Sunday, June 15, 2008

The sixties: liberals, the left and the civil rights movement

Historian Howard Zinn, one of the most influential intellectuals among the New Left in the United States, wrote in Postwar America: 1945-1971 about how the position of the liberals was far more frustrating to civil rights activists and African-Americans than most people today probably realize, or would even find it hard to imagine. There still were actual liberal Republicans in the 1960s, so we're talking about liberals in both parties. But it also didn't mean they thought conservatives in either Party were somehow more supportive of civil rights. They very obviously weren't.

Zinn makes an interesting point about the Brown v. Board of Education decison of 1954 that was a landmark legal blow to the segregation system in the South:

Supreme Court decisions, however, are not self-enforcing. Moreover, the year after the Brown decision, the Court retreated on the question of how soon segregation must end. It said that once school districts had made "a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance" with the 1954 decision, the lower courts, which it charged with the responsibility of applying the desegregation decision, might "find that additional time is necessary." It urged lower courts to enter "such orders and decrees ... as are necessary and proper to admit to public schools on a racially non-discriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these cases."

The Court's approach to the enforcement of the Constitution on the issue of segregation was unusual. It could hardly be imagined that the discovery of slavery in, say, a town in Nevada in 1954 would lead it to decide that though the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery the town should be allowed to make a "prompt and reasonable start" toward its gradual elimination. Or that any violation of federal law by, say, a national syndicate for fraud through the mails would lead it to decide that the guilty parties must gradually desist from their activities. As black constitutional lawyer Loren Miller wrote with some bitterness in The Petitioners: "No American lawyer anywhere had ever supposed that the Supreme Court or any other organ of government could suspend the exercise of a peacetime constitutional right for a single day." By 1965, ten years after the "all deliberate speed" guideline of the Court, more than 75 per cent of the school districts in the South were still segregated. (my emphasis)
The civil rights movement in the South found itself constantly having to push even the liberal Kennedy and Johnson administrations to enforce the law protecting peaceful civil rights demonstrators and activists.

Here's an example Zinn gives:

In the sit-ins of 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961, hundreds of persons were arrested, most of them black students, for asserting their constitutional rights; yet the federal government did not interfere with those arrests. Indeed, in the Freedom Ride of May, 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, instead of using the power of the federal government to protect the riders, asked the riders to desist in a "cooling-off period" - an executive branch version of the Supreme Court's suggestion that blacks' constitutional rights be granted "with all deliberate speed." Kennedy did send marshals into Alabama after riders had been beaten in Anniston and Birmingham. As for those who rode into Mississippi, the attorney general entrusted their safety to state officials in a compromise agreement under which they would be protected from beatings, but would be arrested on arriving at Jackson. That the federal government had the constitutional power to prevent those arrests was admitted by the man who was Kennedy's assistant in charge of civil rights at that time, Burke Marshall. Marshall argued, however, that this power should not be exercised because "the result would have been chaotic and more destructive of the federal system than what happened in Mississippi." He wrote later: "It would be possible to devise authority for the federal courts to enjoin such arrests. There is no constitutional or doctrinal difficulty involved. But the consequences would be to destroy the means by which Mississippi maintained order." (my emphasis in bold)
To African-Americans and civil rights activists, "the means by which Mississippi maintained order" were a major part of what needed to be altered.

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