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The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equalityby Nick Bryant
Synopses & Reviews
In the summer of 1963, in the wake of the Birmingham riots and hundreds of other protests across the country, John F. Kennedy advanced the most far-reaching civil rights bill ever put before Congress. Why had he waited so long? Kennedy had been acutely aware of the issue of race--both its political perils and opportunities--since his first Congressional campaign in Boston in 1946. In this, the first comprehensive history of Kennedy's civil rights record over the course of his entire political career, Nick Bryant shows that Kennedy's shrewd handling of the race issue in his early congressional campaigns blinded him as President to the intractability of the simmering racial crisis in America. By focusing on purely symbolic gestures, Kennedy missed crucial opportunities to confront the obstructionist Southern bloc and to enact genuine reform. Kennedy's inertia emboldened white supremacists, and forced discouraged black activists to adopt increasingly militant tactics. At the outset of his presidency, Kennedy squandered the chance to forge a national consensus on race. For many of his thousand days in office, he remained a bystander as the civil rights battle flared in the streets of America. In the final months of his life, Kennedy could no longer control the rage he had fueled with his erratic handling of this explosive issue.
"In this critical look at Kennedy's handling of the civil rights struggle, Bryant, a former BBC Washington correspondent, provides a riveting but flawed read. From Kennedy's first campaign for Congress, when he targeted black voters, to his last days wooing Southern moderates in Texas, this narrowly focused book depicts Kennedy as a 'minimalist' whose 'sometimes cynical, sometimes sincere' manipulation of black opinion gave him a false sense of accomplishment. It shows how Kennedy swerved from rapprochement with segregationist Democrats during his failed bid for the vice-presidency in 1956 to the liberal vanguard during his run for president. Bryant claims that until halfway through his presidency, Kennedy viewed the race problem with 'cool detachment,' worrying mainly that the Soviet Union would cast the U.S. as weak on human rights. His taste for 'piecemeal reform' might have worked with the wider public, Bryant argues, but it emboldened both white and black militants, and his call for legislation to speed up school desegregation came too late. By the time he was assassinated, Kennedy had 'abdicated his responsibility to lead the great social revolution of his age,' Bryant asserts. While that may be true, this well-written book fails to consider the immense distractions of the other historic struggle that Kennedy faced: the Cold War, at its height. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The legend of John Fitzgerald Kennedy has risen and fallen over the years, in part due to constant reinterpretation of the known facts about his thousand-day presidency by historians and others, and in part due to the political mood of any given moment. One aspect of that legend, though, has remained remarkably consistent over the years: that at the hour of his assassination in November 1963 he was... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) widely admired and loved, especially by Democratic liberals. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Cuban missile crisis was by then a year in the past, and the glow it had imparted to Kennedy's reputation had faded. Though the international situation was generally calm and stable — the long-term consequences of the American 'advisers' Kennedy had sent to Vietnam were then largely invisible — the domestic scene was troubled, especially with regard to civil rights. Black Americans were growing ever more restive. White Americans were still sympathetic to their cause, at least outside the South, but hints of the backlash to come were evident, especially in the rise of Barry Goldwater and the Republican right. In this atmosphere of deepening crisis, Kennedy had done ... not much. In June 1963, angered by 'threats and defiant statements' by Gov. George Wallace over desegregation of the University of Alabama, Kennedy gave a powerful television address in which he called civil rights 'a moral issue ... as old as the scriptures and ... as clear as the American Constitution' and then proposed significant federal civil rights legislation affecting public accommodations and related matters. But Congress had shown little interest in acting on the bill, and Kennedy had shown little interest in pressing it to do so. His focus was on the 1964 election. He wanted (and expected) a clear victory, and he did not want to give undue offense to those Southern voters who had, arguably, given him his narrow victory in 1960, a cliffhanger that still haunted him three years later. So in the fall of 1963, a great many people who had strongly supported Kennedy in 1960 were angry with him. They felt that he had given little more than lip service to the great political, social and moral issue of the day, that he was at best ineffective in his dealings with a balky Congress still under the thumb of a bigoted Southern minority, and that there was too little substance behind that handsome, photogenic exterior. At the instant of his assassination, all that changed and was quickly forgotten, but it is a historical truth that needs to be brought back to light. This is one of the many things that Nick Bryant, a BBC correspondent, does in 'The Bystander,' an exhaustive (and, yes, exhausting) examination of Kennedy's record on civil rights from his first race for Congress in 1948 to his death 15 years later. It is a complicated story with as many ups and downs as Kennedy's reputation, but overall it does him little credit. The subject of African-American rights produced 'a bewildering range of possibilities' in him: 'At times, he was capable of genuine acts of compassion and thoughtfulness. On other occasions, he was cold, disparaging, and notoriously unresponsive — and never more so than when blacks criticized the inadequacy of his policies. Even at moments of great crisis, he could display a numbing indifference to violence and bloodshed.' He 'tended to be cold and calculating when organized civil rights protesters tried to pressure him into taking a political stand. He was much more sympathetic to individuals who had suffered directly from the violent outrages of segregation.' Now, more than four decades later, it is easy to forget just how violent those outrages could be. It was during Kennedy's presidency that James Meredith's attempt to enroll in the University of Mississippi met with mob violence abetted by state and local law-enforcement officers; that Bull Connor's cops turned high-powered fire hoses on black protesters (many of them children) in Birmingham; that four schoolgirls were killed when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in that same city was bombed. Yet it was all too characteristic that after this last outrage, Kennedy said nothing — nothing — in public. This was three months after Kennedy had called civil rights 'a moral issue,' yet about the deaths of those four girls in what was transparently an attack motivated solely by bigotry, he had nothing to say. This, Bryant argues, is further evidence that Kennedy 'still did not fully comprehend what blacks were up against in pockets of fierce segregationist resistance, like Birmingham.' Doubtless this is true, and doubtless it reflects certain obvious realities: the isolating effect of the wealth and privilege Kennedy had enjoyed all his life and the additional isolating effect of the Oval Office. The only black American with whom Kennedy spent much time was George Thomas; they had a mutually friendly relationship, but Thomas' 'job each morning was to lay out the president's clothes.' Beyond that, he simply wasn't very interested in domestic issues except as they affected his political standing; he believed that the first job of the president was foreign affairs, and during his term many things happened — the Berlin Wall, the missile crisis, Vietnam — that obviously confirmed him in that belief. It is also true, as Bryant emphasizes, that 'temperamentally and ideologically, Kennedy was a gradualist.' He did not have an ounce of the zealot in him. Even with regard to the Cold War, about which he had strong feelings, he was clinical and detached. Indeed, the effect of American racism on the Cold War mattered more to him than its effect on America and its black citizens; he knew that instances of bigotry and segregation gave the Soviet Union a powerful propaganda weapon against the United States, and he wanted to neutralize it as much as possible. He was essentially passive on the moral issues raised by segregation and manipulative on the political ones, yet his record as president was far from bleak. He and members of his administration did many things that had powerful symbolic effect, from appointing a number of blacks to visible positions to boycotting the Metropolitan Club, 'where the only blacks allowed into the dining room were stewards with napkins folded over their arms,' to staging festivities at the White House where blacks were prominent as guests and performers. This may seem tame today, but in the early 1960s it bordered on the revolutionary, and 'the very gestures that black leaders and liberals derided as token were, in fact, highly effective in terms of sustaining widespread black support.' Yet it was also Kennedy who appointed several outright segregationists to the federal bench — most notoriously William Harold Cox, a buddy of Mississippi's racist senator James O. Eastland — and who repeatedly equivocated as the sit-ins spread and as black demands became more insistent. As a young congressman, he had 'battled hard for new civil rights legislation and fought tenaciously on behalf of black residents in the District of Columbia,' but once he entered the White House in 1961, he made a 'decision to back away from civil rights.' He stuck with that decision until May 1963, when events in the South convinced him 'that further equivocation could engender further violence.' Yet only four months later, he kept his silence on Birmingham. Bryant understands that Kennedy's instincts were decent but that he was ruled by innate caution and a keen sense of political realities, at least as he understood them. Bryant also believes that the nation was far more ready for vigorous action on civil rights and that by failing to seize the moment, Kennedy may have contributed, however unwittingly, to white resentment and resistance. Bryant, who studied American history and politics at Cambridge and Oxford, is that genuine rarity: a Brit who actually understands the United States. 'The Bystander' does retrace too much familiar ground in too great detail, but it is solid, knowledgeable and perceptive. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at)washpost.com." Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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The definitive account of JFK's engagement with the race issue--from his first campaign in Boston through his presidency--reveals a disturbing portrait of a great American icon
Bryant's account of John F. Kennedy's engagement with the race issue reveals that Kennedy's cynicism caused him to neglect crucial opportunities to defuse the most explosive domestic crisis of his era.
About the Author
Nick Bryant holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University. From 1998 to 2003, he was Washington correspondent for the BBC; he is currently the BBC’s Australia correspondent, based in Sydney. He has written for numerous London newspapers, including The Times, The Independent, and the Daily Mail. He lives in Sydney, Australia.
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