Blogs > Cliopatria > Chafe, Hillary, and LBJ

Jan 25, 2008 6:32 pm

Chafe, Hillary, and LBJ

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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Ralph E. Luker - 2/4/2008

I am not responsible for History News Network. Rick Shenkman is. If you have a problem with race-baiting or unsourced attacks elsewhere on HNN, take it up with him. I have a problem with *your* race-baiting and generalizations from the action of *one* historian to the reputations of *all* historians at Cliopatria, where I have some responsibility. (It would make as much sense for you to generalize from the actions of KC Johnson to the reputations of *all* historians as it does for you to generalize from the actions of Bill Chafe to the reputations of all historians.) This is the *first* time you've even *tried* to offer "evidence" and it is simply irrelevant because I am not responsible for comments elsewhere at HNN. You couldn't even spell the name of the source you claimed as evidence the last time you tried. You are on notice about your comments at Cliopatria. You are welcome to take your foolish generalizations and race-baiting elsewhere on the net. Here, you won't get by with them.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/4/2008

Mr. Luker, let’s end your charade.

First you censored my posts and then you lied about them. You claim you are defending “historians’ reputations”. But this site is full of vicious attacks on historians’ reputations, individually and collectively, that don’t seem to appeal to your censorial urges:

“It's hard to believe that someone [Juan Cole] with a doctorate in the field, and the head of the department at Michigan, can be so asinine.”;bheaders=1#118577

“As usual, Gee prefers primitive, slanderous anti-semitic propaganda to any analysis.“;bheaders=1#118578

“[T]he American elites, including the professorial class, support the ideal of intellectual freedom for some, but not for all.“;bheaders=1#118038

Likewise, unsubstantiated and controversial attacks on non-historians do not attract your censor’s pen. Apparently you don’t think that a charge that Teddy Kennedy has a long history of visiting prostitutes needs support.;bheaders=1#118580 Or a claim that Zionism and Nazism have the same doctrinal origins is controversial.;bheaders=1#118578

As far as “race-baiting”, if you were concerned about that, you should urge the removal that the entire section of HNN devoted to last year’s Black History Month. Some contributors there even manage to slander individuals and the history profession at the same time:

“History has glossed that President Woodrow Wilson … was a member of the KKK.” (*)

A year-long claim that a famous American president was a Klan member was, apparently, not “too controversial” or not “too race-baiting” or not “too un-fact-checkable” for you or anyone else at this prestigious site – but a reference to government crime statistics was?

You know, Mr. Luker, that all my statements were sufficiently sourced to be fact-checked. The fact is, you DON’T WANT them checked because you know the likely result. It’s an old and disreputable trick: If you can’t dispute the message, attack the messenger. You also censored my “impertinent question” about why police arrived at the Duke lacrosse party house in TWO minutes – and since this was the subject of my last comment before your censorship, I have to assume it was the proximate cause of it.

Finally, you say that I “have been put on notice.” No, the entire HNN community has been put on notice that there is a totalitarian presence here which, like totalitarians of old, is airbrushing history. Is that demeaning to say? I’m sorry, I’ve never learned to lick the boots of censors.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/2/2008

As I've said, if you want to comment at HNN, don't generalize from one historian's action to all historians' reputations, don't make race-baiting and controversial claims without specific references to specific evidence that can be fact-checked, and don't demean either me or my colleagues with condescending language. You've been put on notice.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/2/2008

I never said Bill Chafe commented at Cliopatria; that's an utter red herring.

What were those "race-baiting claims" -- claims which were so heinous that highly educated adults had to be protected, by you, from reading them? If these claims were both "race-baiting" and "unsupported", why would not an honest man want me exposed as a racist liar by my own words and his own searing counter-facts? As it is now, you can only make the smear of me and hope it sticks in the minds of people from whom you have withheld the evidence.

Now that you've destroyed the evidence of my citation to sources, you are free to claim I am lying about them.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/2/2008

Bill Chafe did not comment at Cliopatria. You did and you are simply lying when you claim that you cited sources of evidence for your race-baiting claims.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/2/2008

You make a lot of charges, Mr. Luker, without any evidence. And I cited my sources, which you label "race-baiting" solely as a method of censorship. I did not see you asking Mr. Chafe for HIS sources for his far more outrageous comments.

In the end, I sense you have found in my postings a repository of facts that you cannot refute, and that you therefore need to censor. Well, as you say, we always need to note who has the "power" to silence the voices of dissent, but in the end, you will not be able silence the facts.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/2/2008

The comments were deleted at my request, Mr. Hamilton. You'd been warned. No intelligent conversation can result from a) your generalization from the behavior of one historian to the reputations of all historians; b) your refusal to cite specific sources for your race-baiting charges; and c) your demeaning references to me or to any of my colleagues at Cliopatria. If you wish to be allowed to continue to comment at Cliopatria and History News Network, think of it as a learning experience.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/2/2008

It's a shame to see such a prestigious site succumb to The Heckler's Veto.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/1/2008

You have still to cite a source for your claims and if you continue to refer to me as your uncle, I will not only have disowned you, but I will have you barred from HNN.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/1/2008

Mr. Luker, if you are determined to remain ignorant, that's your privilege, but that practiced ignorance doesn't entitle you to slander me or the facts. I cited my sources. Your problem is with them and yourself.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/1/2008

One more thing, Uncle:

You say, "If you refuse to take control of judicial, legal, and political institutions into account in assessing such a bit of evidence, that simply means that you'd make a very poor historian."

I hope you don't doubt who today controls the "judicial, legal, and political institutions" and especially the "intellectual" institutions. If you have the least doubt, may I suggest that you go back and look at a little-commented upon piece of the Duke lacrosse case? The original 911 call did not report a rape, not an assault, not a molestation, not a robbery, not a purse-snatching, not, in fact, anything that the law FORMALLY calls a crime. Moreover, there was no suggestion that any crime was about to occur or that anyone was in any danger whatsoever. And yet, police were at the lacrosse house WITHIN TWO MINUTES of the call. Yes, you're right: we must understand who controls the "judicial, legal, and political institutions" to explain the lacrosse case, STARTING with the two-minute police response to a report of no crime and no danger.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/1/2008

I've disowned you, so you are not privileged to address me with your honorific. Cite your sources of evidence or keep your race-baiting claims to yourself.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/1/2008

Dear Uncle Ralph,

I welcome a full and public airing of interracial rape (and other crime) statistics from any period you care to name. But the lying metanarrative to which I refer says that white rapes of black women are (were?) commonplace. You cannot defend this by asking, "I take it that you would conclude from that bit of evidence that no white man ever raped an African-American woman in Montgomery, Alabama, prior to 1950." Did a white man EVER rape a black woman? Undoubtedly so. However, according to the latest government statistics of which I am aware, black men are raping white women at a rate of more than 100 a day, while white rapes of black women show up as an asterisk BECAUSE THE NUMBER OF REPORTED INCIDENTS IS TOO SMALL FOR EXTRAPOLATION. This is where the discussion must begin.

Btw, the historian Diane Somerville(sp?) has done extensive research showing that, completely contrary to the lying metanarrative pushed by most universities, even in the days of slavery, most interracial rapes where black on white.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/30/2008

Dear brother Hamilton, Your generalization, on the basis of *no* research, is far worse than Chafe's generalization, on the basis of *some* research. You generalize from Chafe to all historians. You generalize from no evidence to the relationship white Southern men to Southern African-American women. Mills Thornton, a very conservative historian, says that no white man was ever formally charged with raping an African-American woman in Montgomery, Alabama, prior to 1950. I take it that you would conclude from that bit of evidence that no white man ever raped an African-American woman in Montgomery, Alabama, prior to 1950. That radical bit of generalization is folly that both Chafe and I and, I dare say, most historians would reject out of hand. If you refuse to take control of judicial, legal, and political institutions into account in assessing such a bit of evidence, that simply means that you'd make a very poor historian.

R.R. Hamilton - 1/30/2008

The worst part of Chafe's anti-lacrosse screed of March 31, 2006, wasn't his bungling of the facts of the Emmett Till murder. The worst was his repeating of the blood-libel that fantasizes about some time (in the unrecorded past, of course) where white men routinely raped black women with impunity:

Worst of all, sex was an instrument by which racial power was manifested and perpetuated. Why are most African Americans of a lighter hue than Africans from Nigeria? Because at some point in the past, or present, white males have "had their way" with black women. White slave masters were the initial perpetrators of sexual assault on black women, but subsequent generations continued the pattern, which is why black parents, for so many generations, feared letting their daughters take on domestic service roles in white households, where white males could molest them.

To make matters worse, white men portrayed black women as especially erotic, more driven to sexual pleasure and expressiveness than white women; and then, in a perverse form of projection, created the specter of black men seeking to rape white women. That is why most lynchings of black men in the late 19th and early 20th century were justified by accusing black men of lusting after white women-even though there was little evidence that such attacks ever took place.

As long as Chafe is allowed to call himself a "historian", we can not ask for the public to hold that profession in any high regard.