(This is the first in a series of Washington letters which will be written by several correspondents and will appear regularly in The New York Review.)
Washington—With the accession of President Johnson, the civil rights bill has taken on new importance here. Nothing will reveal more about the President than the way he deals with this legislation, and the final version that emerges from Congress will obviously have much to do with the coming presidential election. Furthermore the civil rights bill must now cope with a dilemma which has come into the open with an almost desperate new urgency: how much “disorder” and how much outright “violence” can this society stand? This is a problem which had already become extremely ominous last summer when, after the events in Birmingham, some sections of the Negro protest movement were finding ways to create “non-violent disorder.” But now the assassination and murder in Texas, and the behavior of the Dallas police, have made the question more difficult than ever to evade. And the civil rights bill provides the occasion on which it must be faced squarely.
One gets some sense of the underlying issues involved in this bill from two statements made recently, one by a Colorado Congressman, and the other by the Attorney General of the United States:
Congressman: “One of my constituents has been in Georgia solitary for 85 days for taking part in a peaceful demonstration. Get him out.”
The Attorney General: “You wouldn’t want a national police force, would you?”
Embedded in this exchange is an uneasy recognition that the Negro movement has been taking place “outside” traditional politics—and doing so more and more vigorously—precisely because Congress and the Executive have seemed incapable of dealing with the racial conflict. At the same time, the tactics of the Negro protest have slowly been gaining acceptance as legitimate political techniques, in much the same way that strikes became legitimate about fifty years ago and free pamphleteering did in the eighteenth century. Although it may not have been widely noticed, many local governments are now tending to avoid prosecution of sit-in demonstrators, and the courts are reversing their earlier convictions. In fact, it now seems likely that the Supreme Court will validate the constitutional position of the sit-inners during 1964. If this happens, it will be directly traceable to the paralysis of the Executive and Congress on the racial question during the last ten years.
Thus the question in Washington has now become whether either Branch can catch up with the Negro revolution. If not, the Negro protest may go beyond sit-in tactics into more far-reaching forms of civil disobedience—and it is not certain that such new tactics could be prevented from degenerating into chaos and violent racial warfare. Indeed there is a growing belief among some leaders of the integration movement that Congress not only cannot catch up but perhaps should not: that America needs new forms of politics, especially politics that excite and commit large numbers of people, far more than it needs momentary tranquility on the race question. These people believe that “disorder” could be creative and need not be violent.
Of course, there are few members of Congress who could even dream of talking in these terms. Most politicians here fear disorder far more than they hate injustice. They want to “get the Negroes off the streets” and we may be sure that President Johnson will be particularly anxious to have this done as the election approaches. On the other hand, the more imaginative politicians realize that this hope is doomed unless the civil rights bill goes very far and does so quickly—and even then they fear that it will be difficult to avoid serious disorder.
Among those who take this view are Congressmen like Kastenmeier of Wisconsin and Rogers of Colorado, who rebelled against the Administration’s civil rights bill this fall and—for the first time since the New Deal—forced the President to move further to the left than he had intended. Forming a coalition in the House Judiciary Committee, they drafted a bill so strong that the Administration—fearing loss of its Southern supporters as well as the “Northern White backlash”—had to fight hard to tone it down. The result is the surprisingly “tough” compromise which is now before the House—the very bill for which President Johnson spoke so strongly in November. For their pains, the members of the coalition were denounced by the press for irresponsibly wanting “an issue more than a bill.” But, as one of them put it. “Bobby Kennedy insisted we couldn’t get a tough bill passed but President Kennedy acknowledged to us at the White House that there was a good chance that we could.” And the principal reason a tough bill was possible, according to the members of the coalition, was the impact on the Committee of the steady militant Negro protests in the South and North while the bill was under discussion.
I think the civil rights bill and the effect the “tough coalition” had on it can be understood most clearly if we examine the three different roles the Federal government can play in the race conflict—the roles of “church,” of “state,” and of “government.” When I say that federal authority can act as a “church” I mean simply that it can encourage people to accept beliefs and values purely by moral persuasion, rather than by force or coercion. The Federal Civil Rights Commission, which merely collects facts and tries to influence opinions, is an example of this. On the other hand, when the federal authority acts as a “state,” it uses its monopoly of legitimate violence to prevent or punish illegitimate violence—as it did, for example, when it charged policemen in Mississippi with brutal treatment of Negro demonstrators. Finally, when acting as a “government,” federal authority mingles the functions of “church” and “state” by creating new laws—laws that set forth new values—and by backing them up with all the legitimate violence necessary—as it did by sending Federal troops to Little Rock to accomplish school integration.
Despite the example I’ve cited, it should be clear that, so far as the race question is concerned, the United States has barely had an effective “church,” “state,” or “government” at all (partly because weak federal attempts at being one or the other have met with energetic local opposition). The present struggle over the civil rights bill is to determine just how these forms of federal authority will be applied to the racial conflict. (Of course those who are involved in the civil rights controversy don’t formulate the problem to themselves in this way—but I suggest it is the most useful way of analysing what they do.)
If we consider the civil rights bill now before Congress from this point of view, we see that the “tough coalition” managed to insert several important “state” provisions which the Administration never asked for and probably didn’t want. One of these permits the Attorney General to obtain injunctions against state and local police who abuse their power by denying constitutional rights; another makes it somewhat easier for civil rights defendants to have their cases removed from biased state courts to the presumably less biased federal courts. These provisions assert the hostility of the United States toward people who use either naked brutality or the power of arrest to smash non-violent Negro protests. But they establish no new standards for race relations—they do not assert a moral preference on the part of the state—of the contrary, they insist that the state stay neutral in the fight for integration, so long as neither side becomes violent. In effect, these provisions would encourage the Negro movement to develop sit-in and other non-violent techniques (and perhaps would encourage segregationists to invent similar techniques).
Finally, the “government”—as opposed to the “state”—functions of the bill outlaw racial discrimination in jobs, union membership, public accomodations, voting, and access to public schools. Thanks to the “tough coalition,” some of these provisions are stronger than the Administration had proposed. Others will be ineffective even if they are approved—the ones on voting especially. But as a group they raise problems of policy which are very different from those raised by the “state” provisions, although they are equally grave. For each of them not only sets new standards but provides for federal enforcement if necessary.
We thus come back to the challenge of the Attorney General: “You wouldn’t want a national police force, would you?” For these “government” measures provide that the federal authority will not merely act to prevent violence when groups come into conflict but that they will uphold a new social order based on racial equality—just as the Southern police have always acted to uphold white supremacy. The segregationist nightmare has always been that the Federal police will come one day to enforce racial equality, and one suspects that this has been a nightmare for Robert Kennedy as well. Of course it is true that the F.B.I. is a “national police force” directed against bank robbers and spies; and the T-men a national police to deal with drug-pushers and moonshiners. But moonshiners and bank robbers don’t own a police force, while the segregationists own a great many. To the Attorney General, a “national police force” means a conquering army and he does not want to lead it into battle.
What then can President Johnson do in the face of a head-on clash between two powerful social groups—the Whites entrenched in local governments, and the Negroes able to create widespread public disorder.
There seem to be three possible answers. One is for the federal authority to act as “church” and “state” separately on the race question, but not as a “government”: i.e., to persuade the nation of the moral necessity of racial equality and protect the integration movement from violence—but not to use official federal violence to impose integration. If this plan is to succeed, it will require an altogether new depth and passion in President Johnson’s own commitment to equality. His speech to the Congress in November gave some evidence that he is aware of this. And it may be that his less cerebral approach to national issues could make such a commitment easier for him than it was for President Kennedy. (Johnson might, for example, have been more willing to call a national day of mourning for the children killed in Birmingham.) Furthermore, we would have to accept a great deal of “disorderly” inconvenience—boycotts and jammed telephones and closed airports and blocked city halls—as segregationists and integrationists contended non-violently. This may be acceptable or even enjoyable to many Americans—who are in many ways a disorderly people—but they must be conscious of what they will face. And finally, if this approach were to succeed, we would have to invent, and President Johnson would have to build, a new kind of federal police force that would protect Negroes from violence—including violence by local police—but without taking over the South.
A second possible answer would be a strong “government” which would simply impose integration on the South. This would require a very strong law passed by a determined Congress, for only then would the South be discouraged from resisting in an organized way. Even so, a violent guerilla resistance might be carried on by intransigent Southerners. Certainly the “government” provisions of the present civil rights bill would have to be strengthened; and a large federal police force would have to be organized to enforce these laws with a firm hand.
Of course there is a third choice: no bill, or a weaker one, or weak enforcement action quite inadequate to bring about either solution I’ve outlined. Despite the hopeful beginnings of President Johnson, it must be said that this third possibility is still the most likely since the present Congress cannot be expected to pass, nor the Administration to enforce, the legislation needed to make either of the other two solutions workable. And this third possibility is the one that could well mean a degeneration from disorder into violence, the sending of federal troops into the South, and a general collapse of belief in representative government.
The only people who can avoid this outcome are first, the President, and secondly the much-maligned liberals in Congress. President Johnson will now have to choose between the liberal program to which he gave forceful spoken support as Vice President and the minimal civil rights performance he managed to coax out of the Senate when he was Majority Leader. He will not find the private cajolery and compromise of the Senate “club”sufficient to bring about decisive Congressional action on civil rights. He will have to bring very heavy public pressures indeed if he is to succeed.
If he does not, the only political force in America that could even hope to change the Congressional course would be the Congressional liberals—men like Kastenmeier of Wisconsin, Rogers of Colorado, and Lindsay of New York in the House; and Humphrey, Clark and Case in the Senate. These men have the imagination to see what a failure to pass strong civil rights legislation could do to the nation, and they have the toughness to oppose their party leaders, and to attempt to form coalitions of their own. Their prospects are doubtful but if widespread support for them developed in the country, or a new racial crisis were to occur, there might still be a hope of success. And if Johnson should fail and the liberals succeed, his leadership of the party would be called into question. For then the Congressional liberals—led perhaps by Humphrey or Robert Kennedy in his brother’s mantle—would have the Negro movement, much of organized labor, and the liberal intellectuals behind them, enough to paralyze the party, if not command it.
In any case, more is at stake here than the outcome of the racial conflict. If some forms of “outside politics” and creative disorder are accepted into legitimate political life, they may well be used to act on other issues. If the President and Congress can demonstrate their capacity to govern, then they will make representative democracy seem viable. But if they fail to meet this crisis, they will reinforce the growing fears that the issues of the next half-century can be dealt with only by mobs or monarchs, or not at all.
December 26, 1963