Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The 1950s: Decade of Progress

It is difficult and dangerous to make generalizations about a decade. Statistically, each ten-year period will have outliers and counter-trends within trends.

One can make an interesting argument, however, that the 1950s was one of the best decades in United States history for African-Americans.

In the 1950s, Blacks didn't have the massive unemployment numbers they have now. A greater percentage of them registered to vote and did vote.

A greater percentage of their children were born to an intact married couple. Public schools, various means of transportation, and most workplaces were being desegregated.

African-Americans had higher literacy rates.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Black populations became increasingly concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods. The problems which we now associated with urban life were less acute in the 1950s.

Fewer African-Americans committed crimes, fewer were arrested, fewer were convicted of crimes, and fewer were incarcerated. Their use of illegal drugs, and their abuse of legal ones, was much less.

It was after the 1950s, between 1960 and 2015, that life in the ‘ghetto’ became measurably characterized by unemployment, poverty, crime, drug abuse, and single parent families.

Life was not perfect in the 1950s. There were real problems and real tensions in race relations.

But in the 1950s, Blacks made progress. This decade was ‘the civil rights era.’

The 1950s saw the final and permanent end to the horrific practice of lynching. The last recorded lynching was in 1955. There were zero after that, and zero in 1952, 1953, and 1954.

During those same years, Rev. Martin Luther King led the Montgomery bus boycott and founded the SCLC.

A young African-American man was more likely to complete high school and get a job in the 1950s than in the year 2015.

The Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. President Eisenhower sent federal troops to ensure that the “Little Rock Nine” were able to obtain an education based on that Supreme Court decision.

Eisenhower also pushed the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress and signed it into law. He ensured that troops in the United States Army were fully integrated, moving President Truman’s symbolic Executive Order 9981 into reality.

All of these steps worked to crumble the “Jim Crow” laws, and the culture built around them.

America’s large cities were then more integrated than in the year 2015.

Life in the 1950s was not perfect. America had not solved all of its race-related problems. But there was an increasing sense of liberty, opportunity, and safety among Blacks - more than in previous decades, and sadly, more than in subsequent decades.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Eisenhower Appoints African-Americans

President Eisenhower took office in January 1953, at the beginning of a decade which would see the emergence of the African-American civil rights movement onto the stage of the national media. That movement would achieve great things during this decade, and “Ike” Eisenhower was a part of that accomplishment.

Among Eisenhower’s achievements was the appointment of Jesse Ernest Wilkins. Born in 1894, Wilkins was the first African-American to be appointed to a sub-cabinet level. On March 5, 1954, the New York Times praised Ike’s choice:

President Eisenhower’s nomination of J. Ernest Wilkins to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for International Affairs is an excellent choice. Mr. Wilkins, the first Negro ever to be named to a sub-Cabinet post, has a splendid reputation at the Chicago bar, to which he was admitted in 1921.

In August 1954, Time magazine reported that Wilkins “became the first Negro ever to attend a White House Cabinet meeting as the representative of a department.” Historian Jim Newton claims that “it was the first time an African-American ever attended a meeting of a president’s cabinet” at all.

Shortly after appointing Wilkins, Ike attended a meeting of the NAACP. On March 11, 1954, the New York Times reported that

President Eisenhower said he believed in President Lincoln’s statement that this nation was dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal and with the writers of the Declaration of Independence that all men were endowed with certain inalienable rights.
There are vociferous minorities that do not hold to the concepts set forth by the Founding Fathers, the President said, and added: “But by and large the mass of Americans want to be decent, good, and just and don’t want to make a difference based on inconsequential facts of color or race.”

Eisenhower’s speech at the NAACP gathering, given only a few days after appointing Wilkins to the highest post ever occupied by an African-American, was a strong statement about how the Eisenhower administration would promote civil rights during the 1950s.

A few months later, on November 9, 1954, the New York Times ran an article under the headline, “President Picks Negro to Help Combat Job Discrimination,” reporting Eisenhower’s choice of James Nabrit to “prevent discrimination in hiring and dismissals in plants with Government contracts.”

Well known, of course, is Eisenhower’s September 1957 order to send the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas, where the governor of that state, Democrat Orval Faubus, was obstructing the integration of schools. By that time, Ike’s record had clearly marked him a president who was promoting civil rights for African-Americans.

In that same year, Eisenhower worked to move the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress. Although some senators and representatives resisted it, and Senators Johnson and Kennedy diluted some of its provisions, Ike was adamant that it must pass.

Seeing that Johnson and Kennedy had weakened some aspects of the bill, Ike was not satisfied, and so later moved the more potent 1960 Civil Rights Act through Congress.

The 1950s were the decade in which the civil rights movement began and made most of its progress. Eisenhower was an integral part of that success.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Richard Nixon and the Politics of Race

By late 1968, the Democratic Party was at war with itself. The ‘hawks’ wanted to continue a full-blown war effort in Vietnam; the ‘doves’ wanted immediate and complete withdrawal of all United States military from the conflict.

The massive war effort, initiated by President Kennedy and expanded by President Johnson, was so closely tied to the identity of the Democratic Party that its chances of winning the 1968 presidential election were rapidly approaching zero.

In a last-ditch effort to change public opinion, the Democrats attempted to insinuate that Richard Nixon was less than enthusiastic in his support for African-American civil rights.

This effort backfired. Nixon’s public record included his efforts to round up votes in Congress, both for the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and for the 1960 Civil Rights Act. By contrast, both Kennedy and Johnson had opposed those two bills.

In an August 1968 televised commentary, William F. Buckley noted that

Mr. Nixon was backing civil rights bills way before John Kennedy was in point of historical circumstance.

Johnson, an unrepentant racist, would eventually be shamed into offering at least lip service to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He did so on the basis of purely political calculations. Nixon, on the other hand, had supported civil rights legislation nearly a decade earlier, when it was less popular to do so.

It is unverifiable at best, and hazardous at worst, to speculate about a leader’s psychological motivations, but it’s worth noting that Nixon was raised in a Quaker household in California. Those two aspects of his heritage may have made him more willing to take unpopular stands. Buckley said that

The time to back a civil rights bill, you may have noticed, is as of the moment when it becomes popular. Up until that moment it becomes completely forgivable if you don’t do so. Lyndon Johnson is considered a great friend of the Negro people, but he voted against a whole series of civil rights bills over a period of years.

As Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon’s legislative efforts had been noted by Black voters, who gave him a decent showing in the 1960 national elections. Buckley argued that, in the intervening eight years, there’d been no real change in Nixon’s allegiances:

Some 30 to 35 percent of the Negro people voted for Nixon in 1960. I think somebody ought to get around to telling us what it is that Mr. Nixon has done since 1960 that alienates those votes.

In 1968, a trend emerged which would later be called ‘identity politics’ or ‘the politics of identity.’ This strategy calls for candidates to appeal to voters, not as rational human beings who share the common needs and wants of all human beings, but rather as isolated groups: by race, by religion, by gender, etc.

Rather than assuming that voters are rational human beings who share the same desires for peace, prosperity, justice, liberty, and freedom, the tactic of ‘identity politics’ divides voters into demographic segments, and dictates that they should vote a certain way because they are men or because they are women, because they are African-American or European-American, because they are Jewish or because they are Christian.

This approach would come to dominate national electoral politics a few decades laters, but in 1968, it was in its infancy. Buckley noted that those who opposed Nixon

are trying very hard to mobilize all of the Negro votes on a racist basis. On the one hand, they tell us we shouldn’t treat people as simply members of a race, members of a group. On the other hand, they’re always trying to deploy them as members of a group, members of a race.

As it turned out, Nixon won by a large margin in November 1968 and became president. In hindsight, especially after the events of the Watergate scandal, it is difficult to see Nixon with the untainted view which the voters had of him at that time.

Not only did Nixon continue to effectively promote civil rights during his presidency, but he also ended the Vietnam war and ended the draft. Nixon effectively desegregated labor unions and integrated both schools and neighborhoods.

The Democratic Party’s self-destructive meltdown in 1968 hamstrung it for several years afterward, enabling Nixon’s easy reelection in 1972.