Fifty-seven Years Ago Thursday

A boy, on a tree-lined street in Queens, celebrated his seventh birthday while his parents no doubt anxiously followed the unfolding news. The kid had no idea of the kind of history that was being made that day, more concerned with his slice of birthday cake and the friends invited over to blow noisemakers, wear funny hats and be filmed playing party games in the driveway on shaky 8 mm film in the brilliant June sunshine.

Meanwhile, that very day, down in Alabama, new Governor George Wallace, who had declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” was defying the Supreme Court’s then nine year-old decision, that segregation of schools was an unconstitutional deprivation of equality under the law. Wallace was a strutting racist demagogue whose supporters loved him for his sass. They applauded him for not taking any shit from a group of activist, nigger-loving (in the parlance of the day) judges who were going to try to tell the good people of Alabama how to treat their own damned Negroes.

The birthday boy’s parents were heavily invested in the fight for equality, for Civil Rights and integration. This was partly because both of their families had been murdered by organized, violent racists twenty years earlier. They also strongly held the idea that it was simply the right thing to do, after centuries of slavery, to enforce laws that treated everyone the same under the law. The school their young son attended, in “liberal” New York City, would not be integrated for another two years. John F. Kennedy, the young, bright, charismatic, often cautious, president, was apparently about to reach his moral breaking point as Wallace pulled his nationally televised stunt, blocking the years-delayed admission of two black students to Alabama State University.

As Wallace took his stand at the schoolhouse door, to block the entry of the two students, a film crew captured his defiance, radio carried his remarks live and he played to the cameras, folks at home all over America and the live crowd of likeminded Alabamans. In Washington DC Attorney General Robert Kennedy was kept apprised of the show. As Wallace posed and mocked the Supreme Court’s order that all schools be desegregated with “all deliberate speed, ” the A.G.’s deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach, on the scene in Alabama, informed Wallace that he was defying not only the Supreme Court but also a presidential proclamation ordering him to admit the black students. Wallace responded with a speech about states’ rights. Kaztenbach updated his boss at the Department of Justice.

In response, the president signed an Executive order federalizing the Alabama National Guard, using the 1807 Insurrection Act [1]. A general of the Alabama National Guard told Wallace that he had to get out of the way. Wallace made a show of defiance, then left the scene in his limosusine. The students were escorted to their dorms while the National Guard faced down the crowd of white supremacists, included armed Ku Klux Klansman.

Martin Luther King, Jr., at the time still regarded as the most dangerous black man in America, a man too controversial for John F. Kennedy to openly associate with (in part due to J. Edgar Hoover’s false report of Communist ties– based on ‘top secret’ classified intel ‘too sensitive to divulge’ — and also nonexistent), had long been trying to make JFK understand and act on the moral dimension of American racism. JFK was a cautious young politician wary of alienating the solid block of racist southern Democrats he needed in his coalition. But the events of that day finally pissed Kennedy off and he didn’t care about the Dixiecrats as he prepared his remarks. He went on television that night to deliver an overdue moral lecture about racism.

The birthday boy’s parents no doubt watched JFK’s televised address with great hope and pride. The president of the United States was committing himself to the end of institutional racism in the United States. He was devoting himself to racial justice, in no uncertain terms. Less than six months later he’d be shot dead by a single, lone wolf assassin armed with a magic bullet. History would be written, in part, in the blood of the slain president with the vast, unfulfilled potential for growth, who’d belatedly expressed his high ideals about justice.

This Thursday that seven year-old boy, if he were alive today, would be sixty-four. That is a fairly ripe age, as is the span of fifty-seven years since he was seven. In those years we had passage of the Civil Rights laws JFK had advocated for, then the gradual dismantling and partial nullification of those laws. It benefits those who benefit from racial preference and racist restrictions on voting to have the 1965 Voting Rights Act scaled back. If we had massive voting, as the current president said, we might never have Republicans elected anywhere. Who would benefit from that? Lawless thugs who hate our freedom, our laws, our order, angry people who refuse to wait another fifty, or a hundred years, for the long arc of history to bend toward justice again.

The State has the monopoly on violence, and don’t forget– they will never hesitate to use it, in a pinch.


[1] The same act Trump recently threatened to evoke to continue to disperse crowds of peaceful protesters by force, whatever the so-called First Amendment might have to say about it.

NOTE: The Insurrection Act was last used by Attorney General Bill Barr when he served Dubya’s father as A.G. The National Guard was federalized after a request from the state of California. For the entire short list of its limited uses over the act’s 213 year history, see THIS.

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