Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Tracing the Roots of A Sensibility

I found a scribbled note of condolence recently written by my literature teacher during first semester of my high school sophomore year.

I had learned of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (JFK) on November 22, 1963 from friends as I was walking up the hall from my biology class to the literature class where we were reading To Kill A Mockingbird and discussing its relationship to past and current events.

In my native Pacific Northwest it was still morning.

A month earlier, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives had just passed the JFK’s Civil Rights Act (CRA) out of committee after a series of hearings, giving us plenty of context for class discussion around the prize-winning book that Alabama-native Harper Lee had published a few months before Kennedy’s election three years earlier.

It was in this literature class with its focus on “Mockingbird” that I first felt the powerful resonance from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream Speech,” delivered three months earlier, and a poignant contrast to the hate expressed during coverage of the debate of the CRA.

I can’t recall when the semester began if was aware that civil rights leader Medgar Evers had been gunned down in Jackson, Mississippi within hours of when President Kennedy had announced his intent to submit CRA legislation to Congress, or that federal marshals had integrated the University of Alabama only hours earlier.

Even without today’s hyperactive attention deficit fueled by 24/7 news at the time, these events seemed distant and siloed as we were coming of age in the Northwest when interspersed with rights of passage such as drivers training.

But we were all in shock following news of the assassination as we settled into our desks to pick up continued discussion of “Mockingbird” and the CRA, which even more personal from that day forward.

Then, very subtly, the grief expressed by a few whose parents opposed both Kennedy and the Act gave way to sickening relief-tinged inferences that the country had somehow been saved, similar to a few my conservative-Republican father made at dinner that night before being shushed by my equally conservative but more sensitive mom.

My Dad always had difficulty with grieving.

This is when my political ideology began a move toward the center, away my family’s and away from party affiliation.  Six weeks later and just 13 days after the U.S. release of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles,  the House passed the CRA.

People forget that while 96 representatives voted against it, only 34 were Republicans.  Racism and intolerance were far more open and blatant back then but they were also more bipartisan than they seem today.

By March of 1964, as the Senate moved the bill to the floor for debate, the rank of Eagle Scout was pinned to my uniform.  I remember being revolted by the racist rhetoric in the national news and how hollow it seemed to make the Scout Oath sound.

I didn’t feel comfortable with President Johnson, probably because I was still mourning JFK’s murder.  As the Senate voted to close off nearly three months of filibuster and then pass the CRA, I was high in the Rockies on a ten-day, 60-mile hike with friends using pack-horses to march through the Bob Marshall Wilderness in northwestern Montana.

As we heard the news on our return, conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was wrapping up that party’s nomination for President.  I had been leaning toward Goldwater because he was a westerner but then I heard the rhetoric he used to appeal to southern states and learned he had been one of six Republicans along with 21 Democrats to vote against the CRA in the Senate.

Controversy raged for several years over the CRA, much as it has the Affordable Healthcare Act, because it applied to private businesses as well as public agencies.  Goldwater’s opposition was ostensibly not about race but about states’ rights, an argument that had also been used to justify more than 250 years of slavery, subsequently perpetuated by peonage and then Jim Crow laws.

His candidacy marked the beginning of the purge of liberal and moderate Republicans from that party to the degree that near the end of his life in 1998, Goldwater appeared very moderate, even liberal, by comparison.

His campaign loss launched Ronald Reagan’s political career.  The CRA and that party’s transformation also launched an exodus of entire neighborhoods from southern California up into Idaho, marking the beginning of the end of my native state’s progressive, moderate and bipartisan heritage.

My own ideology stayed center through graduation from high school and into college at BYU, which was much more moderate itself in those years.  I was initially hawkish on the war in Vietnam and leaned more progressive on issues such Civil Rights.

Through the late 1960s my support for the war waned and significant levels of student concern about civil rights and the war (even small protests) took hold even at BYU in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The CRA continued to be an issue through the 1968 Presidential election.  We know now from memoirs and other documents that the Republicans led by soon-to-be elected President Richard Nixon had learned to code images and appeals to those who were racially intolerant by racializing references and images as crime.

We know from his chief counsel’s 1970 book, Witness To Power, that the campaign “went after the racists” as supporters while Democratic candidate and CRA-spearhead Hubert Humphrey’s campaign was marginalized by “Yippie-led” protests at the Democratic Party convention in response and outrage to the tragic events of 1968.

It can be argued that this movement still haunts progressives more than 40 years later but America still underwent a major shift toward greater racial acceptance during the 1970s due to the CRA and subsequent voting rights act.

Maybe it is always less painful to view events through literature.  The writers of last year’s hit HBO TV-series The Newsroom gave an excellent and concise summary of the impact of the “Yippes” on Democratic Party politics in 1968.

More relevant to today, the clip contrasts this with the way ultra-conservatives and racists have coopted the Tea Party and its influence on Republicans today, only as the dialogue clarifies, Democrats wouldn’t have nominated or elected “Yippies.”

This literary analysis is an excellent lens through which to understand the zaniness of the Republican-led legislature in my adopted North Carolina today, where each day brings a new outrage, marginalizing legitimate issues.

Maybe literature has always had a tremendous influence on events.  Remember, President Lincoln’s quip in 1862 upon being introduced to Harriet Beecher Snow, the author of Uncle Tom’s CabinHe stated, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"

Similarly, in my opinion, the influence of the Academy Award-winning 1962 adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird on the passage of the CRA cannot be overstated.

My preferences for insight today are biographies and historical analysis. Two books have provided me a clearer lens through which to view how racism in this country has moved between bigotry by individuals and groups to structural racism still so evident today although much harder to detect.

Making it even harder, ironically I was at this point in writing this post when it was announced that in a 5 to 4 vote, the Supreme Court had struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act, which had stood since 1965 until they can be updated by our dysfunctional Congress, which is gridlocked by representatives of the offending states who make up half of the Republicans in congress.

The Man Who Saved the Union by H. W. Brands was published last year, at the time another great book published in 2010, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander was updated.

They also provide a lens through which to see the realignment of today’s political parties through different eras.

The Democrats of that day were forced to compromise with Republicans on the issue of slavery to get the Constitution adopted.  By the time of the Civil War, southern Democrats defended slavery and Republicans opposed it.

After the Civil War, Republican-President Ulysses S. Grant  had to repeatedly send federal troops into the South to thwart attempts to intimidate blacks and find alternatives to slavery as a means to undermine civil rights, including amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

However, when he was succeeded by Republican-President Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republicans gave in to its business/financial wing of the party and withdrew troops from the South, abandoning it along with their support of civil rights to the so-called “redeemers” of the Democratic Party who were rabidly intent on finding alternative ways to enslave.

This enabled various surrogates for slavery that only began to give way after WWII, first to watered-down civil rights legislation passed after being proposed by Republican-President Dwight. D. Eisenhower and then the landmark legislation in 1964 and 1965, which unfortunately many in the Republican Party are trying to undermine today.

It is the World War II generation, shamed by our own country’s hypocrisy while defeating the Nazis, that came home passed those bills, not hippies or yippies and definitely not John Birchers.

Alexander’s book gives an excellent overview of attempts to undermine racial tolerance and equality from the advent of slavery through colonial times, and up to the CRA and after but its thesis supports the view that a form of structural racism was substituted by Republicans in the early 1980s through policies and racialized images of crime in a reiteration of another war on drugs.

More in a subsequent blog on my personal observation of Alexander’s thesis at work when I relocated to North Carolina in 1989 and how her book has helped me to audit my own stereotypes.

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