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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Today the Weekend Reader brings you Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act by Clay Risen, editor of The New York Times op-ed section. Bill of the Century details the arduous mission of civil rights leaders to pass a bill that granted equal rights to millions of Americans regardless of race, sex, or religion. Risen explores the long list of other important contributors  who drafted the bill and pushed it through Congress, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy, and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

You can purchase the book here.

While in Birmingham, [Assistant Attorney General Burke] Marshall had spent some time talking with Dick Gregory, a black comedian and outspoken civil rights activist. Gregory said that part of the administration’s problem was that the Kennedys never actually talked with black people. Marshall relayed the suggestion to Robert Kennedy. The attorney general asked if Marshall could set up a meeting with the author James Baldwin, whose essay “Letter from a Region of My Mind” he had read in the New Yorker. Marshall got in touch with Baldwin, who agreed to come to Washington to meet Kennedy on May 23.

When the day arrived, though, Baldwin’s plane was delayed, and by the time he got to Kennedy’s northern Virginia home, the attorney general had only twenty minutes to talk. Kennedy began by admitting that the proposals under consideration were focused on issues facing Southern blacks and would do little to help those in the Northern cities. What, he asked Baldwin, should be done? Baldwin offered to assemble a group of black activists and intellectuals for Kennedy to meet with. By chance, Kennedy said, he was going to be in New York the next day—why not set up a get-together that afternoon?

The next morning, Kennedy, Marshall, and Oberdorfer flew to New York for a meeting with the heads of several major five and dimes, theaters, and department stores—Woolworth’s, Kress, J. C. Penney, McCrory, Sears—to discuss what they could do to desegregate their branches in the South. Kennedy came away with noncommittal responses, assurances that the chains would do the best they could but that they could not promise anything that would undermine their profits, which in the South, they insisted, meant acceding to customers’ demands that they remain segregated.

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Kennedy and his aides then headed to his father’s apartment at 24 Central Park West for the meeting with Baldwin’s hastily assembled focus group. If not a who’s who of the black community in New York, it was a good cross-section: Kenneth Clark, the eminent psychologist from the City College of New York; the singers Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne; the playwright Lorraine Hansberry; Jerome Smith, a twenty-four-year-old veteran of the Freedom Rides; Baldwin’s brother David and a friend of his, Thais Aubrey; Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawyer, Clarence Jones; and the Urban League activist Edwin C. Berry. (The white actor Rip Torn, who was active in civil rights, was also there.)

Clark and Berry were supposed to set an intellectual, measured tone for the meeting, but it derailed almost immediately. “In that moment, with the situation in Birmingham the way it was,” said Horne later, “none of us wanted to hear figures and percentages and all that stuff. Nobody even cared about expressions of goodwill.”

Smith, a passionate man with a pronounced stammer, began by saying, “Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you or your brother.” He said it was obvious that the Kennedys did not care about Southern protesters. In fact, he said, just being in the same room as the attorney general made him sick to his stomach.

Kennedy was visibly offended, but rather than engage with Smith, he tried to ignore him. He began addressing Baldwin, but Hansberry cut him off. “You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General. But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” she said, pointing at Smith. The young Freedom Rider began explaining what he had lived through in the South, emphasizing how little the federal government had done to help him.

Eventually Kennedy interrupted him. “Just let me say something,” he said.

“Okay,” said Smith, “but this time say something that means something. So far you haven’t said a thing!”

Kennedy tried to explain the bills, but Smith just scoffed. The situation was far too dire. He was a nonviolent man, he said, but he was unsure for how long. “When I pull the trigger, kiss it goodbye!”

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  • charleo1

    Reading the retelling of that meeting between some prominent Civil Rights
    activists, and intellectuals, and AG Robert Kennedy. The thought occurred to me, it was most likely the only meeting Bobby Kennedy had ever attended, that began with, “Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you or your brother.” He said it was obvious that the Kennedys did not care about Southern protesters. In fact, he said, just being in the same room as the attorney general made him sick to his stomach.” And, it also occurred to me, how seldom, if ever, those occupying the highest offices, ever hear, real unadulterated anger, borne out of years of unrelenting frustration, and convenient, placation? And how that’s a shame, that they don’t have to confront it more often. It’s part of the bubble that protects them from the realities of the common man. It’s also true that sometimes anger is all a person’s got left, and it is exactly what our leaders need to hear from time to time.

    • rathael

      This just shows the contempt, racism, hatred, and malice, white southerners, and many white northerners, had then, and still have today. This book is just another that makes “me sick at my stomach”, to know how “sick” humans are. God created man, (African man), there was only one creation, all other humans evolved from the original man. The African never evolved from apes, he was created by God.
      Why the hatred by virtually every other human, toward this “only” original man?

      • Paul Bass

        Oh No, how can this be true! All those pictures of Jesus show him as blond haired and blue -eyed! 😉

    • Something our Emperor should be paying attention to, the American people. Americans need to be standing up to this tyrant we now have in our White House, ALL Americans, including those liberals that seem to think he is God.

      • charleo1

        Emperor, Tyrant, God. It follows that extremists, posing
        false narratives, would also use exaggerated, and strident rhetoric, to attempt to frighten, or upset people. Thus,
        encouraging those who know few of the actual facts, to
        act hastily, and without forethought. And although there
        will be those that will accept without question, the contrived life or death, grievous, and hyperbolized predictions of certain doom. But, I am not one of them.

        • paulyz

          You seem to conveniently forget that it was the Democrat Party that was heavily involved in the KKK and also wanted to keep the “Negro” down. Now it’s the same Democrat Party that keeps them down with government dependency for votes.

          • charleo1

            Really? Did you know African Americans account for 22% of the poverty in the U.S. And receive 14% of
            the total of expenditures for public aid? Or, that Non
            Hispanic Whites account for 42% of the poverty in
            the U.S. And receive 69% of the total public aid?
            Who’d a thunk it? A bunch of poor Whites, mostly
            living in the Republican dominated South, are
            depending on the government at a rate 3X that of
            the African American. It’s not the people by the
            way. It’s how Right Wing corporate ass kissers
            tend to run their State economies, down in dear
            old Dixie. But to your other point about Democrats
            buying votes with other people’s money. One still
            must be poor to qualify for assistance. And the
            poor always have voted in smaller numbers than
            other groups, in higher incomes. The poor, and the young are the least likely to vote. Just as an example. In the 2008 election, of those earning less than $30,000, annually, less than half turned out. An uncommonly large number for this demographic.
            While, in that same election cycle, 78% of those earning 150,000, or more voted. And I know the
            story of how the Dixiecrats turned Republican
            rather than acknowledge, after the Civil Right Act, they were never again, going to be able to put Black people on the back of the bus, the back of the line, or back on the plantation. And the Republicans jumped up and said, dig Lincoln up, and we’ll shoot him again!

        • Paul Bass

          Charleo, I agree wholeheartedly, however you are using far too many “big words” !

          I realize this is a progressive site, so most of us will understand your missives, but while talking to paulyz or kenndeb (wow, he gets to talk for his wife?) words like “hyperbolized” and “vexation” just pi$$ them off!

          • charleo1

            You’re right! How thoughtless of me. Since they are
            usually the very definition of Zen.

      • WhutHeSaid

        Honestly, do you unwashed goobers really feel no shame when you make such ridiculous comments? We get it — he’s black and you’re unhappy about it.

        Please be kind enough to go back inside your trailer and watch Duck Dynasty or something. You may not be intelligent enough to experience embarrassment, but the rest of us cringe when you clueless rednecks flap your toothless gums in public.

  • randyjet

    Bobby Kennedy WAS in WWII as a sailor, not an officer.

  • charles king

    WoW! this took place in my era , I was not aware of Bobby Kennedy involment in the civil rights movement and this is Why? he was assinated by the southern Red Necks. This story should be told to all Americans because this countries People do not know What? Black Americans has endured. I joined the U. S. Navy in 1948, and When? I joined up I was thinking I would go for Twenty years but after three months, I knew I was in the wrong place and I had a hate for White America and that hate remained with me for many years. A White friend and his grandchildren change my whole concept of America and I thank them all the time because they change my way of thinking of My America and its Democracy. Critical Thinking is needed in America because America means many different things to many different People and I think it is about time we all come together and find out Who? we are and if we are for eachother or for someothers. Thank You are the magic words in my book. I Love Ya All. Mr. C. E. King

  • Greenie Beanie

    Since we are each unique, liberty’s principles also serve as a foundation for the rules of law intended to prevent unequal treatment and plunder by agents of the state in the name of fairness, equality, or other illusions.