History People Are Talking About Archives 10-27-03 to 11-25-03History Being Talked About
Sean Wilentz: JFK Was Another Master of the Senate (posted 11-25-03)
Sean Wilentz, writing in the NYT (Nov. 21, 2003):
Some years after John F. Kennedy's assassination 40 years ago tomorrow a counter-Camelot myth took hold among historians and journalists. Supposedly, Kennedy was a reckless cold warrior, knee-deep in conspiracies against Fidel Castro. On domestic policy, he was timid and ineffective.
According to the myth, the only good that came from Kennedy's presidency, except for his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, was achieved by Lyndon B. Johnson. Amid a wave of sympathy after Kennedy's death, Johnson used his political savvy to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson, the master politician, really mattered. The feckless Kennedy did not except as a romanticized martyr.
Those claims are false, as abundant historical evidence shows....
By November 1963, Kennedy, displaying genuine political courage, had firmly committed his administration to the civil rights cause. This was a great shift from 1961 and the early months of 1962, when he regarded civil rights protesters with a mixture of skepticism and annoyance. A great deal had happened since then to change Kennedy's mind: the bloody battle over the desegregation of the University of Mississippi; violent official repression by white racists like Bull Connor, the public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala.; and the peaceful civil rights march on Washington in August 1963, followed days later by the deadly Ku Klux Klan bombing of a black church in Birmingham.
The president came to grasp the magnitude of the change in the national mood. On June 11, 1963, he delivered on national television a remarkable address that declared civil rights a moral issue "as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution."...
As for foreign policy, Kennedy probably would not have Americanized the war in Vietnam, as Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy on reflection have conceded. After the missile crisis, he was embarked on a course to wind down the cold war and stop nuclear testing and proliferation.
The Lack of Appreciation for Booker T. Washington Shows a Failure of Imagination (posted 11-25-03)
Mark Bauerlein, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 25, 2003) (subscribers only):
In our own time [Booker T.] Washington stands as but a curiosity, the culpable antagonist of Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and the NAACP. In 1990, when Publications of the Modern Language Association issued a special number on African and African-American literature, Washington earned but two glancing citations. About a year ago, at an American-studies conference, a distinguished scholar delivered a talk on the paradigm of the post-Reconstruction black intellectual, Du Bois serving as model. In the discussion, when I asked how Washington fit into the scheme, the lecturer replied, "I can pretty much do without Booker T."
That characterization is too simple -- not wrong, but too easy and extreme. It satisfies our belief in equality, but marks a failure of historical imagination. For to cast Washington as a post-Reconstruction Uncle Tom toadying to wealthy whites and checking rival blacks is to ignore two contexts: first, the complex, heated circumstances in which Washington moved; and second, the many activist efforts Washington fostered on the sly. Both issued from a milieu foreign to our own, a bizarre medium of sectional resentments, racial/sexual fantasies, and naked power politics. To appreciate Washington's tactics, we must return to the 1890s social scene, when lynch law was an open question, the black vote a harbinger of Negro rule, Negro education a dubious good, and Reconstruction a bitter memory. In that setting he occupied a unique post: the polestar of racial dispute, the public appeaser and private troubleshooter. Each controversy, it seemed at the time, every white critic and black rival, jeopardized his life's work, and sometimes his life....
He strode the corridors of power and wealth, yet had to maintain an inferior pose. He preached humility and played down his own ego, but Bookerites and philanthropists made an idol of him, and white supremacists and black militants obsessed over his deepest intentions. The only way to sustain Tuskegee, increase federal appointments for African-American people, and, most importantly, carve out in American society a space in which they may gain an economic foothold, he reasoned, was to appease the factions. [Novelist and racist Thomas] Dixon called him "the greatest diplomat his race has ever produced," and Du Bois marveled at his "tact and power ... steering as he must amid so many diverse interests and opinions."
Conciliation was Washington's public pose. The other context mentioned above, his activist maneuvers, he kept quiet. Here are just a few of them:
* In the face of Jim Crow segregation, Washington openly discouraged anything but sober accommodation and going about one's business. Protests and boycotts, he argued, only made things worse. But when W.E.B. Du Bois filed a lawsuit against the Southern Railway for denying him a sleeping-car berth, Washington acted as a silent partner. He prodded Pullman Company President Robert Todd Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln's son) to revise company policy, and coaxed Bookerites in Virginia and Tennessee to initiate similar lawsuits. In late 1902 Washington assured Du Bois, "if you will let me know what the total expense will be [for the court case] I shall be willing to bear a portion of it provided I can hand it to you personally and not have any connection with your committee."
* Publicly, Washington disapproved of any show of black force. But when Southern states began to disband colored militia in 1905, he asked Secretary of War William Howard Taft to intervene. And when President Roosevelt dismissed colored troops in Brownsville, Tex., after a skirmish with town residents, Washington lobbied him to reverse his decision, repeating his demand to the point of risking his support.
* The Tuskegee Machine was a domineering monolith, intent on turf preservation, gobbling up Negro-directed philanthropy and litmus-testing everyone. But it was also a financial distribution center. Through Tuskegee, monies could be collected en masse, then dispensed accordingly -- a court case here, a newspaper there -- the beneficiaries sometimes having no relation to Tuskegee interests....
One could list many more clandestine deeds and fill out the record of Washington's achievement. Nobody can deny his periodic groveling, but a reasoned accounting of his import must include these activist plots, however covert they were. Historians like Louis R. Harlan have documented Washington's complex situation and progressive actions, but they haven't saved him from censure and oblivion. Perhaps we find Washington's accommodationism too offensive to be contextualized by 1900s-era pressures, too glaring to be balanced by his civil-rights maneuvering. The equivocations, the secrecy, the unctuousness with white people and competitiveness with black people -- they're too much to abide. True, but that makes Washington a gauge of our historical consciousness, of our capacity to interpret black/white relations as a historical problem as well as a moral one.
Gerald Posner: Impostors Are Being Taken Seriously by the Media During Kennedy Commemorations (posted 11-21-03)
Gerald Posner, in an email sent to friends on Nov. 20, 2003:
The 40th anniversary media blitz for JFK's assassination is almost over (holding on against a thread against the Michael Jackson onslaught). For those of you who might have missed it, the Today show this morning was one of the best segments, in which I was joined by historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Haynes Johnson. Also, I canceled at the last moment with shows like MSNBC's Jesse Ventura, who were putting on guests who claimed falsely to be witnesses to the assassination. The problem of false witnesses inserting themselves into the Kennedy assassination is getting worse. The History Channel broadcast an hour this past Monday about a purported girlfriend of Oswald's, a woman who has been trying to peddle her story for several years to publishers, but after even the most minimal investigation, her story had been regularly rejected as a great piece of fiction. Unfortunately, the History Channel compounded it's errors by running another hour about LBJ being behind the murder (and if you saw the Today show this morning, you saw Doris Kearns Goodwin rip into the History Channel for that show). Also, a doctor who now has stepped forward and claims to have been at Parkland hospital when JFK was treated, appears never to have even been in the emergency room.
It is a shame that something as important as the JFK assassination can be turned into a board game where people distort the truth by falsely putting themselves into the story in order to get their 15 minutes of fame or try to cash in.
Finally, since I've been making the rounds again, I have once again had a lot of feedback from all my enduring "fans" on the conspiracy side (some of you might have seen the Court TV interview the other night when I had to ask Dr. Cyril Wecht to calm down because he was getting so angry and excited I thought his blood pressure was about to rocket). So I'm including below a short note that is typical of many I've been receiving. Isn't it great that there are so many kind thoughts being directed my way this week?
Date: November 21, 2003 10:29:50 AM EST
Subject: Gerald You are Lying sack of excrement
How much does the CIA pay a scumbag like you to spread your disinformation ??
You are lying sack of garbage .
The Kennedys were going to shut down the CIA to stop their New World Order agenda. Thats why the CIA killed kennedy .
I anxiously await the day you and all the other lying disinformation scum get your divine justice, may it be slow and merciless.
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