the issue. Nor can one separate morality from politics when talking about Johnson. Each man was fully capable of fusing the two, of compromising moral imperatives because of political concerns, or of ignoring political concerns because of moral imperatives. Had Kennedy not believed that the political climate had changed such that ignoring civil rights was no longer politically feasible, it is difficult to imagine he would have acted as he did. And few would argue that Johnson would have invested his political capital in civil rights had he not been convinced that it was, quite simply, the right thing to do.
Civil Rights before 1960
The transcripts begin in 1962, but there is, of course, a rich history that preceded the events covered in the following pages, a history that informed and shaped how the various participants approached the issue of civil rights. The leading figures in the brief but intense drama of the early 1960s stood on the shoulders of thousands of committed people who preceded them, some well known, but most obscure.
To be black in early-twentieth-century America was by any measure to live a life of deprivation and oppression. Black Americans were poorer, hungrier, and less educated than their white countrymen were, and the black population in the South was victimized by Jim Crow, a wide-ranging system of legalized oppression that denied blacks the right to vote and enforced discrimination in housing, education, transportation, and employment. In addition, the oppressive system, which white southerners had constructed late in the nineteenth century, was made up of countless smaller indignities, which were no less humiliating. If it was demoralizing to be denied the vote in a country that prided itself on its love of democracy, then it was no doubt equally painful to be forced to take the oath on a special "colored" Bible in a southern courtroom. Separation and oppression sometimes took imaginative forms, as in New Orleans, which adopted a law segregating black from white prostitutes. Moreover, an unwritten code of racial deference made additional demands on black citizens, like the custom that forbade a black man in a car from passing a white driver, even if the latter was riding in a wagon.
Emerging from the miasma of prejudice and oppression, African American thought at the dawn of the century consisted of two distinct streams. The views of two men, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, both of whom would someday occupy prominent places in the black pantheon, pointed the struggle in different directions. For Washington, born and bred in the rural South, the guiding idea was vocational education, which emphasized practical training, especially cultivation of the soil. In Washington's mind, this constituted the most effective path to advancement. Moreover, in a period when the accumulation of wealth had achieved an almost sanctified character in the United States, Washington emphasized hard work and thrift.
Had he stopped there, he might have been remembered as a modest advocate of black self-help. But for all his apparent mild-manneredness, he was destined to become a controversial figure in the African American community. Along with his call for education and hard work, in the short term, he explicitly ruled out for blacks what white America feared most of all: social equality between the races.
For white Americans in 1900, the term social equality was in truth a euphemism for interracial social contact, which might lead to interracial sex and miscegenation. Those possibilities terrified mainstream America, and Washington's clear rejection of such aims was reassuring. In his most-celebrated speech, he asserted in 1895, "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Thus, Washington's means and ends were congenial to influential segments of white America, which believed that black uplift was not necessarily a bad thing — so long as it was narrowly circumscribed.
W. E. B. Du Bois thought differently. Cerebral, assertive, and utterly determined, Du Bois was born and reared in Massachusetts, graduated from Fisk University, studied in Berlin, earned a doctorate from Harvard, and was an altogether different type of leader than Washington was. Du Bois's views on the clearest path to racial progress differed markedly from Washington's, and the two became ideological rivals. In time, Du Bois's influence would surpass that of the elder man. He would become the leader of the black freedom struggle, and the most important black figure in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.
Du Bois believed an elite group of black Americans, which he called the Talented Tenth, should be responsible for helping to elevate the rest of the race, economically, politically, socially, and culturally. In order to prepare for its leadership role, this black elite (representing approximately 10 percent of the black population) would need solid training in the liberal arts. According to Du Bois, "Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push, a surging forward of the exceptional man, and the lifting of his duller brethren." With his elite credentials and his Ph.D., Du Bois was convinced that reform, to be effective, had to come from above. In a celebrated critique of Washington, Du Bois wondered in 1903 whether it was possible to achieve racial progress with a philosophy that allowed only a "meager chance" for the development of "exceptional men." The answer, he asserted, was an "emphatic No."
While there were points of overlap between the visions of Washington and Du Bois, their differences marked the civil rights movement early in the century. But this was an age in which highly educated, reform-minded experts were gaining increasing prestige, power, and authority throughout American society, and Du Bois's elite-centered approach to race reform came to dominate the campaign for racial justice.
Reflecting the ascendence of Du Bois, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909. Composed of blacks and whites in the early days, the NAACP was destined to become the organizational engine for race reform for the next fifty years. Well-educated, articulate spokespersons, committed to helping the downtrodden, would spearhead the movement for racial justice by working to challenge segregation, end occupational discrimination, and gain the right to vote. A new spirit of abolitionism had been born.
In addition to the emergence of an organized movement for race reform early in the century, a key development in the black experience at this time was the northward migration of large numbers of African Americans. This was the beginning of the so-called Great Migration, which saw hundreds of thousands of blacks leave the South for the North between 1910 and 1920. (Equally significant was the simultaneous black migration within the South, which saw rural blacks move into southern cities in record numbers, a development that in later years would have enormous implications for the civil rights movement.) While World War I accelerated the exodus, blacks started to move even before the guns sounded. Nature, too, played a role, as the boll weevil and flooding wreaked havoc on southern agriculture (especially cotton), which upset the always precarious economic balance of the black farmer.
The movement of peoples was significant, as nearly all blacks heading north settled in urban areas. The black population grew spectacularly in places like Detroit, New York, and Chicago; the latter two gained more than 60,000 black residents and Detroit acquired 36,000. The percentage increases of the black population in northern cities ranged from 150 to 600 percent.
The quest for a better life-an idea that combined economic, political, and social aspirations-was the prime motivation. According to Adam Clayton Powell, a prominent black leader of the time, "we were tired of being kept out of public parks and libraries, of being deprived of equal educational opportunities." They were tired also of being denied the vote and of being the object of unchecked violence perpetrated by white southerners who knew they would never be brought to justice. Blacks thus left the South in record numbers, a trend that continued for several decades, transforming the political, social, and cultural landscape of twentieth- century America.
World War I provided black Americans with the opportunity to serve their country in a war that was fought, as President Woodrow Wilson famously observed, to "make the world safe for democracy." Whether or not this was actually the case, leading race reformers sought to use Wilson's noble rhetoric to energize their followers and to legitimize their aims to the nation and the international community. If the United States had embarked on a crusade to bring democracy to the world, surely it was right and proper to bring democracy to Mississippi and Alabama. Civil rights leaders made this claim repeatedly at home and abroad during the Great War.
But for all his noble rhetoric, Woodrow Wilson was no progressive on the subject of race relations, and while fulminating for justice abroad, he issued an executive order that reimposed segregation in government offices in Washington, D.C. Black federal employees were once more forced to use separate eating facilities and rest rooms, despite the fact that nearly 400,000 African Americans were serving their country overseas in the war for democracy.
With the end of World War I, much of the fervor for domestic reform evaporated, and the postwar decade saw little tangible progress in race relations. The NAACP, in particular, had few notable successes in these years, and the northward black migration continued, as an estimated 750,000 to 1 million blacks left the South for the urban North. By 1930, of the five cities with the largest black populations, not one was located in the South.
Among the most significant developments in African American life in the 1920s was the cultural flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance. Literature, painting, and music blossomed in Harlem, a place one observer described as the "great Mecca for the pleasure-seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious, and the talented." Contributing to a developing sense of black identity, the cultural movement was part of the larger social and political struggle for racial justice, and its implications would be felt for years to come.
The twenties also saw the emergence of the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican possessed of a powerful, controversial message. Beyond urging black Americans to take pride in their African heritage, he also encouraged them to return to their ancestral African homeland. As head of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Garvey attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters. In huge numbers they attended rallies, drawn to Garvey's assertive message, which rejected the notion that the black population would ever achieve equality in the United States. Garvey stands somewhat apart from the traditional race reform struggle for he advocated leaving the United States, rather than working to change it. If his program did not directly influence the trajectory of civil rights reform in the decades to come, his was the first genuine mass movement among the African American population.
Although the 1920s was not a decade notable for great achievements in race reform, the NAACP did work for change through legislative and judicial channels. Federal anti-lynching legislation was one of the association's key objectives, and civil rights reformers worked tirelessly to gain passage of a law to outlaw that gruesome crime. While such legislation never became law (it passed the House but not the Senate), many believed agitation for the bill contributed to a drop in the number of lynchings in this period. At the same time, the NAACP's energetic effort, which was led by a black man, James Weldon Johnson, represented the first time an African American leader had spearheaded the drive to pass civil rights legislation. It would not be the last.
But the dynamics of Congress prevented civil rights legislation from passing in these years. The key obstacle was the Senate. Under arcane and complicated senatorial rules, a small group of senators could block any legislation by filibustering. Essentially, that meant talking continuously, which in turn would prevent the Senate from voting before adjournment. A filibuster, or even the threat of a filibuster, could halt nascent legislation before it ever reached the full Senate. That, in effect, gave a minority of senators veto power over what the majority might want. In short, senatorial procedure was one factor that blocked civil rights reform during these decades.
Stymied on the legislative front, the NAACP did achieve some significant victories in court, the first of which was a 1923 ruling, Moore v. Dempsey, in which the Supreme Court ruled against mob influence in an Arkansas courtroom, by reversing a verdict that had wrongly sentenced a group of black man to death. In 1927, in Nixon v. Herndon, the Court struck down a Texas statute that excluded blacks from voting. While the NAACP realized there was still a long way to go on the franchise question, the decision represented a significant step along the road to full citizenship rights for black Americans.
If progress for African Americans was difficult to measure during the twenties, the Depression decade posed still greater challenges and obstacles to black advancement. The economic problems that befell the country in the age of Franklin Roosevelt hit African Americans particularly hard. In the words of the noted scholar Harvard Sitkoff, the Depression dealt the black population a "staggering blow," making an already difficult existence harsher than ever. Black unemployment rates were often twice that experienced by white Americans, reaching 50 percent in some northern cities. And lest one forget, there was precious little governmental assistance to be had. Relief in Philadelphia was inadequate to sustain a sufficient diet, and Detroit paid out 15 cents per day per individual before running out of funds altogether.
In response to the nation's dire economic problems, Franklin Roosevelt moved to establish a variety of programs, known as the New Deal, which sought to alleviate the hardships caused by the worst economic depression the country had experienced in some forty years. The Roosevelt administration established myriad agencies and programs, laying the groundwork for the modern welfare state. Social Security, the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the Farm Security Administration-these were but a few of the ways the federal government responded to the crisis of the 1930s.
One of the most striking political developments of these years was the movement of African Americans into the Democratic Party. Until the 1930s, when blacks did vote — if they were allowed to do so at all — they supported Republicans, the party of Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves. But with the Republican Party's apparent indifference to the plight of the poor, and with the active efforts of the Roosevelt administration to ease the pain of the Depression, many blacks, having recently arrived in northern cities, began to vote Democratic. In response, northern Democrats attended to the issues black Americans cared about. In time, this would create an uneasy and untenable situation in which northern Democrats would work to curry favor with blacks while southern Democrats would work energetically to maintain Jim Crow.
With the onset of World War II, economic opportunities increased for black Americans as the country's booming factories worked overtime to produce war materials. Even before the United States entered the war in December 1941, A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and one of black America's most-revered figures, sought to organize a march on Washington to highlight the persistent inequities in American race relations. A White House meeting with FDR, in which Randolph promised the President thousands of blacks would march, led Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, which barred racial discrimination in the government and in defense contract employment, and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Although its effect was limited, the order marked the first time in the twentieth century that the executive branch of the federal government had responded directly to the demands advanced by black leaders.
Despite the apparent responsiveness of the executive branch, racial tensions did not abate during the war. Race riots erupted in northern cities like Detroit and New York, exposing tensions that continued to plague the entire country. As the riots made clear, injustice was not confined to the American South; blacks in every region were more determined than ever to gain their rights as citizens in a democracy. The wartime cry among blacks was encapsulated in the notion of the Double-V, which asserted that it was essential to achieve victory not only against dictators abroad but also against the tyranny of racism at home.
Indeed, the war strengthened the determination of the African American population to claim their rights as American citizens. The United States and its allies had assumed the burden of sweeping the racist ideologies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan from the world scene. With the successful conclusion of the global conflagration, the notion of state-sanctioned racial, ethnic, or religious persecution lost legitimacy throughout the world. And that in turn undermined such thinking in the United States. If it had been worth fighting to stamp out racial persecution in Europe and Asia, then it was surely reasonable to stamp out racial persecution in Alabama. This argument, which had been made throughout the war, came to have considerable power once peace was achieved.
Another significant implication of the war was the movement of blacks from the rural South to the urban North. Due to increasing economic opportunities in the North and the mechanization of southern agriculture (especially in the harvesting of cotton, which decreased the demand for black labor), some 700,000 blacks headed north during the war years. Nor did this northward migration end once the war was over. In fact, during the 1940s as a whole, over a million blacks left the region, while in the 1950s, more than 1.5 million blacks moved north, abandoning their rural roots for cities from New York to California. As the historian Harvard Sitkoff has noted, this mass migration "fundamentally altered the configuration of the race problem." And over time, it would transform social, cultural, and political life in postwar America, affecting everything from presidential politics to popular music.
In the postwar political realm, Harry Truman built on the actions of his predecessor, issuing an executive order in 1948 that ended segregation in the military. This was a significant milestone, though it would be some time before the armed forces fully implemented the President's directive. During the first months of 1948, Truman also spoke out forcefully on behalf of civil rights reform. When the Democrats assembled for their convention in the summer of 1948, northern Democrats such as Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey pushed for a strong civil rights plank in the party platform. This led to a rupture in the Democratic Party during the presidential campaign. Led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, some southern Democrats refused to endorse Truman and formed a States' Rights party that was dedicated to preventing any supporter of federal civil rights reform from reaching the White House. That fall, Thurmond captured four southern states. Though Truman won the White House, the lesson was clear: the civil rights struggle had the potential to break up the Democratic Party.
After the war, the NAACP turned its attention more energetically than before to the federal courts, where the country's leading race reform organization continued to batter the walls of institutionalized racial discrimination. In the late 1940s and 1950s, a series of successful cases brought against the persistent indignities of Jim Crow culminated in the momentous Supreme Court decision of 1954, which declared famously that separate educational facilities were "inherently unequal." With the successful verdict in Brown v. Board of Education, a once-impregnable barrier had fallen, and while obstacles to black liberation remained, it is easy to understand why the NAACP's Roy Wilkins described May 17, when the court's verdict came down, as "one of life's sweetest days."
The High Court's epic decision ordering the desegregation of public schools was the result of years of labor by the NAACP's legal division, headed by a talented lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court. Marshall built patiently on prior cases in which the NAACP had challenged the constitutionality of the "separate but equal" doctrine, a misguided notion that had been enshrined by the Supreme Court in its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The NAACP legal team argued that separate facilities could never be equal and presented a considerable body of evidence to support this claim.
Chief Justice Earl Warren worked hard to ensure the court would speak with one voice, and in a 9-0 ruling, the court held that segregation in public education denied African Americans their rights under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. While the ruling represented a stunning victory for the civil rights movement, the court allowed the states and school districts to devise specific remedies to the problem. Not surprisingly, this plan generated years of heated, bitter, and sometimes violent confrontations between civil rights leaders and local and state officials who were utterly determined to prevent the full realization of the Supreme Court's decision.
In state after state, the NAACP brought suits demanding an end to segregation, and even when the courts ordered a school district to do so, local officials rarely enforced such rulings, remaining unwilling to comply with judicial decisions. In Little Rock, Arkansas, in the fall of 1957, Governor Orval Faubus refused to enforce a federal court order to admit African American students to the city's public schools. After weeks of failed negotiations, President Eisenhower reluctantly federalized the Guard, ordering guardsmen to escort and protect black children who walked through the hate-filled mobs that had surrounded one of Little Rock's schools. No firebrand on civil rights, Dwight Eisenhower was compelled by events to act. (As the tapes in this book document, a similar crisis would confront John Kennedy five years later, when James Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi, a bastion of southern segregation.)
In the mid-1950s, the momentum for progress on civil rights accelerated. In December 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to surrender her seat to a white person on a city bus and move toward the back as the rules of Jim Crow demanded. The bus driver called the police and Mrs. Parks was arrested. The events that flowed from this solitary act would capture the attention of the nation and the world, as a large-scale, grassroots movement, the Montgomery bus boycott, began. Thousands of African Americans refused to ride Montgomery's buses, and because they made up a substantial portion of the daily ridership, the boycott struck a severe financial blow to the bus company and to the city's merchants.
The Montgomery bus boycott brought Martin Luther King to the forefront of the civil rights movement. The 26-year-old Baptist preacher, charismatic, courageous, and possessed of mesmerizing oratorical skills, proved to be a superb strategist. As the boycott continued throughout 1955 and 1956, its leaders faced threats and harassment that came in a variety of forms: they were fired from their jobs; they were jailed; and in an act of terror that only stiffened the resolve of the boycotters, King's house was bombed.
In the Montgomery campaign, King honed his skill as a practitioner of nonviolent resistance, a philosophy that owed a great deal to the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. King was jailed for his role in the Montgomery campaign-the first of many times he would be imprisoned over the next decade, each sentence serving to enhance his stature as the leading figure in the civil rights struggle. Because of the determined actions of thousands of black citizens in Montgomery, in December 1956, the city was ordered to desegregate its buses. A great victory had been won and countless ordinary people had helped to achieve it.
The bus boycott marked a new stage in the civil rights struggle. While after Montgomery, the NAACP continued to pursue its legal strategy, the movement's energy would begin to flow from broad-based efforts led by King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, and other organizations. Seeking to mobilize thousands of young black men and women, such groups were often closely linked to southern black churches. Instead of the methodical, if at times momentous, legal challenges waged by black elites in American courtrooms, after 1955, the civil rights struggle came to be defined by peaceful marches, freedom rides, lunch counter sit-ins, inspirational sermons, demonstrations, and arrests.
The Brown decision and events in Montgomery generated pressure in Washington. In response, Eisenhower's attorney general, Herbert Brownell, presented Congress with a draft for a civil rights bill. The proposed legislation, introduced in 1956, included the establishment of a civil rights division in the Justice Department and provided for the prosecution of federal voting rights abuses, both of which were central concerns of American civil rights leaders.
The Democratic Party, which controlled the House and the Senate in this period, was unwilling to move on civil rights, mainly because it was paralyzed by the opposition of southern senators. Led by northerners and midwesterners, the Republicans perceived a golden opportunity to take advantage of the Democrats' reluctance to act. While Eisenhower was largely indifferent to federal civil rights reform, the potential political gains that could be derived from proposing a bill were too great to forgo, and if nothing was achieved on the legislative front in 1956, the fact that the administration had decided to act pulled some northern black voters back into the Republican Party.
The following year, the Democrats took up the bill. Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, aware of the damage that intransigence on civil rights was doing to his party and to his own political aspirations, intended to shepherd some sort of legislation through the upper chamber. At the same time, Johnson also realized that the southern bloc would never permit passage of a genuinely effective bill and that he would harm his own political future in Texas if he was thought to be too far out front on civil rights. In what would serve as a preview of his adept handling of the far broader 1964 bill, Johnson steered the legislation through the Senate. First, he mollified northern liberals like Hubert Humphrey by convincing them half a loaf was better than none. And then he satisfied the southern bloc, led by Georgia's Richard Russell, by allowing them to gut those portions of the bill that permitted federal troops to be used to enforce desegregation and that gave federal courts the power to impose criminal penalties on those who infringed on black voting rights.
The bill passed by a wide margin, and civil rights leaders took solace from this fact, even though the bill itself was weak. In the words of the NAACP's Clarence Mitchell, "not only did it have some substantive value, but it also represented a breakthrough. Up until that time, it had been assumed that Congress would not and could not pass any civil rights legislation." Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP who had tirelessly lobbied members of Congress, dismissed the bill's critics as unrealistic. While he recognized the bill's limitations, Wilkins kept his eyes on the big picture. As he and other civil rights leaders knew, Congress had last passed civil rights legislation in 1875, a law the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional. Eighty-two years later, the High Court was no longer an obstacle, and Congress had taken a small step down a road it had rarely traveled before.
Notwithstanding the 1957 legislation, Congress and the White House were reacting to events, not leading them, and the 1957 bill was a response to the ferment caused by King, the NAACP, and the courts. The same could be said of the 1960 civil rights bill. In February of that year, in Greensboro, North Carolina, four students from a local college sat down at a lunch counter marked "for whites only" and refused to move. Within days, their ranks had swelled, and suddenly there were sit-ins everywhere. Countless young men and women throughout the South planted themselves at whites-only lunch counters, where they would remain until the stores closed for the day or the police arrested them for disturbing the peace. The sit-in movement attracted widespread publicity during the presidential campaign, as yet again, grassroots organizers forced civil rights onto the national stage.
Events in Greensboro marked a sea change within the civil rights movement. Since Montgomery, the more traditional tactics of the NAACP were being eclipsed by the activities of mass-based organizations such as King's SCLC. Moreover, there was an immediacy to the actions of these nascent organizations. The students who began the Greensboro sit-in seemed to have acted spontaneously, and, while such an approach was not completely novel, in the climate of the early 1960s, their protest was like touching a match to dry tinder. Eventually, the effects of the conflagration would spread to policymakers in the nation's capital.
No longer would the civil rights protest be an elite-driven phenomenon, as had been the case for decades. The new leaders were mostly young men, who, at times, could scarcely conceal their scorn for the staid ways of the NAACP. However unfair their attacks on the NAACP-it was too conservative, too patient, and ineffective, they asserted-the proverbial torch had been passed to a new generation of leaders who were swept up in the passions of the moment. And indeed, such grassroots activism would lead Washington to act.
In the Senate, Lyndon Johnson used the sit-ins as a pretext for pushing through a new civil rights bill. But this time, unlike in 1957, the southern bloc was more adamant in its opposition. Richard Russell, the courtly Georgian who was devoted to the traditions of the Senate and the South, was the most moderate leader within the southern bloc. According to Russell, it was imperative to hold the line: the South had to prevent passage of federally mandated desegregation of public facilities and the provision of voting rights for black Americans. But Lyndon Johnson knew a civil rights bill, even an anemic one, would help the Democrats in the upcoming contest for the White House. While the final bill was largely symbolic, it contributed to the sense that progress on race reform was inevitable, and, more importantly, it suggested that the southern bloc could no longer stand in the way.
The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 have been viewed as hollow pieces of legislation that achieved little in the struggle for justice. And while neither bill did much to improve the lives of African Americans, they did set a precedent and served as a crucible for policymakers like Humphrey, Kennedy, and Johnson. Johnson, especially, came to realize that a strong presidential push was necessary to achieve passage of meaningful civil rights legislation. Having managed both bills as majority leader in the Senate, Johnson would be prepared to take decisive action on civil rights when he became president in late 1963.
In the first months of 1960, as the sit-ins became increasingly widespread, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson fought a close contest to be their party's nominee for the White House. It was an odd primary campaign, with Johnson's remaining in Washington and Kennedy's entering only a handful of primaries. This was still an era when party leaders selected the nominee, and Johnson believed he had a good chance of securing enough party backing to win the nomination at the convention. But with more backing and more money, Kennedy would ultimately emerge on top, beating out Johnson, Humphrey, and Missouri's Stuart Symington.
In the debates over who would receive the nomination, the platform committee conducted its business out of the public spotlight, and the language it adopted on civil rights was surprisingly powerful. The Democrats' platform committed the party to removing all barriers to the right to vote, especially the poll tax and the literacy test. It called for aggressive action on school desegregation and promised that a Democratic president would end discrimination in the federal government and in federal housing. Coming to the convention, Kennedy had made a brief statement endorsing the sit-ins: "It is in the American tradition to stand up for one's rights," he told a group of African diplomats, "even if the new way to stand up for one's rights is to sit down." It was, like so many of Kennedy's public utterances, a pithy line, but civil rights was not a key aspect of his campaign.
Excerpted from Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice: The Civil Rights Tapesby Jonathan Rosenberg, Zachary Karabell. Copyright W.W. Norton & Company, September 22, 2003.