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 Civil Rights and Civility 

September 11, 2007 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, December 23, 1997]
paragraph indent for 
civil rights and civilityI once knew a hardheaded intellectual who defended the U.S. alliance with South Africa as a necessity of the Cold War. He was deeply suspicious of liberal attacks on South African racial apartheid; he thought such criticism served Soviet interests.

Today's column is "Civil Rights and Civility" -- Subscribe to the new FGF E-Package.paragraph indent for civil rights and civilityThough his analytic geopolitical mind seemed immune to moral indignation, he startled me one day, in a private conversation, by expressing a bitter contempt for apartheid. “You don’t have to humiliate people that way,” he said. He was willing to make every allowance for the situation of white South Africans. Nevertheless, he thought their treatment of blacks was needlessly and inexcusably insulting. I never heard him speak with such outrage even about communism, which he hated.

paragraph indent for civil 
rights and civilityAll this came back to me the other day as I was reading Pillar of Fire, the second volume of Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr. One chapter tells the swirling story of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was conceived while John Kennedy, who was cool to it, was still president and passed, after Kennedy’s murder, with the passionate support of Lyndon Johnson.

paragraph indent for civil 
rights and civilityBranch writes grippingly, and he endows the history of the civil rights movement with an epic quality. But he is also frank about King’s failings, our knowledge of which is chiefly due to J. Edgar Hoover’s notorious secret tapings, which the FBI mogul hoped would ruin King. (Historians acquire some unsavory debts.)

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rights and civility“This will destroy the burrhead!” Hoover cried as he read a transcript of King’s obscene revels in Washington’s Willard Hotel. After John Kennedy’s assassination, Hoover also “treated” Attorney General Robert Kennedy, as Branch puts it, to “a shocking, explicitly sexual comment” King had made, on tape, about Jacqueline Kennedy as she knelt by the coffin with her children.

paragraph indent for civil 
rights and civilityHoover hated both King and the Kennedys, and he plotted, using all the power of the FBI, to sharpen the tensions between them. It’s an amazing and sinister story.

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rights and civilityI wonder, though, if Branch isn’t making too much of the purely political aspects of what used to be called the Negro’s struggle for equality. He seems to think everything hinged on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and tends to overlook deeper cultural factors.

[Breaker quote for Civil Rights and Civility: Hoover's secret war against King]paragraph indent for civil rights and civilityFar more important than any legislation was the cultural climate of America. Most white Americans in 1964 still regarded blacks as their inferiors. But they had, as people generally do, mixed feelings. They didn’t want to appear “prejudiced,” and even more than that, they hated to feel they were humiliating blacks.

paragraph indent for civil 
rights and civilityLiberalism tends to confuse subordination with suffering. When it recalls slavery, for example, it exaggerates the role of whips and chains and forgets that most slaves were resigned to their lot. If slaves (in the Old South, ancient Rome, or ancient Egypt, for example) had been constantly on the verge of insurrection, slavery would never have been viable. But slave societies have always depended on the assumption, shared by both the slaves and the masters, that slavery is a necessary and ineradicable fact of life. Affection between slaves and masters often made slavery more bearable, though it could never make it right.

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rights and civilityThe very idea of abolishing slavery is a modern one, which arose in Christian civilization. The pagan world never produced an abolitionist movement, though individual slaves often gained their liberty.

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rights and civilityIn America, it was Christian sentiment that recoiled, first, from slavery itself and, later, from humiliating black people. This was why passage of civil rights legislation was possible at all. And even without that legislation, most Christians, once they became aware that blacks found their customary treatment insulting, would have tried to amend it voluntarily.

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rights and civilityEvery report of white cruelty and violence against blacks caused other whites to feel shame, indignation, and the desire to show decency and benevolence. These reactions could lead to their own excesses and hypocrisies, but that doesn’t discredit them at all.

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rights and civilityThe fallacy that warps our discussion of slavery and race relations is the notion that everything depends on legislation. This fallacy gives political leaders a stature they don’t deserve. What makes life tolerable in America is the simple fact that most people want to be civil, in the full sense of that underrated word.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
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