Civil Rights and Civility
|I once knew a
hardheaded intellectual who defended the U.S. alliance with South
Africa as a necessity of the Cold War. He was deeply suspicious of liberal
attacks on South African racial apartheid; he thought such criticism served
Though his analytic geopolitical mind seemed immune to moral indignation, he startled me one day, in a private conversation, by expressing a bitter contempt for apartheid. You dont have to humiliate people that way, he said. He was willing to make every allowance for the situation of white South Africans. Nevertheless, he thought their treatment of blacks was needlessly and inexcusably insulting. I never heard him speak with such outrage even about communism, which he hated.
All this came back to me the other day as I was reading Pillar of Fire, the second volume of Taylor Branchs biography of Martin Luther King Jr. One chapter tells the swirling story of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was conceived while John Kennedy, who was cool to it, was still president and passed, after Kennedys murder, with the passionate support of Lyndon Johnson.
Branch writes grippingly, and he endows the history of the civil rights movement with an epic quality. But he is also frank about Kings failings, our knowledge of which is chiefly due to
This will destroy the burrhead! Hoover cried as he read a transcript of Kings obscene revels in Washingtons Willard Hotel. After John Kennedys assassination, Hoover also treated Attorney General Robert Kennedy, as Branch puts it, to a shocking, explicitly sexual comment King had made, on tape, about Jacqueline Kennedy as she knelt by the coffin with her children.
Hoover hated both King and the Kennedys, and he plotted, using all the power of the FBI, to sharpen the tensions between them. Its an amazing and sinister story.
I wonder, though, if Branch isnt making too much of the purely political aspects of what used to be called the Negros struggle for equality. He seems to think everything hinged on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and tends to overlook deeper cultural factors.
Far more important than any legislation was the cultural climate of America. Most white Americans in 1964 still regarded blacks as their inferiors. But they had, as people generally do, mixed feelings. They didnt want to appear prejudiced, and even more than that, they hated to feel they were humiliating blacks.
Liberalism tends to confuse subordination with suffering. When it recalls slavery, for example, it exaggerates the role of whips and chains and forgets that most slaves were resigned to their lot. If slaves (in the Old South, ancient Rome, or ancient Egypt, for example) had been constantly on the verge of insurrection, slavery would never have been viable. But slave societies have always depended on the assumption, shared by both the slaves and the masters, that slavery is a necessary and ineradicable fact of life. Affection between slaves and masters often made slavery more bearable, though it could never make it right.
The very idea of abolishing slavery is a modern one, which arose in Christian civilization. The pagan world never produced an abolitionist movement, though individual slaves often gained their liberty.
In America, it was Christian sentiment that recoiled, first, from slavery itself and, later, from humiliating black people. This was why passage of civil rights legislation was possible at all. And even without that legislation, most Christians, once they became aware that blacks found their customary treatment insulting, would have tried to amend it voluntarily.
Every report of white cruelty and violence against blacks caused other whites to feel shame, indignation, and the desire to show decency and benevolence. These reactions could lead to their own excesses and hypocrisies, but that doesnt discredit them at all.
The fallacy that warps our discussion of slavery and race relations is the notion that everything depends on legislation. This fallacy gives political leaders a stature they dont deserve. What makes life tolerable in America is the simple fact that most people want to be civil, in the full sense of that underrated word.
|Copyright © 2007 by the
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
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