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Civil Rights, Then and Now, Part One

THINK TANK WITH BEN WATTENBERG
#1407 Civil Rights, Then and Now, Part One of Two.
FEED DATE: March 30, 2006
Ronald Walters


Opening Billboard: Funding for this program is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Americaís Civil Rights Movement was the work of many people, but one name stands out: the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. His bold and courageous action opened the eyes of the nation to racial injustice. Coupled with President Lyndon B. Johnsonís passionate politicking, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became the law of the land. It added millions of blacks to voter rolls but Dr. King was a controversial man. Did his assassination mark the end of the Civil Rights Movement, or the start of a new era? What is the future of the black vote and will it be decisive in the 2006 and particularly the 2008 elections? To find out, Think Tank is joined this week by Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, and author of 'Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates, and American Presidential Politics.' The Topic before the House: Civil Rights, Then and Now, Part One, This week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Ron Walters. Professor Ron Walters, welcome to Think Tank. Welcome back to Think Tank. Youíve been here many times before.

WALTERS: Thank you for having me.

WATTENBERG: Youíre welcome. Now letís begin. Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work.

WALTERS: Well Ben, I started out in the 1950s, actually, as a young man who was head of an NAACP Chapter in my hometown, in Wichita, Kansas.

WATTENBERG: South Kansas?

WALTERS: Wichita, Kansas, yes. And...

WATTENBERG: Where the site of Brown vs. Board, right.

WALTERS: The site of Brown vs. Board of Education. And leading demonstrations in the city against the segregated lunch counters in 1958.

WATTENBERG: So you were an activist Civil Rights person from the get-go?

WALTERS: From the get-go.

WATTENBERG: Good. Good for you.

WALTERS: And as a matter of fact, went on from there to go to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee...

WATTENBERG: Right.

WALTERS: ...and met up with a lot of people who were then involved with Civil Rights. John Lewis was one of my classmates and many others of that era.

WATTENBERG: I have found -- you know, Iím writing now. Itís a small community, people in the political world.

WALTERS: It is.

WATTENBERG: Everybody knows everybody.

WALTERS: No question about it. And many of them came through Nashville at that time. Thatís right. And so I went to Nashville, graduated from Fisk University and then went on, to American University to do my graduate work here in Washington, D.C.

WATTENBERG: In Political Science?

WALTERS: And International Affairs and was very well received at American University where I got my two degrees, MA and Ph.D. and then went on to teach at places like Syracuse University and Brandeis in Boston where I...

WATTENBERG: And then you taught at Howard?

WALTERS: I taught at Howard.

WATTENBERG: I think when we first met?

WALTERS: Yes.

WATTENBERG: Yes.

WALTERS: And spent 24 good years at Howard University.

WATTENBERG: Right, and...

WALTERS: Political Science Department.

WATTENBERG: And then you went over to the University of Maryland.

WALTERS: Thatís right. Where I am now and Iíve been there for nine years.

WATTENBERG: And the name of the institute that you run there?

WALTERS: Well I have two appointments; one in the Government and Politics Department and the other in the Academy of Leadership.

WATTENBERG: Letís pick this story up, because you know you can pick it up 300 years ago. Letís pick it up with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and go forward from there. I think thatíll give us a handle on this thing. And you have a wonderful, if controversial, new book out called ĎFreedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politicsí. And that is always in the news -- Black voters are, Black candidates are and in not too many years weíre going to have a Presidential race in this country and I want to talk about that. So start with -- give me a little capsule bio of Reverend King, Dr. King, and then letís talk about the Voting Rights Act of í65, which I guess is the meat and core of the straight substantive part of the book. So go ahead.

WALTERS: Well Dr. King was very much, I think, a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement and for many people he was the embodiment of it, but I think he was the symbol. Because after World War II, the sensibilities of Black America changed and people began to see the possibilities of achieving equality. So the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which started in 1955 -- one year after the Brown decision of the Supreme Court...

WATTENBERG: Thatíd be í55.

WALTERS: Thatís right, so í54, the Brown decision; í55, the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

WATTENBERG: Thatís Rosa Parks, right?

WALTERS: Rosa Parksí legacy, yes, and Kingís legacy, so that sort of shoves off the movement.

WATTENBERG: He is, at that time, the second in command, beneath his father in Atlanta at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, or do I have that wrong?

WALTERS: No, he is, but thatís only symbolic because he has a church in Montgomery.

WATTENBERG: Montgomery, Alabama?

WALTERS: He has, yes, he has a church in Montgomery.

WATTENBERG: Alright. Okay.

WALTERS: And it is that church that actually becomes the site of the meetings that actually...

WATTENBERG: Of the whole movement. Right.

WALTERS: ...planned the Boycott, thatís right. And that brought him to prominence and so this is very important because without that particular event, we may well have never seen Dr. Martin King, Jr.

WATTENBERG: And the whole movement, the sit-ins and that kind of thing, I remember these great pictures in Life Magazine and the phrase used, it sounds archaic now, was ďthe new NegroĒ. This was in large measure, young people who had come out of World War II and said, ďwhat on earth is going on? We fought a War for freedom and then we come back here and weíre still second-class citizens.Ē Is that about right?

WALTERS: Thatís about right. And the other thing, of course, is that you think about -- I call the period after World War II the second enlightenment.

WATTENBERG: Right.

WALTERS: Primarily because the world had changed. In response to Nazism, the International community had begun to look at itself.

WATTENBERG: And we were catching hell. I mean a guy would drive from New York and the UN down to Washington and when he got to close to Washington, which was a segregated city...

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: ...he couldnít use the menís room, among other things.

WALTERS: Thatís right, he couldnít. And the Soviet Union was picking that up.

WATTENBERG: Exactly.

WALTERS: And beginning to capitalize on it.

WATTENBERG: And deservedly so.

WALTERS: And you had something called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights...

WATTENBERG: Right.

WALTERS: ...the United Nations.

WATTENBERG: Right.

WALTERS: There was a lot of ferment around the development -- enlightenment type principles, and we benefited from that.

WATTENBERG: For the record, I mean, because weíre going to split paths. I mean segregation was an unmitigated evil, in my judgment.

WALTERS: Yes.

WATTENBERG: I mean just, period.

WALTERS: But you know most Americans, when you talk about segregation, it doesnít sound to them like it was something very bad at all. But what they donít understand is that in a lot of places in the United States, at this period in history, you had people in semi-slavery conditions in some places in the South. Iíve been looking at records at the National Archives and you have some places where lynching was still going on. You had some really very deleterious things in this country, so the segregated aspect of it...

WATTENBERG: Yeah, but...

WALTERS: ...but really the mildest form of what was happening to Black people at this time.

WATTENBERG: Let me just interject. That is correct but Iíve been looking at those numbers, I mean there had been substantial progress. You look at the numbers on lynching -- there used to be 300-400 a year and they were down to five or six.

WALTERS: Yes.

WATTENBERG: So, on the other hand, you know -- and half of them were White, but lynch law is a disgusting phenomenon, I mean, on its own.

WALTERS: Well, thatís right.

WATTENBERG: You know they donít have to... Okay, Iím sorry. Go ahead.

WALTERS: Yes. No, thatís right and so I think that given this period, we were not just suffering from segregation; we were suffering from a very strong form of oppression and thatís what led people to begin to try to seek a new dispensation. The Brown decision opened the door...

WATTENBERG: The Brown decision, for the record, did -- well, you tell us what it did.

WALTERS: Yes, the Brown decision was a Supreme Court decision Ė which really overturned...

WATTENBERG: Nine to nothing.

WALTERS: Nine to nothing, thatís right. Plessy v. Ferguson...

WATTENBERG: Right.

WALTERS: ...1896, which said that we could run a society, separate racially, but equal. That was impossible, and the NAACP of course, showed that legally, so that the war in court was very important.

WATTENBERG: And the key attorney on that was Thurgood Marshall.

WALTERS: It was Thurgood Marshall. Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: Who later became a Supreme Court Justice.

WALTERS: And he became a Supreme Court Justice, thatís right. And so this was a seminal case providing the frame, not the legal framework, but providing the temperament, that gave people the confidence so they could change America.

WATTENBERG: And then in the late 1950s a mild, very mild, Civil Rights Act is passed in the Congress...

WALTERS: Yes.

WATTENBERG: ...that Lyndon Johnson, who was the Majority Leader, takes a lot of credit for, I think deservedly.

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: But with the solid South and the segregated South, it was...

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: ...tough going, legally, to get anything through the Congress.

WALTERS: Yes. This was something...

WATTENBERG: What did it actually do -- the Ď58...

WALTERS: It didnít do anything.

WATTENBERG: It didnít do anything? Yes, thatís what I kind of figured.

WALTERS: This was Lyndon Johnsonís foray in the Civil Rights and he did it essentially to respond to some aspects of the civil rights movement then occurring, but basically to begin to align himself up to run for President of the United States.

WATTENBERG: Okay, now he runs in 1960 against John F. Kennedy at a time when weíre not expected to run in all the primaries and wherever Kennedy ran mostly -- not against Johnson but against Humphrey, he wins and he gets nominated in Los Angeles. He wants to pick my -- or his brother, Bobby Kennedy -- wants to pick my heroe, Scoop Jackson, as Vice President. But old man Joe Kennedy, the isolationist, or whatever he was, convinces Jack Kennedy that Lyndon Johnson has got to be on the ticket.

WALTERS: Thatís right. Regional balance, at that time. It was very important.

WATTENBERG: Well, yeah, and because the so-called solid South...

WALTERS: Yeah, thatís right.

WATTENBERG: ...which was a segregationist South...

WALTERS: Was a segregationist, yes.

WATTENBERG: ...was still, to some large extent, although this split was beginning, was voting democratic and you needed those votes, period. I mean, regardless of your ideology, so...

WALTERS: I donít know if youíve heard the point of which Kennedy was able to begin to make some inroads in the Black community because King was in jail. And you know that story about the...

WATTENBERG: Well, tell it though. I know it but you tell it.

WALTERS: But Daddy King was concerned about his son. And Louie Martin, who was a wise old African American, who...

WATTENBERG: I knew Louie from the White House days. We worked very closely.

WALTERS: Worked in a number of White Houses.

WATTENBERG: One of the unsung heroes of the civil rights era.

WALTERS: Yes he is. And the longest tenure of any Black Executive Aide in the White House, because he worked through several of them.

WATTENBERG: And he worked at the Democratic National Committee when I knew him.

WALTERS: He did. But it was Louie Martin who gave Kennedy this idea about ...

WATTENBERG: About writing -- writing the letter, yeah...

WALTERS: ...call King in jail. Call King in jail and try to protect him from any problems there. Give people the sense that you are familiar with him and sympathetic to the civil rights movement. He made the call...

WATTENBERG: John Kennedy did, as a candidate.

WALTERS: ...as a candidate, made the call, and when he did that, it sent an electric shock through this Black community.

WATTENBERG: And Nixon refused to make a similar call.

WALTERS: He did. And Daddy King said, ďIíve got a bag of votes and Iím going to give them to John Kennedy.Ē

WATTENBERG: And the irony of -- for all the crap that Nixon has gone through, subsequently, a lot of it deserved -- Nixon was pretty good on civil rights, given the moment.

WALTERS: He was. He was. He was.

WATTENBERG: I mean he was not a bad -- you know.

WALTERS: But this was a critical decision.

WATTENBERG: No, I -- I know that. I remember.

WALTERS: Because you know the closeness of that election, we had 500,000 votes. And so it made the difference, and Blacks had just voted for Dwight Eisenhower in the previous election. So that was a very critical little story.

WATTENBERG: Now -- and then Kennedy is assassinated.

WALTERS: Yes.

WATTENBERG: And has done -- and was criticized at the time, as I recall it -- notwithstanding the earlier letter. The phrase they used, ďWith a stroke of the penĒ -- there were certain executive orders, like in Housing, I forget exactly what they were -- that he did not do -- and was being criticized in the Black community. Not vigorously, but the inside, where it was.

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: And then heís assassinated tragically in Dallas. And Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, who is held with some real suspicion, for real reasons, in the Black community, becomes the President.

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: And I just read in -- from the 1984 Symposium at the LBJ Library, where my old boss, Bill Moyers, recounts a Press Conference question that Lyndon Johnson got, and it went like this. It said, ďMr. President, all your life you have not shown a whole lot on civil rightsĒ -- Texas was a Confederate state -- it was a complicated thing. ďAnd now all of a sudden youíre Mr. Civil Rights.Ē And the way Moyers described it -- and Iíve got some problems with Moyers these days -- but the way he described it, he said, ďYou could see the wheels going around in Johnsonís head, thinking of a duck.Ē And then he says -- he said, ďYou know, people make mistakes when theyíre young. But when they get a chance to correct them -- particularly correct them as the President of the United States -- Iíll tell you, for me, Iím going to do it.Ē And, you know, his slogan was, ďlet us continueĒ, I mean...

WALTERS: Well thatís right, it was but you know youíre going to have to tell me something. And that is, why this man Lyndon Johnsonís name doesnít come up when we are talking the great Presidents of the United States. Here was a Southerner who in 1957 in that Civil Rights Act when he was head of the Senate, he did something very important, but it was really hollow.

WATTENBERG: Right.

WALTERS: I would argue with you, that in the mid-1960s, he was a believer...

WATTENBERG: A believer?

WALTERS: Yes -- that his association with King, as you said, and the civil rights movement and also issues of White poverty. When Michael Harrington wrote this book, The Other America. And so these issues were coming out, and there he was, sitting there. And he overcame his sectionalism, his parochialism, and he had to twist the arms of these very strong Southern Chairs.

WATTENBERG: And in one of his State of the Union Addresses, he picks up the Martin Luther King line, and he says, ďAnd we shall overcome.Ē

WALTERS: Thatís right, he does.

WATTENBERG: He was at the 100 percent candidate of...

WALTERS: Yes and he was committed, I think, by that time, to responding to the fire that was coming from the civil rights movement in very progressive ways.

WATTENBERG: So what happens, in effect, is you have this tremendous broiling, boiling going on in the country led by Dr. King and youíve got a wholehearted believer in Johnson, and you end up with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

WALTERS: Yes.

WATTENBERG: Which Johnson breaks a few arms on.

WALTERS: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: But I guess it passed and in my judgment, and I think in your judgment from what I read in the book, it changes everything.

WALTERS: Well, this is another point in which I think youíve got to credit him because King had come back from getting his Noble Prize. And he went to Johnson and said, ďWe have to have a Voting Rights ActĒ because Black people -- even though weíve had this 1964 Public Accommodations Act, people still canít vote.Ē And he said, ďLook, Iím sympathetic to you, Dr. King, but Iíve just used up all my marbles with this 1964 Act.Ē So King says, ďOkay. Weíre going to go back down, in the South, and weíre going to write this law.Ē Well, it didnít take long before Selma had occurred and Bloody Sunday...

WATTENBERG: This is the March across the bridge in Selma?

WALTERS: Thatís right, the Edmund Pettis Bridge, yeah.

WATTENBERG: The Edmund Pettis, and which is met, by the Police Chief Bull Conner, with water hoses and...

WALTERS: And the dogs and the water hoses.

WATTENBERG: ...itís all over television.

WALTERS: Thatís right. And the American people get it...

WATTENBERG: Right.

WALTERS: ...as a result of that drama, and he responds, by this magnificent speech at Howard University, where he talks about, ďYou canít justĒ -- remember that -- ďlet people go and take off the shackle and say you were free now and everythingís okay.Ē And then he says, ďFreedom is not enoughĒ and thatís where the title of my book comes from.

WATTENBERG: Okay, well, weíre going to talk about that. Because thatís where you and I, we tend to start diverging a little bit, I believe.

WALTERS: Okay. Alright.

WATTENBERG: How much credit would you assign to King, himself? I mean was he just a great orator or was he an organizer, as well?

WALTERS: Well, King was, I think, the great formulator of the movement. He was an intellectual in the sense that he explained what the civil rights movement was about better than others and in that sense heís not just an orator; heís a thinker. He put together a whole series of ideas based upon the Constitution, based upon the democratic project, that was plausible to the American people. Not all American people at the time, but to enough people in our political institutions, that they could understand -- to hear somebody who was saying something to us, that in terms of the history of this country is the direction we ought to be moving in that was credible. So that in essence, he was an intellectual, not just a speaker. He was not the principal organizer and I donít think that the people around him have been given in a credit, historically, for bringing him in, knowing when to bring him in, when to strategize, how to lay out these marches and demonstrations, how to know when to bring in the media. His principle base of advisors were Black and they were ministers -- they had come out of the Black church, and they knew something about how to appeal to people. And they knew something about how to organize people because they had done this in their own religious practice. So these were very important folks, to him.

WATTENBERG: Now, what happens in this history as I understand it, King hangs a left turn during the last part of Johnsonís Administration. He comes out against the War in Vietnam. Johnson had pled with him: ďjust stay out of that, weíve got enoughĒ. And not a nice thing to do, but in a time of War, you can have the argument, he orders the FBI to tape King to see whatís going on. King, at that time, is taking particularly strong guidance from a man named Stanley Levison, who is certainly a far-left winger and maybe to the left of that, depending on who you talk to. And so King is being taped and when you start tape -- and King had, as we know, an extramarital sex life, and all this garbage starts coming forward. Does that where you start -- does that, the move to the left, coupled with the scandal -- does that harm King and the civil rights movement?

WALTERS: I donít think it does. I think the thing which really harmed the civil rights movement was not so much the discovery that J. Edgar Hoover had been surveilling and wire-tapping King because the kind of intelligence program had started before that, and he had been...

WATTENBERG: On King?

WALTERS: On every -- on all of the major Black civil rights organizations. So King was caught up in the dragnet that they had established some time before that.

WATTENBERG: So you mean Johnson was this great civil rights leader and at the same time was ordering this surveillance? I mean, Hoover was doing it but Hoover worked for Bob Kennedy and for Lyndon Johnson. I mean you canít say it was Hooverís fault, if it was...

WALTERS: Well, you canít...

WATTENBERG: I mean, LBJ was the President.

WALTERS: Yeah, thatís right, and a lot of this, of course, goes back to Bobby Kennedy.

WATTENBERG: Yeah.

WALTERS: But Hoover was, in a very real sense, really his own man and a lot of people feared him. The President depended upon him to have this information because Lyndon Johnson was kind of a Machiavellian personality.

WATTENBERG: But he used that information.

WALTERS: He wanted to use it.

WATTENBERG: He used it when Walter Jenkins surfaced.

WALTERS: Thatís right. He wanted to have his leverage over these figures.

WATTENBERG: And Iím a great admirer of Lyndon Johnson, as you know, I worked for him and everything else, so I mean I think itís -- well, anyway.

WALTERS: No, heís Machiavellian personified.

WATTENBERG: Now, what happens when King moves left is his fallen lance is picked up by Reverend Jesse Jackson, who purveys, with some of your help -- a far-left agenda -- everything from supporting set-asides and quotas to praising Fidel Castro and on and on, and that helps set the image of the Democratic Party as either a left-wing Party or apologetic to left-wing views, which poisons the image of the Democratic Party.

WALTERS: Well, I donít think, Ben, that the movement of the Democratic Party to the left can be put on the shoulders of Jesse Jackson, because heís not controversial to us. He is in the middle of the African American public policy spectrum, our ideological spectrum and I think itís worth recounting the history, which says that the reaction to the civil rights movement was not a reaction to the Democratic Party necessarily, but to civil rights. It began with Goldwater. It was early 1964.

WATTENBERG: And George Wallace, right.

WALTERS: And George Wallace in í68. So that reaction...

WATTENBERG: And George Wallace in í64 won a number of non-Southern states.

WALTERS: That reaction against the Democratic Party had started far before King died and before Jesse Jackson took up the lance. Letís be very clear about that. The issues around which the Democratic Party began to be vilified had to do not with Blacks, but with cultural things, like the passage of Affirmative Action. And the extent to which Blacks were identified with that but also the Democratic Party supported it. That had to do more I think, culturally, with beginning every action to the civil rights movement than anything else, so Jesse Jackson really is not the cause, in much of this. Until he runs for President -- well, weíre talking 1984 -- he runs for President, but much of the reaction had occurred far before that. Twenty years before that.

WATTENBERG: Ron Walters, hold it, we are out of time. Thank you very much for joining us in this first part of our discussion about American Civil Rights and elections. And thank you. Please, remember to send us your comments via e-mail. We think it helps make our program better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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