Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Amherst College and the Source of American Greatness

I was unfamiliar with William Lewis until Teju Cole tweeted about him.  Lewis was a black lawyer who attended Amherst College and played football there—allegedly, this was the first integrated team in the history of football.  (I doubt this only because I think Amherst would make a bigger deal out of it if it were true.)  Charles Drew also attended Amherst and played sports, though I don't know whether he played football.

Anyway I think Amherst was generally pretty strongly in favor of civil rights.  (Henry Ward Beecher also went to Amherst, so Amherst was also presumably strong in a previous era, though I guess who knows.)  I've seen a picture of Kennedy's 1963 visit to Amherst College, where students held up signs saying something like, "Mr. President We Support Your Civil Rights Agenda."  (Only later did I learn that Kennedy's civil rights bill was being held up in part because he ignored LBJ's tactical advice on getting it through the Senate, which makes the students' idealism more poignant, I think.)

There was a long history in this country of Northern liberal sympathy for blacks, and the clash between the liberal Democrats of the North and the asshole Democrats of the South was a major headache for LBJ as he led the Democrats in the Senate in the 50s.  (It was thanks to LBJ that the assholes migrated to the Republican Party, where they sitteth today, though of course the assholes of today are nothing compared to the assholes of the mid-20th century.)  I urge you to read Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, which recounts LBJ's legislative struggles in detail.  I should note that at that point in his career, Johnson was struggling mostly to preserve his majority and his power, not to advance the rights of blacks.

Anyway, here is a passage from Master of the Senate (this describes Southern antipathy to civil rights in 1948, when Truman was trying to get civil rights legislation through the Senate—LBJ's civil rights bills come much later in the book):
When emotions rose, the southern senators couldn't even be bothered to conceal the fact that it was not "Nigras" alone whom they despised.  Mississippi's Bilbo addressed a letter to a New York woman of Italian descent, "Dear Dago."  The Magnolia State's other senator, James O. Eastland (who would some years later stare coldly down a committee table at Senator Jacob Javits of New York, a Jew, and say, "I don't like you—or your kind"), now said that if the FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission] bill was constitutional "ten thousand Jewish drygoods merchants represent a discrimination against the Anglo-Saxon branch of the white race" and Congress should therefore "limit the number of Jews in interstate business."  It wasn't only Italians and Jews whom the southerners wanted kept in their places.  While Jim Dombrowski of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Eastland repeatedly sneered at his "typically old Southern name."  And of course there were always the Native Americans.  Defending American businessmen who did not want to employ them, Senator Bankhead explained that "There is something peculiar about an Indian which causes the white American not to want to be too closely associated with him."
It so happens that I first read this passage on the subway to work on January 20, 2009—the day of Barack Obama's inauguration.  For some reason, the line about Dombrowski really got to me (my emotions were already running high), and I broke down in tears on the train. This idea that Southern-ness or American-ness is preserved for people with English last names is unbelievably toxic and un-American. But the Dombrowski's of the world won. LBJ (eventually) smashed the Southern senators' filibuster and set in course the chain of events that would make it possible for Barack Obama to become the 44th President, and to do it with the help of the electoral votes of Virginia and North Carolina. The fight isn't over, but it's fair to say that as a country we rejected the Southern vision and aligned ourselves with the right side of history.

Who knows what the other riders on the subway thought, I think I just covered my face and let the tears come.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Solid Southern Hemisphere said...

Bilbo! Bankhead! "What's in a name?" you ask? Call me Bilbo Bankhead!

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