William Chafe: A critic from Duke case assails him again

Historians in the News

William Chafe is widely considered one of the nation’s leading historians of civil rights. The former president of the AHA has, among other works, authored an influential book on the Greensboro sit-ins.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve come to a very different view of Chafe because of my involvement in the lacrosse case. In March 2006—based on less than one week of press reports—Chafe penned an op-ed implying that the whites who kidnapped, beat, and murdered Emmett Till provided the appropriate historical context through which to interpret the behavior of the lacrosse players. (For good measure, his op-ed got the year of Till’s murder wrong.) Last spring, Chafe accused “bloggers who have targeted the ‘Group of 88’" of “sending us e-mails and making phone calls wishing our deaths and calling us ‘Jew b-’ and ‘n-b-’.” When I obtained unequivocal denials from each of the dozen or so bloggers who had penned posts criticizing the Group, Chafe confessed he had no evidence for his claim. But, he asserted, Group of 88 members had received vile (anonymous) e-mails—as if the existence of these e-mails was grounds enough for him to level such an explosive allegation against the bloggers who had criticized the Group.

Chafe is no longer commenting on the lacrosse case, but, sadly, he has remained cavalier in his use of the facts. Earlier this week, the Duke professor published an op-ed on the dispute about Hillary Clinton’s comments on LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr. This, it would seem, is a topic of contemporary significance on which someone with Chafe’s academic credentials could offer the public scholarly guidance.

Clinton’s remarks were worthy of strong criticism, less for the substance of what she said than for their symbolism in a campaign that has employed—to borrow the analysis of the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party—Lee Atwater-like race-baiting. As occurred with Atwater, the tactics have been effective; both entry polls from Nevada and current polls from South Carolina have shown a strong white-black split in the electorate absent in Iowa. This racial polarization has made Clinton the prohibitive favorite for the nomination: there are, after all, more white Democrats than black Democrats.

Chafe, however, avoided the politics of Clinton’s move, and instead criticized her on the substance. Too many politicians, he complained, “have trumpeted King’s demand that individuals be judged ‘by the content of their character,’ not the color of their skin.” Such an approach made King appear too “moderate.” Moreover, Chafe added, “what Senator Clinton failed to acknowledge is the degree to which Kennedy and Johnson had records prior to 1963 that were as shameful on issues of civil rights as that of many conservative white Southern legislators.”

This is, to put it mildly, a peculiar interpretation of the Civil Rights Era. Few people, I suspect, would consider Robert Caro to be excessively pro-Johnson. Yet even Caro presents a largely favorable view of Johnson’s role in passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act—the first piece of civil rights legislation Congress had passed in eighty years. The measure was occasion in which, as Caro points out, LBJ was at his best, since his political interests coincided with the well-being of the country.

Before 1957, every civil rights bill in the 20th century had failed because of a Southern filibuster. Having decided to champion a civil rights bill, Johnson confronted the key question of how to do so without alienating Southern senators, whose support he needed as majority leader. He also needed to craft a bill that could obtain the two-thirds vote necessary for cloture, since no cloture vote had succeeded in the Senate since 1919. On that front, conservative Republicans held the balance of power.

The 1957 bill was far weaker than most civil rights activists wanted. Working in concert with some cooperative liberals (chiefly Frank Church), Johnson pushed through an amendment requiring jury trials for all alleged violations of Title III (which dealt with public accommodations). Yet the bill was also a significant symbolic advance, and it’s unlikely a more comprehensive version could have cleared the Senate in 1957.

How does Chafe describe Johnson’s performance in securing the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act? “Although he receives credit for shepherding a civil rights bill through Congress in 1957, Johnson in fact eviscerated that law of all substantive content, leading liberal senators to call it a ‘sham.’” A few liberal senators (such as Paul Douglas) did so describe it. Most, however, supported the measure.

Johnson likewise had a complicated personal record on civil rights issues. He used blatant race-baiting rhetoric in opposing the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Yet he also was one of only three Southern senators (Albert Gore, Sr. and Estes Kefauver were the other two) not to sign the Southern Manifesto, the 1956 document denouncing Brown.

Despite his later claims to the contrary, Johnson also privately expressed racist sentiments. But what distinguished Johnson from his Southern colleagues, as Caro points out, was not a more progressive personal attitude on racial issues, but rather his ability to look beyond his personal bigotry to act for the public good.

How does Chafe describe this aspect of Johnson’s record? He mentions the FEPC fight but not the Southern Manifesto, and he notes that LBJ “repeatedly, and in public, he called his chauffeur the ‘n’ word” but nothing about how Johnson transcended his personal racism. “Lyndon Johnson,” he adds, “was no better” than Kennedy—who “had never advocated civil rights legislation as a senator, and voted to weaken the 1957 Civil Rights Bill,” and “was endorsed in 1960 by reactionary segregationists like Alabama’s Governor John Patterson.” Unmentioned in Chafe’s discussion of Kennedy’s pre-1963 record: the 1960 call to Coretta Scott King; or the administration’s successful 1961 effort to expand the House Rules Committee; or the President’s policies in the 1962 integration of Ole Miss.

Chafe’s interpretation of the Civil Rights Era, it seems, amounts to the following: on one side was Martin Luther King, Jr., and civil rights activists such as the Greensboro sit-in students. On the other side was anyone who opposed even some of the demands of the civil rights activists, or who made political compromises in the effort to get some civil rights legislation passed, or who was opposed to civil rights altogether. In this approach, the record of someone like LBJ (or, I assume, Frank Church) is “as shameful on issues of civil rights as that of many conservative white Southern legislators”—people like Strom Thurmond, or George Wallace, or Jim Eastland, or John Bell Williams. Such an absolutist interpretation obscures far more than it reveals.

If nothing else, the lacrosse case taught how unrealistic it is to expect academic devotees of an extreme race/class/gender worldview to look beyond their ideological preconceptions when commenting on public matters. A world in which LBJ or JFK had as “shameful” a civil rights record as Eastland or Thurmond is a world that few from the time would have recognized.

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John L. Godwin - 1/31/2008

Robert KC Johnson has written persuasively on the subject of William Chafe’s over anxious criticism of Kennedy and Johnson in the Civil Rights Era. As the U.S. slogged through the 1960s, the provocation/ radicalization/ exploitation of movement leadership helped to bring about an altered perspective of the so-called “Sixties liberals”—a term that is itself profoundly suspect. In the years since Watergate and the Vietnam War, historians have tended to join either the New Left critics for whom only confrontation, brinkmanship, extremism, and the use of force seem to have any legitimacy, or the new conservatives who see only the wild-haired excesses, passions and supposed “immorality” of the Sixties as the primary explanation for all of America’s ills. A perfect formula for burying the people who in many respects did the most to benefit the public—i.e., Hillary Clinton’s point about LBJ. The Sixties liberals have had their defenders, but too often it seems, they don’t make it onto prime time. Maybe that helps to explain why the country has drifted further and further down the road toward ultra-conservative, albeit ultra-patriot governance.

Yes—William Chafe—the author of a path breaking work on North Carolina history, for all that he is due as an interpreter of the Civil Rights Era, must be numbered among those whose perspective has had its shortcomings. Looking out across the state of North Carolina from the city of Greensboro, Chafe could not see the rise of Jesse Helms, how it happened, and what it has meant for America. Like so many other renowned interpreters of this era, Chafe assimilates the excesses of Black Nationalism into the ideology of the Left, and not into the political manipulations of the radical right, who got the most out of it. (The Sixties liberals tried to warn us, which Chafe forgets.) And the view from Greensboro somehow managed to completely overlook the internationally famous controversy of the Wilmington Ten. What glaring omissions! What are we waiting for—the sky to fall in with FREEDOM OF INFORMATION emblazoned on every piece?

If we want to thaw this country out from its present deep chill, we might start by asking how it was that JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and LBJ got it right, shared common assumptions, and as a result, brought this country back from the lower depths of McCarthyism. Then ask again for the whole story on exactly how Richard Nixon and his followers managed to get hold of it. This is a story sadly lacking in the works of William Chafe and so many others who share his views of the period.