erik lundegaard

U.S. History posts

Saturday November 22, 2014

At the Birth of the 'Special Rights' Argument

After the death of John Doar, I was looking over my old copy of Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963,” and came across this story about James Meredith trying to register at the University of Mississippi in 1962, and being prevented from doing so by Gov. H. Ross Barnett. It’s a well-known story.

But it brought to mind the way modern conservatives and reactionaries and racists use the term “special rights.” And it sheds light on what the term means.

It’s 1962. Meredith is trying to become the first black man to register at Ole Miss. Gov. Barnett, looking for votes, prevents him from doing so. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals then threatens both the registrar and the university trustees with contempt, and secures a promise that they will in fact register Meredith. On Sept. 25, U.S. Marshall James McShane and civil rights attorney John Doar accompany Meredith to the Federal Building in downtown Jackson to register him. But no one’s there. Gov. Barnett has called them to the legislature to “testify” about the situation.

That evening, after various other machinations, the three men, with the help of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in D.C.,  attempt to register Meredith on campus, but once again Barnett “interposes,” makes some jokes at Meredith’s expense, and denies the admission. “A Rebel yell went up from the crowds gathered ...” Branch writes. “They hooted the Meredith trio along its path of retreat ...”

Then a call to Barnet from RFK, and this conversation:

RFK: He is going to show up for classes tomorrow.
HRB: At Ole Miss? How can you do that without registering?
RFK: I think they arranged it. It’s all understood.
HRB: They’re going to give him special treatment?

I love that. Special treatment. Special rights.

What are Meredith’s special rights? Well, a racist state has done everything in its power to prevent an entire people from the normal course of events. Then, for a period, they focus on one man. The most powerful people in the state do everything they can to prevent this one individual from the normal course of events—the simple act of registering for college. And when the federal government says, “You can’t do that,” they cry “Special treatment! Special rights!”

Then they spend decades undermining the federal government. But that’s another story. 

H. Ross Barnett and Ole Miss

“They're going to give him special treatment???”

Posted at 06:11 AM on Nov 22, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Thursday November 20, 2014

John Doar (1921-2014)

John Doar, Medal of Freedom, with Pres. Obama

John Doar being presented with the Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama in 2012.

John Doar died on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. He was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force during World War II but history will remember him—or at least I do—for his service in another war: the war between the states, part II. Or X. Or XXIII. Called “the Civil Rights Movement.”

The New York Times has a good obit here, but the better tribute is Taylor Branch's civil rights tome, “Parting the Waters: American in the King Years: 1954-1963,” which I read in the spring of 1989. A lot of memorable characters in there: Bob Moses, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin ... and John Doar.

He was a kind of Gary Cooper-type hero. He didn't say much, he wasn't flashy, but he had courage and commitment. He called himself a Lincoln Republican. Branch introduced him on page 331 thus:

John Doar was lanky, taciturn, and plainspoken. In 1960, still building a general courthouse law pratice, he counted it as a small step of success that a client paid him to go all the way to California to work on a paternity suit. He was there when Harold Tyler, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, tracked him down by telephone.

Attorney General William Rogers had hired Tyler for the express purpose of stepping up the enforcement of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts. It was a sign of the times that not a single politically connected Republican, nor any friend of Tyler's, expressed interest in the high-ranking position of first assistant in the Civil Rights Division ... [So Doar got the nod.]

Doar arrived in Washington in July 1960 and plunged immediately into the two bureaucratic struggles that would mark his career. The first one pitted legal thinking against political calculations. ... [The second was] a sluggish FBI.

Throughout the early 1960s, Doar prosecuted voting rights cases in the deep South, was a witness to the brutal assault on the freedom riders, including John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, in Montgomery, Ala., in 1961, and was the escort to James Meredith as he tried to register at Ole Miss in 1962 but found his way barred by Gov. H. Ross Barnett. 

But the main reason I remember Doar is for an incident that occurred in Mississippi in the summer of 1963.

Medgar Evers was the field secretary there for the NAACP, and in the early morning of June 12, at the end of the Birmingham demonstrations and just hours after Pres. Kennedy's famous speech in favor of civil rights, Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson. After the funeral, a small segment of the crowd, hundreds of mostly young people, began to take to the streets; they were met by policemen with shotguns. 

The temperature was 103 degrees. Some of the Negroes shouted, “We want the killer! We want the killer!” These were the young movement people ... Even on Flag Day, June 14, pairs of them had been arrested off the streets for carrying little American flags, as Jackson's white officials allowed Negroes no public display of any kind. The police ... brought up pumper trucks and dogs, and they charged when some of the young marchers began to throw rocks at them. They had clubbed several and arrested nearly 30 when, suddenly, the man who talked like Gary Cooper appeared in a showdown scene from one of his movies ...

Doar walked into the flashpoint of a riot, hands raised above his head “with bottles and bricks crashing around him.” Shouting his name, he told them this was not the way, and the very sight of him stilled the crowd so that he could be heard. ... “My name is John Doar!” he yelled. “D-O-A-R. I'm in the Justice Department in Washington. And anybody around here knows that I stand for what's right!” He walked forward, calling out the names of Dave Dennis and other movement leaders he knew and how many times they had been arrested, saying they too wanted the crowd to disperse. Miraculously, they did. 

Doar would go on to prosecute the federal case against the killers of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in 1964, helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was tangentially involved in the Selma march in 1965. He was also Chief Counsel for the United States House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate scandal. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama in 2012. 

Lincoln Republican? My kind of Republican.

John Doar, Jackson, Mississippi

Doar in Jackson, Miss., in the summer of 1963.

Posted at 05:42 PM on Nov 20, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Wednesday August 06, 2014

How Gender was Added to the 1964 Civil Rights Act

The New Yorker's Louis Menand, reviewing Clay Risen's “The Bill of the Century” and Todd Purnam's “An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” has a good article, “The Sex Amendment,” on how gender was added to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and thus changed the world. It's less heroic than you might think. Would you believe it was added by an anti-union, pro-business Republican congressman from Virginia?

Menand also goes into the history of women and African Americans—specifically white women and African-American men—butting heads over who should go first through the doorway in the battle for equal rights. He quotes Frederick Douglass speaking at an American Equal Rights Association meeting in 1869 about how women should have the same urgency for equal rights when they're hunted down, lynched, etc. Susan B. Anthony then responded thus in favor of women's rights first:

If you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the Government, let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.

Yeah: Susan B. Anthony. Which just goes to show that even if you're on the right side of history doesn't mean you're on the right side of all history.

Posted at 04:32 PM on Aug 06, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Wednesday July 30, 2014

Rick Perlstein on the Rise of Reagan

Author Rick Perlstein's new book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” which will be published this fall, is part of his series of books on the rise of the conservative right in this country. I've read the first and most of the second and plan on reading this one, too. Besides the history, it will probably spark a lot of memories, since 1972 to 1976, when I was 9 to 13, were wheelhouse years for my memory.

As part of the promo, and maybe just for general edification for folks who don't read, Perlstein has done a YouTube “History in Five” piece on the rise of Reagan. Think about the lesson as you're watching. What did Reagan believe that others didn't? I'll put my answer in the comments section. 

Posted at 01:38 PM on Jul 30, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Thursday March 13, 2014

Dueling Robert Duvall Headlines: Daily Beast vs. Breitbart

This is the headline as it appeared in The Daily Beast's Q&A with the acting legend, where it was original content:

Robert Duvall on His Storied Career, His New Movie, and Why He’s Ditching the GOP

Here's how the Brietbart site repurposed it:

Robert Duvall Blasts 'The Butler': 'Atrocities in South Committed By Democrats'

Pretty funny. It's a good Q&A, by the way, but if it were me doing the interview I would have followed up on Duvall's comments that made the Breitbart headline.

This is the graf in question:

Republicans in Hollywood seem to get a lot of flack and be a bit marginalized. Has it ever been tough, for you, to be a Republican in Hollywood?

Let me say it this way: my wife’s from Argentina, she’s been here for a while, and she’s very smart. She calls herself a “tree-hugging Republican,” but she might even vote Democrat next time because the Republican Party is a mess. I’ll probably vote Independent next time. I think it was Jack Kerouac who said something like, “Don’t run down my country. My people are immigrants, so I believe in this country with all its faults. To me, it’s a big country that’s made mistakes.” Some of the bleeding-heart left-wing, extreme left-wing, are actually different from liberals. That movie The Butler? It’s very inaccurate. JFK had one of the worst Civil Rights voting records. And the Rockefeller’s were much more liberal with the blacks. All the atrocities in the South were committed by the Democratic Party, but now, everything’s been turned around in a strange way. Some of these very conservative Republicans… I don’t know, man. I believe in a woman’s choice. I believe in certain things. I hear they booed Rick Perry last night on the Jimmy Kimmel show. But it’s a great country. We’ve done bad things. Slavery was terrible. One-third of all Freedmen in New Orleans fought for the South. I can’t figure that out. Those things aren’t told in the history books. There’ve been lots of contradictions and this and that. But I think the country’s okay, and hopefully it will survive.

My immediate thoughts for follow-ups:

  • Is he talking about JFK's voting record as a U.S. Senator? How is that relevant to “The Butler,” which focuses on The White House from Eisenhower to Reagan?
  • And surely Duvalls knows the significant progress the country made in civil rights during JFK's short term in office. And surely he knows the speech JFK gave in June 1963, during Birmingham, which finally owned up to federal responsibility on civil rights matters. These are not small things. It matters what the president says. 
  • And is he truly confused on Southern atrocities committed by Democrats? Again, doesn't he know that the Democratic party, from FDR to JFK, was a party of both northern progressives and southern Dixiecrats, and that most national Democrats were forced to walk the thin line between the two; and that JFK and LBJ were the national figures who finally made the irrevocable step onto the progressive side, turning the Dixiecrats into Republicans? “We've lost the South for a generation,” LBJ said after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He was only wrong in underestimating the amount of time. It's been two-plus generations. And counting.

Anyone who blames “Democrats” for southern civil rights violations, without owning up to the fact that these folks make up the heart (or lack) of the modern GOP, is basically involved in a propaganda campaign. Right, Breitbart?

Duvall's right on one aspect of all this: “The Butler” was inaccurate. Worse, it wasn't very good.

The rest of Marlow Stern's Q&A, about Marlon Brando and Matthew McConaughey, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, is a lot of fun to read.

Robert Duvall, Republican

Robert Duvall signaling for quiet; or maybe a do-over on the VP choice.

Posted at 12:50 PM on Mar 13, 2014 in category U.S. History
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