Saturday, 06 October 2018 17:33

The Kennedys and Civil Rights: How the MSM Continues to Distort History, Part 1

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In the first part of this long review essay, Jim DiEugenio lays bare the atrocities which ensued from a defeated Reconstruction and the legal and social precedents this created, in an effort to clarify the historical backdrop to the inaction of nearly every US president up until JFK.


Part 1: The Rebel Yell Will Rise Again


Books reviewed in this essay:

  1. The Bystander, by Nick Bryant, 2006
  2. Kennedy and King, by Steven Levingston, 2017
  3. The Promise and the Dream, by David Margolick, 2018
  4. What Truth Sounds Like, by Michael Eric Dyson, 2018

Approximately five years ago, at the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s death, I reviewed Larry Sabato’s book, The Kennedy Half Century. In that review, I wrote about something that I had not really noted before in book form. One expects an MSM shill like Sabato not to recognize any of Kennedy’s clear alterations to President Eisenhower’s foreign policy: e.g., in the Congo, or with the Alliance for Progress. That would be par for the course. But Sabato did something that I had not really observed before. At length, the author tried to revise downward Kennedy’s record on civil rights. This was disturbing, since Kennedy’s record on that issue was far superior to not just Eisenhower’s, but to all the presidents who had preceded him—both during and after Reconstruction. In my review of Sabato, I showed how silly this was by spending a few pages countering the obtuse arguments he had made (see section three of this review).

At the end, I noted that this weird spin indicated once more that it was not enough for the MSM to deny the true facts of Kennedy’s murder. There was a concomitant effort to discount his achievements in the White House. In the back of my mind I was wondering: was Sabato’s goofiness on JFK and civil rights a preview of what was to come? After all, the next big milestone would be the dual anniversary of the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. That would be made to order for the issue.

Well, I was largely right, but a little wrong. That dual anniversary did produce at least three books on the matter. These are Steven Levingston’s Kennedy and King, David Margolick’s The Promise and the Dream, and Michael Eric Dyson’s What Truth Sounds Like. They all pretty much traversed the same path that Sabato did. And they all used the same tactics that Sabato employed: downplaying or completely eliminating the record, and/or not contrasting it with Kennedy’s predecessors. (But I should say from the outset: unlike the other two, Margolick’s book has some saving graces, since he actually did some research.)

This last point, concerning contrast and presidential comparison, is crucial. Presidents should not be evaluated in isolation. In discussing their records, it is necessary to detail what came before and, at times, what came after. There can be no absolute value given to what a president says or does—as, say, there might be with anti-war leaders, or civil rights leaders—the reason being that the latter two groups are not running for office. A true presidential historian attempts to delineate and characterize words and actions in relation to other presidents, first by gathering as much of the pertinent data as necessary; then by sifting through it in order to find origins and patterns and to measure achievements; and finally by trying to make accurate comparisons with chief executives who came before and after. None of the authors mentioned even came close to doing this.

Before comprehensively addressing this issue, it should be said that the struggle for civil rights is even larger and more complex than, say, the issue of the Vietnam War. This is simply because it extended back even farther in its origins, and therefore involved more major factors and participants. None of these books under review pays any respect to that backdrop either. One ought to deal with it nonetheless, for in my opinion, it provides one explanation as to why so many previous presidents did nothing about the serious problem the issue presented. (As we shall see, some of them in fact exacerbated the problem by symbolically allying themselves with the image of the Confederacy.) It also helps explain why, with the stirrings of the civil rights movement—which did not begin with Martin Luther King—presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Eisenhower did so little. What that sorry record of inaction did was to create an abyss the size of the Grand Canyon that John Kennedy faced when he entered the White House.

I would have more respect for these authors if they spent just a few paragraphs elucidating this crucial background. After all, that is the way the practice of history works. Recording accurate history is not, however, why these books were produced. But since this review will encompass all three of these volumes—plus a fourth that Levingston uses and relies on as a credible source—this author will first supply that missing background. This will help make clear both the failure of previous presidents in the face of this large and painful issue, as well as the reasons for it—presidents who, in other ways and on other fronts, have been praised by many authors (for instance, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson).


I. A Hideous History of Shame and Horror

Our exposition of this backdrop will not go all the way to the origins of the slave trade. What I will outline here is what happened during Reconstruction, since that created the historical foundation for the conditions of segregation, discrimination, and landless poverty that enveloped the existence of African Americans in the South after the Civil War. (I will not footnote this section, since it only pretends to offer a greatly abridged synopsis of what has been established in depth by an array of illustrious historians, such as John Hope Franklin, C. Vann Woodward, W. E. B. DuBois, Herbert Aptheker, Kenneth Stampp, and Eric Foner, among others.)

It is an open question as to whether Reconstruction would have succeeded if Lincoln had lived. But there is little doubt that what did happen was a calamity for the newly freed slaves. President Andrew Johnson’s actions in pardoning so many of the former political and military leaders of the Confederacy outraged many of those who were against what the South stood for and was based upon. Johnson’s actions almost allowed the former vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, to take a seat in Congress right after the war. Stephens was the man who, in 1861, declared that the cornerstone belief of the South was that the African American was not equal to whites and “that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

This was too much for the Radical Republicans in Washington. Men like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts were simply not going to let Johnson do that. So they went to war with him. For a relatively brief period of time, these men passed several laws over Johnson’s veto in an attempt to aid the freedmen in the South and make it harder for former rebel states to return to the Union. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments were examples of laws they passed aimed at making the former slaves citizens who would be protected by the government. They also made it possible for teachers to go to the South, the creation of public schools there, the stationing of Union troops in the former Confederacy and the extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau—the only arm of government that gave direct aid to the newly freed slaves and their families.

Thaddeus Stevens

It is puzzling today as to why men like Senator Sumner, congressman James Hinds (who was murdered by the Klan in 1868), Senator Benjamin Wade and, of course, congressman Thaddeus Stevens, were called radicals. They were clearly correct in their ideas about what it would take to incorporate the Confederacy back into the Union. But they were opposed by formidable enemies in Washington and outside it, like the Ku Klux Klan. As DuBois first pointed out, the Union never had enough troops in the former insurrectionist states to occupy that wide expanse of territory. Consequently, former Confederate forces were allowed to roam free and organize militias to thwart the actions of those who wished to carry out a reconstruction of the South. The Klan was only one of these terrorist organizations. There were also groups like the White League, the Red Shirts, and the White Line in Mississippi. They constituted something called the Redeemer Movement, whose goal was to restore pre-war white supremacy to state power. As African Americans took office—a mere 17 in Washington during the period of 1870-76, but many more on the state and local level—these terrorist groups began to rise in reaction.

Since they were well armed and organized, the only way to control them was by maintaining a much larger occupying force in the South for a longer period of time. That did not happen. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 allowed only 20,000 men to occupy ten former states. This included areas as large as Texas and Louisiana. President Ulysses S. Grant had to send additional military forces into the South for elections in 1870 and 1876.

No high-school textbook, and very few American history college texts, detail the horrors perpetrated by the Redeemer Movement, so much of the brutality and ugliness in the following account will likely be new to the reader. But as shameful and hideous as that chronicle is, the historian must describe it in order for the reader to begin to approximate the extreme pathology—imbued by centuries of slavery—that possessed these men. It is the only way to explain the shocking outbreaks of violence that took place at this time: the Opelousas Massacre of 1868; 1871’s Meridian Race Riot; the Colfax Massacre of 1873; New Orleans’ Battle of Liberty Place in 1874; and the Hamburg Massacre of 1876. In the Meridian and New Orleans instances, the Redeemers’ aim was to overthrow, respectively, the local and state government. In Meridian Mississippi, the Redeemers shot and killed a judge during a trial, and massacred as many as thirty freed slaves, ultimately driving the mayor from office. A force of three hundred Redeemers then escorted the mayor to a train and literally packed him off to New York, thereby achieving their goal of overthrowing the municipal government.

The Battle of Liberty Place

The Battle of Liberty Place was enacted on Canal Street in New Orleans. It was a large-scale military insurrection. The Redeemers’ White League organized an army of five thousand men to force the Republican governor, William Pitt Kellogg, to resign. The governor was defended by a combined force of about 3,500, made up of state militia and local police. The White League defeated Kellogg’s forces, thereby overthrowing the governor. President Grant finally sent in federal troops, the White League dispersed and Kellogg was restored. But no one was arrested or tried. This paved the way for the White League to control the state once the Union army left.

It is worth describing a smaller scale event in more detail in order to understand the murderous mania that possessed the Redeemers. In September of 1875, in Hinds County Mississippi, the Republican Party decided to hold a combination barbecue and rally for the upcoming elections. Freedmen had been voting for about eight years there, so this type of event was not uncommon. For purposes of policy debate, they invited the Democrats to attend. The Democrats sent a spokesman, accompanied by about 75 White Line men with concealed weapons. The Democrat spoke without interruption. The Republican speaker thanked and congratulated his opponent. But as he began to address the crowd, he was heckled. He was then accused of being a liar. The leading black politician in the area, Charles Caldwell, stood up and asked the former slaves not to let themselves be goaded into a confrontation. Then a Republican freedman, Lewis Hargraves, was shot in the head at point blank range. In what appeared to be a choreographed action, the White Line men let loose with a series of volleys. The Freedmen, some whom came armed, fired back. Mothers began gathering up their children and running for cover in the nearby woods. At the end of the first day, three White Liners and five freedmen were dead.

The Redeemers called in reinforcements. In a move that had to be planned in advance, hundreds came in by rail. As one witness noted, they began to hunt down every black man they could see: “They were shooting at him just the same as birds.” Many freedmen were stalked to their homes, taken from their domiciles, shot to pieces, and their mangled corpses tossed into swamps. One of the victims was an old enfeebled grandfather. Some freedmen were forced to stand on tree stumps before they were killed. Caldwell escaped, but the posse told his wife that no matter how long it took, they would find him and he would perish like the rest:

We have orders to kill him and we are going to do it, because he belongs to this Republican Party and sticks up for these negroes … We are going to have the South in our own charge … and any man that sticks by the Republican Party, and he is a leader, he has got to die.

This anarchy and bloodlust eventually resulted in the infamous Mississippi Plan. What happened in Hinds County was repeated throughout the South by different terrorist groups. Once the violence had achieved its goal—which was to cower and intimidate the potential Republican voters—that result was often sealed by a bizarre, symbolic ritual. On the eve of an election, the Redeemers would mount up armed on horseback, usually in some sort of costume. At night, they would then parade through the main street of town with torches in hand. The idea was to remind any former slave or white sympathizer that there was no political order, no escape, and therefore that the Reconstruction amendments did not apply. The Redeemers held all power, and the opposition was not to be seen at the polls. The impact was overwhelming. During the peak years of Reconstruction, when the Republicans controlled parts of the South and freedmen were part of the state governments, African Americans had voted 90% of the time. Once the Redeemers took power, in some Mississippi townships, no Republican votes were tallied at all. In less controlled counties, the percentage declined by 75%.

Due to the disputed presidential election returns from three states of the South in 1876, both parties agreed on a political compromise. This allowed the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, to become president. In this shameful bargain, neither political party had clean hands. In return for the White House, Hayes agreed to remove the last of the Union armies from the Confederacy. Hayes also agreed not to intervene in the future. The GOP now began to devote itself to the interests of big business in the north. As a result, the Democrats took over what would later be called the Solid South. As the Reconstruction governor of Mississippi, Adlebert Ames, wrote to his wife on November 4, 1874:

What sorry times have befallen us! The old rebel spirit will not only revive, but it will make itself felt. It will roam the land, thirsty for revenge, and revenge it will have … the war is not over yet.


II. The White House and Supreme Court Back the Redeemers

Once Hayes agreed to remove the Union army, and the Mississippi Plan held, the Redeemers began to construct a social, political, and economic system that would approximate the ante-bellum South. To understand why, one must not just acknowledge the racial pathology prevailing there, but also slavery’s economic underpinnings. As one historian has noted, “the economic value of property in slaves amounted to more than the sum of the money invested in railroads, banks and factories in the United States.” (Eric Foner, Forever Free, p. 11) The former Confederacy did not want to develop a new economy to replace what they had. So local and state laws called Black Codes were inscribed. These stated, among other things, that the freedmen had to show evidence of employment while in the city. If not, this constituted proof of the crime of vagrancy. The codes were designed to force the former slaves out of the city and back into the rural areas. There, a new plantation plan was enacted: sharecropping. This system nearly guaranteed that the sharecroppers would never own their own land. The clear alternative to this new form of peonage was to have divided up the great plantations and given them to the newly liberated slaves. In one stroke of justice, this would have gravely weakened the fallen regime and given their former subjects a viable economic future, one which would have provided for the upward social mobility of future generations. This is what the freedmen thought would happen. As Eric Foner has shown, in very, very few instances did it occur. (Foner, p. 60) The Black Codes would later evolve into Jim Crow laws, and those laws would construct a new social system that would make the former slaves into third class citizens—if that. The sharecropping plan would provide much of the new economic system. It would keep the former slaves in the countryside, in debt, and unable to assert any claim to their rights.

As DuBois wrote in his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, the ultimate defeat of the Radical Republican version of Reconstruction was not just a national tragedy. It went further than that. It set an example for subjugation as far away as South Africa and Australia. For now, in a democracy, a standard was set to deprive nonwhite peoples of their political rights simply on racial grounds. (“Why Reconstruction Matters”, NY Times, 3/28/15)

At this point, we come to an episode that resembles a dark fantasy. The Supreme Court of the United States now began to further the Redeemers’ goal in a political manner. Piece by piece, the high court undid what the Radical Republicans had achieved. That is, they neutralized the 14th and 15th amendments, and also the laws the Radicals passed making it illegal to obstruct the rights of the freedmen. The Supreme Court would, over a period of 20 years, in a methodical and systematic manner, negate it all. By doing so, it would reverse Alexander Hamilton’s dictum in the Federalist Papers. There, he wrote that the court would be the last bastion of protection for the weak against the strong. He then added that the lifetime appointment and lack of accountability would constitute a saving grace for liberty. To put it mildly, he was wrong. (Lawrence Goldstone, Inherently Unequal, pp. 10-13)

Thaddeus Stevens had passed on in 1868, and Charles Sumner in 1874. As several authors have noted, partly due to that, the GOP began to drift away from any further interest in Reconstruction and more toward its ultimate business orientation. The Radicals had favored plantation confiscation and redistribution of land to the freedmen. But the moderate Republicans would not stand up for it. (Goldstone, pp. 28-36) Meanwhile, with their growing interest in big business, the Republicans became enchanted with the writings of Herbert Spencer and Yale professor William Graham Sumner (no relation to Charles). Both writers advanced the ideas of Social Darwinism, which, to put it in simplified terms, postulated that the rich were rich because they deserved to be. As author Lawrence Goldstone notes, it was this philosophy’s growing influence on the Republican Party that forged a spurious intellectual link between the northern industrialists and the planter class in the South. This was furthered by the fact that President Grant appointed two corporate lawyers to the Supreme Court who had both formerly represented railroads. Hence, over a period of 20 years, from 1876 to 1896, the Supreme Court certified and upheld the beliefs of the Redeemers. (Goldstone, p. 72)

The Colfax Massacre

The two cases that began this reversal were U.S. v Cruikshank and U.S. v Reese, both in 1876. The first case arose from the aftermath of the terrible Colfax Massacre, where an estimated 105 freedmen were killed. The Cruikshank decision set free the only three men who had been brought to justice for those killings. In a decision begun by one of the high court’s railroad lawyers riding circuit, the Supreme Court nullified the convictions. The basis for this, the court held, was that the 14th amendment, with its equal protection clauses, only applied to state actions, not to those taken by individual citizens. (Goldstone, pp. 91-96) In other words, if the Klan or any other terrorist group was going to harass, injure or kill anyone, the state would have to bring them to justice—something that, with the Union army gone, was not likely to occur. The Reese case had a parallel effect on voting rights. In that instance, a former slave tried to exercise his right to vote but was denied due to his alleged failure to pay a tax. The Supreme Court upheld the circuit decision against the plaintiff. This decision severely qualified the 15th amendment, which had granted the rights of citizenship to all, no matter of what race. It paved the way for states in the south to use all kinds of qualifying barriers like poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses to limit, or eliminate, freedmen from exercising the ballot. (Goldstone, p. 97)

Justice Joseph P. Bradley

Two more mortal blows followed. In 1883, the court gathered five cases that had been awaiting a hearing and combined them into one: The Civil Right Cases. These cases all concerned discrimination in public accommodations, which had been outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Once more, the court ruled against the plaintiffs, even though the act was grounded in the 13th and 14th amendments. The opinion in this case was again written by former railroad lawyer, Joseph Bradley. His contention against the 13th amendment was that discrimination did not necessarily translate into a form of subjugation. With the 14th amendment, which provided equal protection to all citizens, Bradley wrote that Congress did not have the power to nullify private discrimination or overrule a state if it chose to ignore such a private or local law. Consider this statement: “Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject matter of the amendment.” (Goldstone, p. 124)

If the reader can believe it, the NY Times endorsed the decision (Goldstone, pp 127-28), even though the supposition would be that only when a state announces its intent to discriminate against a particular race, only then could the federal government step in. What was so bizarre about all this was the following: as the justices were diminishing the 14th amendment’s efficacy to maintain rights for the freedmen, which was its original intent, it was expanding the amendment for the purposes of corporations—which had nothing to do with its original purpose. (Goldstone, pp. 144-45)

The coup de grâce in all this was the Plessy v Ferguson case of 1896. As everyone understands, this case concerned the rights of African Americans to travel on the same facilities as everyone else. The case arose out of state law that was inspired by the 1883 decision that segregated races in Louisiana on rail cars. The case went up to the Supreme Court where, once again, the high court decided against the plaintiff. This case established that separate facilities were not necessarily unequal. It was clearly a racist decision. One of the judges wrote, “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” (Goldstone, p. 167)

There were other cases, but these four politically nullified the post-Civil-War amendments and laws meant to correct the conditions in the South that caused that conflict. Goldstone writes that with these in place, the Redeemers’ aims were now achieved. Jim Crow, the separation of races in every respect, was now legal. For the freedmen, civil order in the South was neutralized. There was little fear of retribution or justice. Given these precedents, something like the torture execution of Sam Hose could take place—in public. In 1899, the African American Hose killed his boss in self-defense. The two had argued over money Hose felt he was owed, and the next day the employer came at Hose with a gun. The employee was chopping wood and threw his axe at him, killing the man. Quite naturally, Hose fled. The dead man’s wife now said that Hose had also raped her. A huge manhunt captured the accused and he was brought back to the jail in Newnan, Georgia.

Lynching of Sam Hose (Wilkes)

A large crowd estimated at almost 2000 people gathered around the jail and demanded the sheriff turn over his prisoner. Fearful of an assault on the building, he did. The wild, violent crowd marched Hose several blocks to the public square, yelling, “Burn him.” The governor, who lived there, and a judge pleaded with the crowd to return him to the sheriff. They refused. They then marched outside the town. He was roped to a pine tree and three or four men came at him with knives pulled. One man severed one ear and another the other. His body was stripped and mutilated further. He was dowsed with oil. He was then set afire, and as his body fell loose from the tree, he was kicked back into the flames. When the flames died out, his heart was carved into pieces and sold off as souvenirs. (Goldstone, pp. 5-8; also see this article)

The Rosewood Massacre

This was not the end of it. Not even close. The Supreme Court had unleashed a peculiar mass psychology that, for some, knew no bounds. What happened to Sam Hose was repeated on a much larger scale at places like Rosewood Florida, where an entire village was virtually incinerated; Tulsa Oklahoma, where a whole section of the city was charred in flames and perhaps 300 African Americans were killed; and in Ocoee, Florida, where approximately sixty African-American were killed, 330 acres were burned, and the survivors were forced to leave town. At Ocoee the crime was trying to vote. Whenever one hears a speaker droning on about American Exceptionalism, the reader should mention these incidents, and these Supreme Court decisions. In this author’s opinion, the pattern of these atrocities resembles the first outbreaks of violence against the Jews in Nazi Germany.

The Tulsa Massacre

(The following article from The Atlantic also reviews how a Republican dominated Supreme Court nullified, step by step, the achievements of Reconstruction, aiding the Redeemers. It then draws a parallel with the Roberts court and its approach to minority groups, including Muslims. See “The Supreme Court is Headed Back to the Nineteenth Century”.)

But the myth of American Exceptionalism had to live on, at least with the masses. So a cover-up about Reconstruction was snapped on. It worked on two levels: one with the mass media, and one in academia. On the first level, best-selling authors, like Thomas Dixon and Claude Bowers, began to turn what had happened into an antiseptic fairy tale. The African Americans who briefly played political roles during the era were caricatured as aimless wastrels who bankrupted certain states. The Redeemers were glorified as the rescuers of southern sanctity. Thus the “Lost Cause” mythology was constructed. Dixon did this with a trilogy of novels called the The Leopard’s Spots, The Clansman and The Traitor. How bad were these books? Consider this: “The Negro is the human donkey. You can train him, but you can’t make of him a horse … What is called our race prejudice is simply God’s first law of nature—the instinct of self preservation.” (The Leopard’s Spots, p. 237)

The Clansman was made into a popular play. In 1915, D. W. Griffith transformed it into a spectacularly successful film (Birth of a Nation). Former history professor and then President Woodrow Wilson screened the film at the White House. In the novels, play and film, the facts of Reconstruction are turned upside down. It is the white citizens who are preyed upon by the imperious blacks, and it is the Klan who rescues these poor people from the clutches of the primitives who—according to Dixon—had now descended into their natural state and ruined the South. The Klan saved them. (Foner, pp. 217-18)

The other level of the cover-up was constructed through academics like John W. Burgess, James Ford Rhodes and, above all, William Dunning. The views of these authors were not as melodramatic as Dixon’s, but the picture was pretty much the same. For, as Burgess once wrote, “… a black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, and has never therefore created any civilization of any kind.” (Foner, p. xxii) For Burgess, both the Mali and Songhai empires of Africa did not exist. From what was later termed the “Dunning school”, the dominant portrait of Reconstruction was a colorful tableau full of southern Scalawags, northern Carpetbaggers, and incompetent Negro legislators. They combined to run their state economies into the ground. The mad, homicidal mass murders of the Redeemer cause were nowhere to be seen. Because Dunning came from an Ivy League college, namely Columbia, and had his graduate students do advanced work on different aspects of Reconstruction, he was enormously influential. His work became the standard for adopted college and high school textbooks. In fact, author John F. Kennedy used Dunning’s foreshortened portrait of Stevens in his book Profiles in Courage. As we shall see, after a three-year ordeal with the modern Redeemers, Kennedy realized he had been taken.


III. Houston Alters the Current

This sorry record could not have continued unless one had a series of presidents who were willing to ignore it. Woodrow Wilson was not just willing to ignore it. He exulted in it. Birth of a Nation was not just screened at the White House; Griffith used quotes from Wilson’s history books as subtitles. (Foner, p. xxii) Another progressive president, Teddy Roosevelt, was not much better. Roosevelt once wrote (falsely) that, during the Spanish American War he had to fire a gun at his own African American troops to get them to join the battle in Cuba. There was also the Brownsville Affair where, after the shooting of a white bartender, Roosevelt dismissed all the African American troops stationed in three companies of the 25th Infantry Regiment. This amounted to discharging without honor 167 men who now lost their pensions and any opportunity for civil service jobs. Roosevelt’s idea of progress in race relations was to dine at the White House with Booker T. Washington. Washington was the man who urged African Americans to he happy with their lot and learn self-subsistence.

Coolidge with Confederate veterans

William Howard Taft, the third progressive president, also befriended Booker T. Washington. Taft once told a college graduate class at a historically black college, “Your race is meant to be a race of farmers, first, last and for all times.” Campaigning in the South, he said he would never enforce “social equality”. He then told a primarily African American audience that the white Southern man was their “best friend”. Later on, Republican presidents Harding and Coolidge failed to stop, or even criticize, parades of Klansmen before the White House. Herbert Hoover accepted covert backing from the Klan. So much for the party of Lincoln.

The man who began to turn this sorry record around is someone who few people know about. But it was he, not Martin Luther King, who really started the modern civil rights movement. So important a figure does he seem to me that if I had the power, I would level every last Confederate monument and replace each with his image. His name was Charles Hamilton Houston. Because Houston worked in a much less spectacular manner than King, he does not get the attention he deserves. This is a failure of both our media and academia. Every person concerned with this issue should know who he was. He was that crucial.

Charles H. Houston

Houston graduated from Amherst and then served as an officer in World War I. He was greatly disappointed by discrimination in the military, so he decided upon returning to the USA that he would do something about it. As he noted, “My battleground is in America, not France.” He was accepted by Harvard Law School and wrote for the Harvard Law Review. Upon graduation, he decided to create his own version of Harvard at Howard School of Law. His objective was to train a generation of lawyers in order to—piece by piece—reverse the mockery of justice the Supreme Court had decreed in the cases described above. Houston visited the major cities of the southeast and decided his students should go there after graduation, since there were not nearly enough African American attorneys to defend all the cases that needed to be adjudicated.

Houston’s reputation drew him to the attention of NAACP leader Walter White. He became, first, their unofficial lead attorney, and then their special counsel in civil rights proceedings. After participating in the famous Scottsboro Boys case, Houston set his goal as dismantling Plessy v Ferguson. He planned on doing this through challenging the underlying thesis of that decision: that facilities for his race were equal to those for whites. He decided to concentrate his efforts in the field of education. Houston felt that poor schools, especially in the South, were designed to make their students meekly accept an inferior lot in life.

Houston knew he could not directly confront Plessy v Ferguson without creating his own precedents. He began his methodical campaign by attacking the wretched acceptance policies and study conditions for African Americans in graduate and professional schools. Houston observed that in 17 of 19 southern and border state universities there were no students of color in those graduate schools. Two of those states—Missouri and Maryland—paid to have African American students attend schools in the north instead. From 1936 to 1950, in a series of carefully chosen and cogently argued cases, Houston and his student Thurgood Marshall, among others, won a series of cases—e.g. Sweatt v Painter—that set the stage for the objective that Houston had planned for: a reversal of Plessy v Ferguson. Unfortunately, Houston would not live to see the ultimate justification of his life and career. In 1950, his heart failed him due to exhaustion and overwork. Thurgood Marshall paid Houston the ultimate compliment, “We’re just carrying his bags, that’s all.” (see this profile)

There seems little doubt that, as circulated through the scores of African American newspapers—Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Roanoke Tribune, among others—what Houston and the NAACP had begun was to awaken the conscience of many intelligent citizens, both black and white. And this national stirring—after 75 years of dormancy or worse—had an effect on the White House.

A. Philip Randolph

In 1941, union steward A. Philip Randolph and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin organized a large demonstration in Washington. The protest was about passing an anti-lynching law, integrating the military, and fair employment practices in the defense industry.   After meeting with President Roosevelt, the latter agreed to issue an executive order for the last demand. Randolph and Rustin reluctantly called off the demonstration.

As a young man, President Harry Truman was quite prejudiced. But he managed to rise above it, at least in public, after FDR passed. He asked a panel of prominent authors and activists to present a series of reforms the government could take to break down the barriers of segregation. The report was called To Secure These Rights. Truman tried to get it passed as a civil rights bill. He was crushed by the southern bloc in both the House and Senate. (See William Berman, The Politics of Civil Rights in the Truman Administration, pp. 148-9; 162) The southern Democrats had decades of seniority in key committees of both the House and Senate. They had set up a system of barriers, especially in the Senate, to block any civil rights bill from making it through both houses. In the upper house, they had a very strong and disciplined corps that would filibuster any such bill to certain abandonment. This is what happened to Truman. But Philip Randolph managed to salvage one of the aims he lost with Roosevelt by doing the same thing to Truman as he did to FDR. He threatened the president and Congress with a massive display of civil disobedience in Washington unless the military was integrated. Truman signed the order. (Berman, p. 102)

Dwight Eisenhower was never one to inspire the public with his belief in equal rights. Knowing this, Truman made some very strong speeches against Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election. (Berman, pp. 226-28) Eisenhower even resisted Truman’s integration order by suggesting the army should just integrate intact African American platoons into white companies. (Berman p. 205) Eisenhower also did not like what FDR had done with the fair employment statute. (New York Times, 6/6/1952, p. 1) Commenting on it, he said, “I do not believe that we can cure all of the evil in men’s hearts by law … ” Which may be true, but at least a law could prevent that evil from killing someone.

There was a civil rights section in the Justice Department when Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon were in the White House. As Burke Marshall, Bobby Kennedy’s assistant on civil rights, later said, the section was small and seldom used. (Marshall interview with LBJ Library, 10/28/68) Eisenhower and Nixon only filed ten civil rights lawsuits in eight years, and two of those were filed on the last day of his administration. What makes that record so bad is that, for six of those years, the epochal 1954 Brown v Board case was in effect. (Harry Golden, Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes, p. 104) With Brown, Houston’s successors had succeeded in overturning Plessy v Ferguson. Separate facilities were not equal and the court ordered public schools to be integrated with deliberate speed.

That decision sent a shock wave through the South. Segregated public schools and undergraduate education had been twin keystones of Jim Crow. But Eisenhower paid no real heed to the Brown case. In fact, he once told a reporter that the decision had set back progress in the South at least 15 years. (John Emmet Hughes, The Ordeal of Power, pp. 200-1) Nixon pretty much agreed. He said, “… if the law goes further than public opinion can be brought along to support at a particular time, it may prove to do more harm than good.” (Golden, p. 61) This was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The law was not going to go very far since the administration was not supporting it to any real degree. In the six years after the Brown case, neither man ever stated publicly that they were behind the decision.

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine”

During Eisenhower’s two terms, two explosions ripped through the South: Brown v Board and the Rosa Parks/Martin Luther King Montgomery bus boycott. During those eight years, Eisenhower had two achievements in the civil rights field. In 1957, acting on the Brown decision, the Little Rock School Board voted to integrate Central High. Governor Orval Faubus decided to defy the board. On September 3rd, the first day of class, Faubus stationed the National Guard around the school to keep the designated African American students—called the Little Rock Nine—outside. While the court and the board were being defied, Eisenhower did not blame the governor and he did not consider the event Washington’s business. In fact, he went on vacation to Newport, Rhode Island. (LA Times, 3/24/1981, “Is Eisenhower to Blame for Civil Rights Explosion?”)

Bill Clinton with Orval Faubus (1991)

As the spectacle dragged on for days on end, Faubus visited Eisenhower in Newport. The president thought the governor understood he had to pull out the National Guard. He did not, and the nine students were left ostracized. Under threat of a court injunction, Faubus pulled out the Guard on Friday, September 20th. On the following Monday, with no authorities there, as the nine students tried to go inside, they were assailed, jeered and spat on by the angry crowd outside. It was not until the 25th that the White House finally decided, with the state authority gone, to send in federal troops to control the mob. The school was now integrated. (LA Times, “Is Eisenhower to Blame”)

That 22-day standoff helped convince many people of color that the Republican Party did not have their interests at heart. As Robert Shogan wrote in the LA Times, Eisenhower was in a strong position to do something about the racial issue. He had won two landslide elections. He enjoyed strong popularity and trust in both the North and South. He could have assured everyone that this move towards reconciliation was in their interest. Ideas about the issue were in an emerging, moldable form. (LA Times, “Is Eisenhower to Blame”) What did he choose to do at this fateful crossroads?

Not much. In 1957 his Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, sent a bill to Congress creating something called the US Civil Rights Commission. This was a six-person panel furnished with a chief counsel. It was supposed to submit a report on its racial findings to the White House. In its final form it was as much Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson’s bill as it was Brownell’s or Eisenhower’s. Knowing that the bloc of southern Democratic senators would derail the bill in its original form, Johnson agreed to remove its most potent aspects. LBJ saw this as an opportunity to keep his own party united while making himself more palatable to northern and western liberals for a possible run at the White House in 1960. (Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power, pp. 122-25) Although it concentrated on voting rights, most informed commentators considered the bill largely symbolic, since it had little power to enforce its own recommendations. The bill also turned the Justice Department’s civil rights section Truman had established into a formal division. Later on, in 1960, the act was slightly modified by giving the Justice Department the power to inspect local voting rolls and introducing penalties for anyone who obstructed a citizen’s attempt to vote. Again, this was all Johnson could get through since he could not halt the filibuster. (For a chronicle of what the commission accomplished, see Harris Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings, pp. 461-83) Many accused Eisenhower of leaving the whole civil rights imbroglio, now highlighted by bombing and assaults over the Brown decision, to his successor.

To summarize: under pressure from Philip Randolph, Roosevelt issued a fair employment order for the defense industry and Truman integrated the military. (The former lapsed when Truman could not get it renewed.) After three weeks of state military resistance, Eisenhower sent troops to integrate Little Rock. He then, along with LBJ, created a civil rights commission with little enforcement power. This was the sum total of what had been done in 84 years for the sorry plight of African Americans in the South since the Redeemers’ bloody triumph in 1876.


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Last modified on Saturday, 03 November 2018 17:40
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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