Friday, August 23, 2013

Fifty Years Later

Every reader my age or older knows where he or she was when President Kennedy was assassinated half a century ago. I myself was on the second floor of P.S. 196 in one of the fifth grade classrooms. My teacher was Mrs. Edith D’Antona, who was famous (at least among the boys in our class) for having been Whitey Ford’s fifth grade teacher twenty-five years earlier.  It was a normal day, a Friday, and we were all looking forward to the weekend. Lunch was over and it was already well into the afternoon when Mr. Tauschner, our principal, appeared at the door looking even more grim than usual and signaled for Mrs. D’Antona to join him in the hallway. We children sat quietly and waited, not sure what was happening but clearly sensing something afoot. The boy behind me—how funny is it that I remember this clearly after so many years?—suggested that the Russians must have already bombed Washington and that we were about to be told to run home to say goodbye to our parents before the bombers arrived over Queens County. Someone else suggested that we must surely have won some prize or award and that they were just figuring out the right way to tell us the good news. I had no idea what was about to happen, but I knew from Mr. Tauschner’s face that it wasn’t good news we were about to hear. After a few minutes, Mrs. D’Antona came back into the room. Her face was ashen. She told us that the president had been shot and that the entire school was to assemble in the auditorium where we would all together hear further details as they were released. The rest of the story, you all know.

But this year marks not only the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, but also of the March on Washington, the massive gathering of a quarter of a million civil rights activists and supporters in Washington in the course of which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  (The exact anniversary of the speech, delivered on August 28, 1963, is next Wednesday.) That means that the March on Washington, more correctly called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, took place less than three months before President Kennedy’s death. Did people find it surprising that the racial divide that seemed so unbridgeable just months earlier appeared to close as the citizenry, united in grief, struggled as one to find a way past their misery into a future divested of the most charismatic leader our country had had since FDR? If there were those who did, I was not among them. Perhaps it just slid past me.  I was, after all, only ten years old.

I have returned to Dr. King’s speech many times over the years, including just recently. At sixteen minutes, it wasn’t that long. (If you haven’t heard it lately and you are reading this electronically, you can hear it on youtube by clicking here.  To read a transcript of the text, click here.)  But, even at just slightly over a quarter-hour, the speech covers a lot of ground. I would like to write to you this week specifically about the specific effect on our American destiny that resulted from the specific juxtaposition of those two events, the King speech and the Kennedy assassination.

First, let’s remember the speech. Dr. King begins by describing the situation of black people in America in his day, comparing it emotionally and extremely unfavorably with the principle of equality for all that underlies the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He speaks about the civil rights workers’ plight, some of whom he acknowledges came to Washington direct from “narrow jail cells” where they had been detained because of their work for equality and justice, yet he optimistically qualifies their travails as “creating suffering” that will surely lead eventually to great things. He outlines the forms that prejudice took in his day—specifically making reference to discrimination in housing, in the hospitality industry, and in the nation’s polling places—and he calls  upon his audience to go back to their homes confident that “this situation can and will be changed.”  And then he gets to his dream, which he says is merely part of the larger “American dream.” 

Dr. King said that he was dreaming of an America that was living out the true meaning of its most basic creed, the one that declares that all are created equal.  He said that he was dreaming of a day when the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave owners could unselfconsciously sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  He said that he was dreaming of a day when even Mississippi, perhaps the state in which racial segregation was the most firmly entrenched, could become known as “an oasis of freedom and justice.” He said he was dreaming of a day in which Americans would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the strength of their character. He said he was dreaming of a day in which black and white children could easily think of each other as brothers and sisters. And he wrapped up his dream by connecting all of these events to the prophet Isaiah’s great vision of a world characterized above all else by equity, by righteousness, by equality, and by a leveling off of the valleys and the mountain peaks of the world so that the world itself becomes a level playing field on which all may play unhampered by prejudice and free to bring solely personal merit to bear in the pursuit of success and achievement.

In other words, the dream part of the “I Have a Dream” speech was not about rancor or hatred, but about a vision of an America that could somehow come to recognize the involvedness of all its citizens in the great mission to establish a republic founded on equality, fairness, and justice for all. 

The first great test of that vision came not three months later when President Kennedy died.  Kennedy had won more than 70% of the black vote in 1960.  Under JFK, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent hundreds of federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders who were working to desegregate public transportation in the south.  When riots broke out at the University of Mississippi after James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran who had been admitted to the university, attempted actually to enroll in classes, President Kennedy sent in five hundred federal marshals to accompany him to the registrar’s building to assist him in the registration process. In the spring of 1964, the president sent several thousand troops to an Alabama air base to restore order to Birmingham after rioting broke out in the wake of Dr. King’s arrest and incarceration in that city, which King himself qualified as “the most segregated city in America.”  And JFK also federalized the Alabama National Guard physically to prevent Governor George Wallace from standing by his promise never to allow black students to enroll in the University of Alabama. It is true that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was only voted by Congress into law after President Kennedy was no longer alive, but the groundwork for that piece of landmark legislation—which at once protected African Americans from discrimination in voter qualification tests; outlawed discrimination in hotels, motels, theaters, and “all public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce;” authorized the U.S. Attorney General’s office to file legal suits to enforce desegregation in public schools, required the government to withdraw funding from any program that discriminated based on race, and outlawed racial discrimination in any but the smallest businesses—was laid during the Kennedy administration so obviously that even Lyndon Johnson himself in an address to Congress just five days after he came to office in the wake of his predecessor’s death said clearly about the pending legislation that "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

In retrospect, it seems to me that the first great test of Dr. King’s vision came with President Kennedy’s assassination. President Johnson could have turned back.  Many, including many in his home state of Texas, would have been happy if he had. But the nation was already in the thrall of Dr. King’s vision…and the notion that the bill that would be the crowning legacy of the Kennedy administration might conceivably not become law was simply more than the country could envisage. There was plenty of controversy.  About thirty percent both of the House and the Senate voted against even the compromise version of the bill. But the overwhelming majority of senators and congressman voted to enshrine in law the principles that Dr. King had imagined in his dream and that President Kennedy had brought the full force of the federal government to bear to make real. By crossing the line in time constituted by President Kennedy’s murder with its values intact, our country became committed to the realization of Dr. King’s dream.

When President Obama speaks next Wednesday in the same spot that Dr. King spoke fifty years earlier, no American will fail to note that even Martin Luther King didn’t dream of there being a black president in what could plausibly have been his own lifetime. (If he were alive, he would only be eighty-four years old. Kennedy, significantly older, would be ninety-six.) But the real shift in the politics of race in America has less to do with there being an African American president and far more with the sea change in attitude that has taken place since the 1960s, a shift so dramatic that there surely must be young people today who can’t quite imagine what the huge fuss back then was all about.

Americans have been bombarded for decades with books and articles detailing the character flaws both of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Some of these accounts have been lewd almost to the point of being defamatory. Others were merely nasty. I have no idea which stories are true and which not, but it seems clear that neither man was a saint. And yet somehow the brief trajectory in 1963 between August 28 and November 22 seems to me to have changed our country permanently. If President Kennedy had lived, he would surely personally have shepherded the Civil Rights Act through Congress.  The fact that he was able to do so posthumously testifies as much to his immense impact on the American psyche as it does to President Johnson’s principled fortitude. But it was the Reverend King’s speech, it seems to me, that changed everything…and which made unimaginable turning back from the course the country had begun to take towards civil rights for all. Before the end of 1963, President Kennedy was dead. Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968. Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, four years after leaving office.  All three men are, therefore, long gone from this world. And it is surely also true that all racial issues in our country are far from being solved. But those few months in 1963 set us on a course we continue to follow towards the vision from Isaiah prominently mentioned as part of Dr. King’s dream of a world with neither advantage nor disadvantage, with neither prejudice nor inequity, with neither justice for some nor injustice for all…a dream that so insinuated itself in the American psyche that even an assassin’s bullet could not weaken its hold on the future of a nation.

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