When U.S. News Was Wrong on Civil Rights

50 years ago today JFK spoke in favor of civil rights, and U.S. News’ editor argued against him.

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U.S. President John F. Kennedy reports to the nation on the status of the Cuban crisis from Washington, D.C. on Nov. 2, 1962. He told radio and television listeners that Soviet missile bases "are being destroyed" and that U.S. air surveillance would continue until effective international inspection is arranged. U.S. government conclusions about the missile bases, he said, are based on aerial photographs made Nov. 1.

50 years ago this evening, President John F. Kennedy delivered his landmark speech on civil rights. As I wrote in my column for U.S. News Weekly, it was his second historic speech in two days. The first, his peace speech at American University, presented a sweeping vision of global peace. His second, given in the wake of the successful resolution of a school integration crisis at the University of Alabama – Gov. George Wallace finally stepped out of the registration building door – was a call for justice at home.

"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue," Kennedy told the country on June 11. "It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."

JFK "did have to be dragged kicking and screaming to putting civil rights before the Congress," historian Robert Dallek observes. That was because the politics were tough, with Southern conservative Democrats blocking any attempts at civil rights; but it was the right thing to do and Kennedy knew it.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Fifty years later it can be hard to understand both the opposition to the civil rights movement and how widespread and in some quarters respectable it was. ("This is not a sectional issue," Kennedy said in his speech. "Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union.")

That's why it's helpful to unearth writing like that copied below, a commentary from the June 24, 1963 issue of U.S. News & World Report by its founder and editor, the nationally syndicated columnist David Lawrence. As a 2008 profile of Lawrence by Alex Kingsbury for the magazine's 75th anniversary notes, "Lawrence's most enduring legacy is arguably his staunchly conservative dispatches, writings that often put him at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy of the day and that have exposed him to the stern judgment of history. ... He was stridently opposed to the civil rights movement, which he saw as too reactionary, and was unabashed in his support of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's efforts to expose Communists in the early 1950s."

[ See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

The raw racism of the Bull Connors and George Wallaces ("segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!") and the violence inflicted on Freedom Riders and other protestors remain seared into the public memory, but in this column Lawrence gives voice to a different, less-remembered strain of segregationist sentiment. His case is lawyerly, intellectual and utterly lacking any sense of moral perspective, comparing the historic and ongoing plight of blacks to that of white business owners forced to desegregate, which he viewed as "an invasion of their private rights by law."

The column reaches a despicable low when he suggests that blacks fare poorly not because their futures were sabotaged by an abject lack of educational opportunities but because of their worth as individuals.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY addressed a nation-wide television and radio audience on the night of June 11th.

But – no spokesman for the opposition viewpoint from either party in Congress was given an opportunity afterwards to make a rebuttal to that same audience. Mr. Kennedy said:

"Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety."

But – the vast majority of the American people certainly didn't have this feeling of disarray or of imminent danger just a few months ago, before the so-called "nonviolent" demonstrations stirred up violence and the Supreme Court of the United States suddenly divested local police authorities of their power to secure the conviction of persons guilty of inciting disorder. The President described the current situation as follows:

"The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives."

But – were these demonstrations spontaneous, or were they organized and directed by persons who deliberately played upon the prejudices and enraged feelings of both sides? The President continued:

"It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right." But – the President nevertheless insisted that laws of a repressive nature and of doubtful constitutionality be enacted to coerce the owners of private businesses to surrender their right to decide how best to maintain their customer relations. Mr. Kennedy declared:

"We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives."

But – can a moral crisis be solved by intensifying the controversy through legislative proposals, especially when the people are not convinced that an invasion of their private rights by law is fair to them or that they should be called upon to give up their cherished right of "freedom of association," as the Supreme Court terms it? The President added:

"Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality... I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law...

"The old code of equity law under which we live commands for every wrong a remedy, but in too many communities, in too many parts of the country, wrongs are inflicted on Negro citizens and there are no remedies at law. Unless the Congress acts, their only remedy is the street."

But – wrongs are frequently inflicted on many whites, too, and the remedy is not sought in mob violence.

Legislation alone, argued the President, cannot solve this problem, and he then added that "it must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country."

But – if race prejudice has "no place in American life," does the President favor intermarriage of Negroes and whites, against which there is the biggest single prejudice between these two races today? Some States still have laws barring such marriages, and the Supreme Court has never invalidated them.

Does the President, moreover, favor laws requiring "integration" of private clubs and private schools? These organizations, along with labor unions, operate under the beneficent license of federal and State law – tax exemption – and are thus "State-connected," as the Supreme Court could classify it.

Mr. Kennedy pointed out in his speech that the "lack of an adequate education denies the Negro a chance to get a decent job," He said that Negro students who have attended segregated schools have "suffered a loss which can never be restored." But – if this be true, why have so many Negroes, in the North and the South, who have attended predominantly Negro schools and colleges been able to attain high positions in the business and professional world, while other Negroes who were educated in "integrated" schools failed? Is a person's success or failure in life dependent only on his schooling? Must we not realistically examine the worth of the individual himself?

The President said: "Every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated ."

But – in reality every American ought to be treated as he deserves to be treated, namely, on the basis of his ability and moral character, and his consideration for the rights of his fellow man. This is the essence of responsible individualism in a free society.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Supreme Court Overturn the Defense of Marriage Act?]

Lawrence was a deeply religious man, according to the 2008 profile, which makes his moral equivalence and conflation of process for justice all the more repellant.

In any case, that this sort of nonsense appeared in the pages of a mainstream publication like U.S. News & World Report is a reminder of just where the debate stood 50 years ago and so how far we have come.