Friday, 08 December 2023 12:27

Lemann and The Atlantic Monthly vs JFK on Civil Rights

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Through a 17-year old book by Nicholas Lemann, that liberal magazine tries to distort President Kennedy’s views and his record on civil rights, which radically differed from Eisenhower’s.

Coming into the 60th anniversary of the JFK murder I suspected familiar faces would try to distort the circumstances of Kennedy’s death—which they did, e.g., Max Holland on PBS. But I also thought there would be certain individuals involved with what I have called elsewhere, The Posthumous Assassination of Kennedy. That title owes to an article I wrote many years ago, back in the nineties, for Probe Magazine. It referred to the attempts to smear Kennedy’s image and legacy in a variety of ways. (Click here for that long essay)

That happened also. One was through a familiar figure in this field, namely Jeff Greenfield. His article appeared at the online ‘zine Politico. And, I must say, for Greenfield it was not as bad as I thought it would be. The former Robert Kennedy speech writer seems to have finally admitted, both comprehensively and completely, that the Vietnam War would not have happened if JFK had lived. Which is something that both Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough will not admit. (Click here)

Greenfield’s article appeared on precisely the 60th anniversary. It had a pretty silly title, “Would JFK Have Lost Had He Lived?”. Well Jeff, I kind of doubt it. I think he would have crushed Goldwater pretty much the way Johnson did. I think the media would have portrayed Barry as a war monger and JFK as a man of peace. It’s true that Kennedy’s civil rights program—a matter we will get to later—would have cost him in the south, but Lyndon Johnson would have helped there. (Unlike others I do not think that JFK would have dumped Johnson, no matter what Bobby Kennedy tried to do.)

Greenfield is trying to disguise the fact that Goldwater only took six states in 1964, five in the Deep South, plus his home state of Arizona. And he lost to Johnson by over 20 percentage points. There were two reasons for this. First, unlike Ronald Reagan in 1980, America was simply not ready for someone as extreme as Goldwater in 1964. There was no year-long Iran hostage crisis to pave the way for the senator, as it did for Governor Reagan. Secondly, the people running Goldwater’s campaign could not hold down his tendency to make wild statements, especially concerning national defense and the conflict in Vietnam. For instance, he seemed to suggest America should use tactical atomic weapons in Indochina. This led to the infamous “Daisy Girl” ad which really hurt Goldwater.

I think Greenfield knows he is on thin ice here so at the end he escapes into the sordid. Somehow Kennedy’s philandering would have posed a danger to his candidacy. Back then? In 1964? Watergate was ten years away. The Gary Hart/Donna Rice episode was over 20 years later. So Greenfield ended up meandering about in the muck of maybe, could be, what ifness. Did he read my earlier column where I lambasted him for this kind of thing?

The other attempt at a smear was in the December 2023 Atlantic Monthly. On the stands and mailed out the last week of November, it was clearly timed for the 60th. The subject matter was decades old; but the author, Jordan Virtue, only made one reference to where it originated. This was in a 2006 book called Redemption by Nicholas Lemann. I had read the book years earlier and I was struck by the way it ended. About the first 80% of the slim volume is a valid contribution to how the brutal methods of the Redeemer Movement in the south succeeded in fighting Reconstruction and then taking over, thus negating Reconstruction, after the final Union troops were removed.

At the end of the book, Lemann did a brief summing up of how the terrible tactics of the Redeemer Movement had been both reversed, and then disguised—in both popular culture and the halls of academia. The most obvious and sensationally successful example of the former was the film Birth of a Nation. That 1915 D. W Griffith picture was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel and play The Klansman. The success of that movie became legendary in the film world. The old Hollywood adage about it was: it made so much money the distributor stopped counting it. Dixon was a white supremacist and his book and play were suffused with that philosophy. Dixon knew President Woodrow Wilson from their college days. Wilson showed the film in the White House, a first. And Griffith and Dixon used quotes from a book Wilson wrote as subtitles. The film was so melodramatically racist, and wildly successful, that it led to the rebirth of the Klan.

The other strain of apologia for the failure of Reconstruction was expressed in the next box office champion, Gone With the Wind. This view of Reconstruction was softer in tone. Unlike Griffith, It did not picture young white women killing themselves over pursuit by an African American, or the Klan triumphantly riding into a town to stop former slaves from voting. William Archibald Dunning was a professor at Columbia. He wrote a book on the subject, but more importantly, he schooled several of his students, who then wrote more books. These books dominated the historical literature and greatly influenced the writers of textbooks for decades on end. The general message was that African Americans were fairly content prior to the Civil War and after. And that Reconstruction caused the upsetting of the rather noble southern way of life: by Union soldiers, scalawags and carpetbaggers. It was a wildly romantic, false and pernicious image. But it had immense influence.

The Dunning school was not effectively attacked until the late fifties and early sixties. The two principal revisionists were Kenneth Stampp (The Peculiar Institution, 1956) and John Hope Franklin (Reconstruction: After the Civil War, 1961). Stampp, who consciously opposed the Dunning School, produced two more books directly confronting its tenets: The Era of Reconstruction (1965) and Reconstruction: An Anthology of Revisionist Writings (co-editor, 1969). But it was not until the arrival and later popular success of Eric Foner in the late seventies and early eighties that the Dunning School was, for all intents and purposes, overturned. The failure of Reconstruction was now perceived as not in intervening, but in not going nearly far enough in that intervention. It was not easy to overcome Dunning, Margaret Mitchell (who wrote the novel Gone With the Wind), Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

In looking at this brief summary, most people would think that the most grievous offense was giving the imprimatur of the White House to something as rancidly racist as Birth of A Nation. Lemann did not think so. He devoted all of two sentences to that incident. (p. 190) He devoted over four pages to a book written by President John F. Kennedy in 1956, Profiles in Courage. And those are the closing pages of Lemann’s book. (pp. 205-09) There he said that in a chapter of that book, Kennedy had mischaracterized two personages: Union General, and later appointed Governor of Mississippi, Adelbert Ames, and Lucius Lamar, a confederate soldier who later became a senator from Mississippi and a Supreme Court Justice. Kennedy wrote exactly one paragraph on Ames. (p. 147) Concerning Lamar, Kennedy is straightforward about his advocacy of secession. (pp. 145-46) But the Atlantic Monthly article leaves out the two main reasons Kennedy included him in the book: (i) His long and powerful eulogy for Radical Republican Charles Sumner (ii) His opposition to what Kennedy called, the Bland Allison Act, knowing that it was going to pass and congress would override a presidential veto—which it did. Since it was popular in Mississippi, Lamar had risked his political career voting against it; especially since the state legislature had demanded he support it. The entire last part of the chapter is about this issue. (pp. 152-62). To ignore it is selective and unfair.

As I indicated above, Profiles in Courage was written when the Dunning School still held tremendous influence. And Kennedy unwisely chose a book by a Dunning follower, Claude Bowers, as one of his sources. This was an understandable mistake from someone who was not a professional historian. And I agree that the brief Ames characterization in the book was wrong. But what Lemann did with this was completely unwarranted. In portraying the era that the book was published in as one of change, Lemann praises President Eisenhower for sending troops to Little Rock during the crisis at Central High and he prefaces that with the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown vs Board decision. (pp. 205-06)

What he leaves out is that Eisenhower let the students trying to integrate Central High be terrorized by the redneck governor of the state, Orval Faubus, for 21 days. He was being publicly humiliated so he more or less had to act. Why? Because he had let Faubus trick him at their face-to-face meeting. Lemann also leaves out the fact, noted by historian Michael Beschloss, that Eisenhower advised Earl Warren not to vote for the Brown vs Board decision. And Eisenhower did not support that decision, for example, in the Autherine Lucy case at the University of Alabama in 1956. He literally let her be run off campus amid riots and rocks being thrown—even though she was there under a court order. (Jack Bass, Unlikely Heroes, p. 64)

Lemann then adds that it must not have been clear to Kennedy “that a systematic change was on the way.” Can the man be serious? In two terms Eisenhower filed ten civil rights lawsuits, two on his last day in office. In just one year, Attorney General Robert Kennedy doubled that amount. And by 1963, the number of lawyers in the Civil Rights Division had quintupled. (Harry Golden, Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes, pp. 100, 104, 105) As the great southern jurist Frank Johnson said, no one in Washington was doing anything of substance on civil rights in the fifties. But when JFK came in:

…there was almost an immediate and dramatic change. He was like electricity compared to Eisenhower….He put the nation on notice that there were changes that were long overdue. (Frank Sikora, The Judge, Chapter 6)

What Lemann does with the Civil Rights Act of 1957 is startling, even for him. He says that Senator Kennedy voted for a watered down bill. (p. 206) What he does not say is this: Kennedy did not want to vote for the bill, precisely because it had been watered down. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had never voted for a civil rights bill in nearly 20 years. But he commandeered this one by pleasing his fellow southerners, segregationists Strom Thurmond and Richard Russell. Kennedy was so reluctant to vote for it that Johnson had to send two emissaries to his office to persuade him to do so. When that did not work, LBJ had to lobby Kennedy in person. Senator Kennedy reluctantly voted for it since it did provide for a (toothless) Civil Rights Commission. (Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power, pp. 136-37)

As the reader can see, what Lemann appears to be doing is a kind of reverse history. He is trying to somehow color Kennedy’s actual civil rights record with the 1956 error he made in his book. Atlantic Monthly goes a bit further and says that he may have been misled by the Dunning School, “but he also aspired to higher office and needed to appeal to white southern voters.”

Again, this is hogwash. In 1956, the same year Profiles in Courage was published, Kennedy made a speech in New York endorsing Brown vs Board. He specifically said, “We might alienate Southern support but the Supreme Court decision is the law of the land.” This speech was covered in the New York Times on February 8, 1956, on page 1. Therefore much of the country, including the south, knew about it. But to show just how bad the Atlantic Monthly article is, the next year Kennedy went to Jackson Mississippi. He said the same thing: the Brown decision must be upheld. (Golden, p. 95) As author Harry Golden noted, it was at this point that Kennedy began to lose support in the south and to get angry letters about his support for the Brown decision. Golden’s book was published in 1964. Could both authors have missed it, or not consulted it? It seems almost superfluous to add that near the end, the Atlantic Monthly article says that on November 22, 1963 Oswald “shot and killed Kennedy in Dallas.” So, in one article on the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, The Atlantic Monthly scores a twofer: a smear of Kennedy, coupled with an endorsement of the cover up around his assassination.

What is even more surprising is that Jeff Morley, a writer I like and admire, actually referenced the Atlantic Monthly article on twitter on November 27th. He added the following comment: “A JFK story I did not know…JFK’s racist streak…it does not surprise me…he was an aristocrat to whom supremacy came easy.” If anyone can show me any kind of incident that showed Kennedy was a racist, please do. Authors Nick Bryant and Steven Levingston spent about 800 pages in two books trying to show this. They came up empty.

But further, why would a racist pick Abraham Bolden to guard him on his Secret Service White House detail? Why would a racist sign the first affirmative action order in American history? Which JFK did in March of 1961, just 45 days after his inauguration. He then assigned a civil rights officer to manage hiring and complaints in each department of government. (Carl Brauer, John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction, p. 72, p. 84) In fact, Kennedy got his friend and Ambassador to India John K. Galbraith to sponsor him a membership at the Metropolitan Club. The president refused to join, because they declined service to a visiting African diplomat. (Richard Parker, John Kenneth Galbraith, p. 387) Kennedy then announced that neither he nor any member of his administration would attend functions at segregated facilities. (Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept, p. 53)

I am not going to go through the record of achievement Kennedy had on civil rights. I already spent about 3-4 months researching it and writing about it. Kennedy did more for civil rights in three years than FDR, Truman and Eisenhower did in three decades, and it is provable. (Read this)

I will conclude by saying that I agree with historian Carl Brauer. What Kennedy began was the real Reconstruction, which is why Brauer titled his book, John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction. As most historians would agree, it was Eisenhower’s Vice-President, Richard Nixon, who stopped this movement cold by employing the Southern Strategy. That is the real story of what happened to the civil rights movement in America. Which you will not find in the Atlantic Monthly. But that is a much more important and accurate rendition of the struggle and Kennedy’s role in it.


For a real description and analysis of what Kennedy was confronted with on the civil rights front and what he achieved, please read this 4-part series by James DiEugenio which took almost four months to write and research. It is the best pamphlet length exposition of Kennedy’s remarkable achievement in that field, against almost monumental odds. The best book on the subject is still Carl Brauer’s John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction.

Last modified on Monday, 11 December 2023 02:42
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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