Monday, April 1, 2013

Kennedy gave FDR too much credit, shortchanged Ike

When I started this blog, I hoped it would become more of a conversation than it is – more responses, more responses to responses. But at last I’ve discovered a way to start a back-and-forth: Ask two historians the same question.

The question was this: How did Lincoln Republicans of the 1860s morph into today’s Obama Democrats? My friend Michael Birkner's answer is here. Michael is a history professor at Gettysburg College specializing in 20th century history. I asked the same question of David M. Kennedy, a Stanford University historian who the Pulitzer Prize for his book on FDR's leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. His answer is here.

Birkner argues that FDR was 'weak on civil rights.'
Now Michael has written back to take issue with some of David’s remarks. This response is printed below. I welcome the thoughts of any others on this issue either as comments at the end of this post or in longer form. Either way they come, I’ll publish them as long as they don’t get personal or profane.   

“David Kennedy’s comment on how the party of Lincoln morphed over time into the party of Obama contains an equal amount of insight and surprisingly unbalanced analysis.

“Kennedy is right to say that the Democratic Party, ‘anchored for a century in first the slave and then the Jim Crow South,’ was hardly the party of civil rights for African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.  However, when he cites the ‘brave leadership’ of President Franklin Roosevelt on the issue of black civil rights, I have to disagree with his emphasis.

“Roosevelt was a great president – the greatest 20th century president, in my estimation – but he was weak on civil rights, justifying his refusal even to support an anti-lynching law on the grounds that to do so would jeopardize his ability to pass other worthy legislation. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, highlighted by Kennedy, was a laudable act, but it occurred not out of courage but its opposite. FDR had declined to support equal rights in the workplace. By early 1941 he feared being embarrassed by a march on Washington led by A. Philip Randolph; consequently he issued the order to head off the march, not because he felt it morally right to do so.

Don't overlook Ike's record on civil rights, Birkner says. 
“Harry Truman deserves credit for backing Hubert Humphrey’s pro-civil rights plank in 1948, and for his executive order on the integration of the armed forces. But it took Dwight D. Eisenhower to implement the order. It was Eisenhower, whose leadership goes unmentioned by Kennedy, who supported a friend of the court brief on behalf of Linda Brown in the famous Brown case. It was Eisenhower who appointed the first African-American to executive office in the White House, as well as a raft of pro-civil rights judges in the South. And it was Eisenhower who put down massive resistance in Little Rock in 1957.

“I don’t mean to turn Kennedy’s argument upside down, especially as the Democratic Party – two-faced on civil rights for so long – eventually became the party of black civil rights, as Republicans moved in a different direction beginning in the 1960s.

“I discussed this subject in my original blog posting. The point here is that the party of Lincoln remained at least in part the party of civil rights until Lyndon Johnson introduced his Civil Rights measures in 1964 and 1965. Many northern Republicans backed those bills, but hard-core conservatives like Barry Goldwater opposed them.

“Meanwhile, southern Democrats, rebelling against LBJ’s move leftward on civil rights, began to abandon the party, the first steps in the Old Confederacy’s transformation into a Republican bastion. The rise of the Hispanic vote throws a new wrinkle into the story line, and it will be interesting to see how the party of Lincoln responds to the demographic realities of the 21st century.”

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