TJ | 7th Nov, 2017

Understanding Mass Shootings

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Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

An individual murder may seem random and inexplicable or even foolish and trivial,
but the outcome rips the social fabric, weakens the political power of the state, and echoes   through neighborhoods, regions, and nations.
— Eric Monkkonen

What is it that lines up the synapses in someone’s brain just so or maybe crosses them randomly so instead of functioning the way the are supposed to they create a short circuit with gruesome consequences? What is it that can make a human being pull the trigger when they are close enough to look the victim in the eye?

My wife’s mother was murdered the second year we were married. They have never found who pulled fired the .222 bullet that killed her so we are left with whys.  But they all come down to one: what would cause someone to snuff out the life of a defenseless woman?

The mother of the nine-year-old who was killed in the Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting expressed emotions not far from those we still feel:

I can’t even put it into words.  I can’t express the devastation and hurt and how we were so robbed of our beautiful, beautiful princess.

The Speculators

Now we are asking “Why?” Predictably the media and the politicians are milking this one for all the usual suspects.  The left blames the right and the right blames the left and the so-called middle blames both of them. Somehow connecting random dots into a condemnation of a particular political party or ideology seems as mad as the act itself. No matter what your ideology you can probably find somewhere on the Net someone willing to feed your hunch that your favorite villain was responsible.

Finger-pointing and conspiracy theories aside, what we do know is that even in that most political of murders–a Presidential assassination–the book on those who committed the crime is that almost all of them were people whose reasons for pulling the trigger remain as obscure as their backgrounds. What is needed is understanding.

This essay is about a journey to find that understanding, to try to get beyond the easy answers and the explanations that all of us have heard too many times.  Those who were shot and their families and friends deserve more than that.  The journey took me to some unexpected places where I rediscovered someone I had not expected to find.

I apologize for the length of the piece and the unusual number of direct quotes, but I thought you deserve to read what researchers have said in their own words. I wrote this essay because writing is one way I deal with powerful emotions.  Perhaps in some way it might help some of you reading it who seek your own answers.

The journey begins with one of the most eloquent jury speeches ever made, Clarence Darrow’s closing argument in the Leopold-Loeb murder trial. I went there first because Darrow’s summation is the best piece I know in which someone is trying to understand why people kill.

Hollywood has given us this false impression of Darrow’s final arguments as tightly constructed pieces of rhetorical fireworks, but in this trial Darrow seems to be thinking out loud, moving extemporaneously in fits and jerks the way our minds do when we are trying to grasp something horrible that we do not understand.

Clarence Darrow’s Loeb-Leopold Speech

The Leopold-Loeb case remains one of the most notorious murders in American history, the first so-called “Trial of the Century.” A bit of background. Darrow was trying to advance a theory that still intrigues death penalty scholars: anyone who murders, especially someone who plans a murder, is by definition insane because rational people, most people, do not behave that way.

Darrow’s summation describes the crime better than all the books and articles that have been written about it.

Here were two boys with good intellect, one eighteen and one nineteen. They had all the prospects that life could hold out for any of the young; one a graduate of Chicago and another of Ann Arbor; one who had passed his examination for the Harvard Law School and was about to take a trip in Europe,–another who had passed at Ann Arbor, the youngest in his class, with three thousand dollars in the bank. Boys who never knew what it was to want a dollar; boys who could reach any position that was to boys of that kind to reach; boys of distinguished and honorable families, families of wealth and position, with all the world before them. And they gave it all up for nothing, for nothing! They took a little companion of one of them, on a crowded street, and killed him, for nothing, and sacrificed everything that could be of value in human life upon the crazy scheme of a couple of immature lads.

The “crazy scheme” Darrow refers to is what continues to attract people to the case: Loeb and Leopold supposedly wanted to commit the “perfect crime.”  Alfred Hitchcock would later make one of his most brilliant movies, Rope, from the fabric of the case, a movie notable in cinema history because it takes place in real time, as if it were one continuous shot with no editing (if you have never seen it, I recommend watching it, if only for James Stewart’s spellbinding performance).

Darrow’s summation makes it clear motive does not commit the crime, whether the ascribed political motives of those who assassinated Presidents or the various motives ascribed to those on death row.

They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man something slipped, and those unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting for their blood.

Darrow went on:

The best way to understand somebody else is to put yourself in his place. Is it within the realm of your imagination that a boy who was right, with all the prospects of life before him, who could choose what he wanted, without the slightest reason in the world would lure a young companion to his death, and take his place in the shadow of the gallows?

There are not physicians enough in the world to convince any thoughtful, fair-minded man that these boys are right.

Darrow then asked the questions that are probably going through everyone’s minds as they ponder the senseless acts of mass shootings. He couched it, as Darrow often did, in somewhat melodramatic tones around mother and child:

How came my children to be what they are? From what ancestry did they get this strain? How far removed was the poison that destroyed their lives?

Later he answers his own questions:

The mind, of course, is an illusive thing. Whether it exists or not no one can tell. It cannot be found as you find the brain. Its relation to the brain and the nervous system is uncertain. It simply means the activity of the body, which is coordinated with the brain. But when we do find from human conduct that we believe there is a diseased mind, we naturally speculate on how it came about. And we wish to find always, if possible, the reason why it is so. We may find it, we may not find it; because the unknown is infinitely wider and larger than the known, both as to the human mind and as to almost everything else in the universe.

Eric Monkkonen

Darrow made his argument in 1924.  Since then we have been trying to understand what Darrow called “the operation of a diseased brain.” Someone who spent his life researching why people pull the trigger was Eric Monkkonen. Reporters, pundits and bloggers speculating about shootings would do well to read Monkkonen’s work because it would clear the air of some false notions about violence.

In his the seminal study Murder in New York City Monkkonen analyzed two centuries of homicide data from New York. The book questions the assumption that violence is an urban phenomenon (New York’s homicide rates were lower than the national rate for the first half of the last century) and that it is a product of poverty (New York violence rates were low in some of the worst slums and most perilous economic times).

In a posthumous essay published in the February 2006 volume of The American Historical Review he would also add guns to the list, writing:

Whether or not the United States has had a gun “culture” strikes me as a bogus issue: it seems nearly impossible even to define this idea—for then or now—without imposing such qualifications as to make the inquiry fruitless.

To assume that an absence of guns in the United States would bring about parity with Europe is wrong. For the past two centuries, even without guns, American rates would likely still have been higher.

To bolster his case he produced the following table:

What Monkkonen did discover about violence in America is that homicide rates in Europe have been falling for centuries while this in this country have gone the other direction. The graph below of homicides in England and Scandinavia illustrates that decline:

His essay asks a question that is again being raised in the wake of recent mass shootings.

The United States has long been a wealthy, democratic, and well-educated nation, so the fact that its rates today rival those of the poorest nations makes no sense and contradicts the experience of other well-off nations.

Monkkonen also found violence statistics that show murder is mainly a problem of men, a problem for which men must accept responsibility. He proposed:

If men take charge of anything, it must be of the notion that real men don’t kill, that self-respect means shrugging off the insult, and the better manliness accrues to him who does not fight. (p. 182)

In the conclusion of Murder in New York City he echoes Darrow, admitting there are no easy answers to murder in America:

We start with the good sense to know violence is complex and multicausal, and that no one has all the answers. Cycles suggest violence is like an epidemic, one offender having “caught” it from another. (p. 181)

In his posthumous essay Monkkonen hypothesized there are four causes of violence in America, mobility (which cut long-standing community ties), slavery (it condoned violence based on race), federalism (a “fragmented and piecemeal system” results in differences in law enforcement, penalties and convictions) and what he termed tolerance, which he views as the reluctance of jurors to convict.

Rather than see jury acquittals as a failed prosecution, one can instead see the benefit of a doubt reflecting a reluctant tolerance.

Unfortunately, Monkkonen was never able to follow up on the insights in his essay.

The Politics of Murder

One who did was Randolph Roth, a history professor at Ohio State who has written a provocative book on murder in America, American Homicide. Roth is currently director of the Historical Violence Database which is dedicated to the memory of Eric Monkkonen. Using the same exhausting statistical methods as Monkkonen, Roth explored the social and political dimensions of violence. What he found has some very unsettling implications. He noted:

Disillusioned by the course the nation was taking, people felt increasingly alienated from both their government and their neighbors. They were losing the sense that they were  participating in a great adventure with their fellow Americans. Instead, they were competing in a cutthroat economy and a combative electoral system against millions of  strangers whose interests and values were antithetical to their own.

Sound familiar? It could describe America today, except Roth was writing about the state of the nation after the Civil War.

By looking at the relationship between murder statistics and politics, Roth  found:

The statistics make it clear that in the twentieth century homicide rates have fallen during the terms of presidents who have inspired the poor or have governed from the center with a popular mandate, and they have risen during the terms of presidents who have presided over political and economic crises, abused their power, or engaged in unpopular wars.

Reflecting on contemporary America Roth writes:

Political leaders bear the greatest responsibility for the nation’s political life and for the homicide problem it has caused. But given the polarization of politics in the United States today and the divisiveness of the issues that Americans face, it will be difficult for leaders of either party to rebuild faith in government, especially in the eyes of the poor, who are most at risk of committing murder and being murdered.

Right now a lot of you are probably nodding your heads in agreement, but what I did was set a rhetorical trap because in the heat of this moment we need to be careful of who is quoted and how. The above quotes were all cherry-picked by the media and reviewers of Roth’s book.  Perhaps the most unsettling one was a 2009 review by Raina Kelley in Newsweek. She wrote

Roth’s book also offers a warning about our volatile political rhetoric. Words can have real-life, even violent, consequences. Homicide is a vivid reminder that politics isn’t just about winning—it’s also about how you treat those who lose.

Reading all of these quotes out of context, one would think Roth drew a direct connection from political rhetoric to violence. He does not, which is perhaps why few quote him. Roth attempted to clear up in misunderstandings in an essay , “Maybe It Was My Fault: Responses to Misunderstandings by Reviewers of American Homicide.” He begins with a quote the reviewers left out:

America became homicidal in the mid-nineteenth century because it was the only major Western country that failed at nation-building.

He then goes on to define exactly what he means by nation-building:

Successful nation-building requires more than legitimate government. It requires comity among elites, strong institutions, security, inspired leadership, and a sense of community that transcends differences over religion, gender, class, race, ethnicity, etc.

Diverse societies can have low homicide rates if they are successful at nation building, but they can be successful only if their nations are inclusive and democratic.

Where Roth does make a connection between politics and violence is at the conclusion of his book, but he couches it in far different terms than the media. I quote him at length because it is extremely relevant to the current discussion:

American Homicide ends on a cautionary note, warning that politicians who defame their opponents for personal or partisan advantage can make a society more homicidal than it would otherwise have been by undermining trust in government and public officials. It also stresses that divisions can be hard to overcome: even a great centrist politician like Abraham Lincoln, who reached out to friend and foe alike and eschewed defamatory politics, was unable to lower the murder rate in his politically polarized society and became himself a homicide victim.

Violence and Mass Shootings

The script for the latest mass killing has become so routine that one does not even have to know the facts to fill in what happens. It begins with the inevitable analysis of the killer with the usual reports about his strange behavior–“troubled” is the usual phrase. At some point everyone will have to confront the question Clarence Darrow tackled in the Loeb-Leopold case, but if recent history is any indication without Darrow’s eloquence or his arguments.

Darrow somehow asks the impossible–that we hold back our inevitable feelings about the killer to try to understand the larger issue of why people kill.  Monkkonen was particularly aware of that difficulty.  At the end of Murder in New York he writes about how we must remember both individual stories and the larger issues.

The challenge, both for thinking and feeling, is to keep both–the stories and the patterns–in sight. (p. 183)

So, if we put the pieces together, what do we have?  If you read Eric Monkkonen’s last essay the common thread among his causes is that all involve our ties to and attitudes towards one another.  Roth makes a similar point in his essay on the reviewers:

One of the strongest correlates of murder is access to respect—the belief . . . that one’s position in society is or can be satisfactory and that one can command the respect of others without resorting to violence.

What this journey has taught me is that each of us must do what we can to lower the cultural thermostat that now seems out of control. We can resolve to be more civil with each other, to be respectful of the other side, to seek common ground rather than conflict and to live our lives by the one commandment that is common to all religions–we must treat others as we wish others to treat us.

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TJ | 26th Nov, 2014

The First Thanksgiving

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Lincoln and his Generals after Antietam

It is important to remember the circumstances surrounding the real first Thanksgiving. The real first Thanksgiving did not occur at Plymouth, but across America in cities, villages and isolated farms whose families had endured the grim news coming from the battlefields of the Civil War.  That war signified America’s inability to hold itself together in the face of partisan quarrels that dated back to the Constitutional Convention. By 1860 those quarrels, one of which resulted in Preston Brooks beating Charles Sumner senseless with a cane in the halls of Congress, had hardened until, as Lincoln said, America became a “house divided against itself.”

In 1863 Americans who had fought for over half a century with words were now slaughtering each other in unspeakable numbers. The year before Lincoln issued his proclamation marked the bloodiest day in American history– the Battle of Antietam where there were 6,000 casualties in a single morning. It takes a voice from the past to remind us of the horrors of the Civil War and why Lincoln issued his proclamation. The description is grim, and I hesitated printing it, but we need to see battles like Antietam through the eyes of those who fought there in the worst battle in our nation’s history.  The worst casualties were at a place they called the Bloody Angle where soldiers who only a few years before may have greeted one another on a street corner fought hand-to-hand:

Many of the bodies have turned black, the stench is terrible, and the sight shocking beyond description. I saw several wounded men in the breastworks buried under their dead, just  move a hand a little as it stuck up through the interstices above the dead bodies that buried the live ones otherwise completely from sight. Imagine such a sight if one can! It is indescribable! It was sickening, distressing and shocking to look upon!… Could anything in  Hades be any worse?…It seems like a horrible nightmare! [From Lemuel Abijah Abbott, Personal Recollections and Civil War Diary, 1864,  (New York: Free Press, 1908), pp. 58-59.]

When Abraham Lincoln wrote his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, he wasn’t thinking about Pilgrims and turkeys; he was thinking about sights like those above which he personally witnessed when he traveled to Antietam to assess the battle. He desperately wanted to heal  a divided and wounded country.

Lincoln’s interest in Thanksgiving is said to have been urged on him by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, who had promoted the idea in editorials. Hale also did not mention Pilgrims and turkeys. In one editorial she wrote:

Let us consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and of rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling.


In these days of partisan rancor we would do well to note some of Hale’s words and the motive behind them. Hale saw Thanksgiving as a way of strengthening what she termed “public harmony of feeling.” In other words, she envisioned a country where people worked together for the common good instead of digging their heels in and saying “my way or the highway.”

Hale had a different idea about this country than the one voiced by current Congressional zealots ready to shut down the government to get their way. She believed that harmony would come from “benevolence of action,” “sending good gifts to the poor, ” and doing “deeds of charity.”  In Hale’s words lies the belief that this country functions best with a level playing field that extends a hand to those less fortunate.

Hale wrote to Lincoln to convince him to set aside a day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War.

And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.

While Hale’s letter may have piqued Lincoln’s interest, it served only as a catalyst that brought forth his own beliefs about what he felt the nation needed. As he often did during that terrible period, Lincoln put words on paper that were spinning in the heads of Americans, captured their conflicting feelings and, most of all, read the needs lying in the those guarded places where not even the images of Matthew Brady’s photographs could penetrate.

Lincoln knew the nation deserved a day to pause and reflect, to inhale the fresh air of freedom amidst the dark smoke of war. There are so many other things he could have said, so many different words he could have used, so many feelings he could have vented, but he chose to ignore them. Somehow in the midst of the killing and the hatred he found something positive and enduring, just as he would at Gettysburg.

While his Thanksgiving Proclamation has neither the philosophical profundity nor the rhetorical precision of what he said at Gettysburg it has something else: a faith in what he termed “one heart and voice by the whole American people.” Abraham Lincoln had the ability to foresee a day when all Americans gathered with friends and family to enjoy each others’ company and give simple thanks for their blessings.

In Lincoln’s words, Thanksgiving becomes the most American of holidays–even more than the Fourth of July and all the rest–a national day of unity when all the disparate strands of this diverse nation join together not to celebrate, but to simply be thankful. The President did not call for revenge or hatred, but instead turned us towards what he termed the “better angels of our nature” and called for us to pause, look around and think about our lives.

Edmund Ruffin

When Edmund Ruffin, whose broad-brimmed hat and shoulder-length silver hair personified another world, walked to a cannon and lit the fuse that fired the first shot of the Civil War no one could have imagined the Bloody Angle.  That is why Lincoln’s proclamation of the First Thanksgiving speaks more powerfully to this nation than turkeys and Pilgrims. In countless speeches he gave through the Civil War one theme rings as clear as a church bell: it was the union that mattered and in order to have a “more perfect union” all Americans needed to value the nation as a whole over their petty personal and partisan agendas and grievances.

For Lincoln the Union could only survive if we worked together toward a common vision where no one was better than anyone else, regardless of how much they owned or how many degrees they had or the color of their skin or the accent of their voice. No one had a monopoly on dictating the meaning of the Constitution and the Declaration.

One part of Lincoln’s life that is not often mentioned is that at no time did he ever presume to be the major authority on the Constitution or American government. Raised in beginnings so humble that he once lived in the equivalent of a lean to, Lincoln, unlike the record number of millionaires in the present Congress, knew what it was like to be so hungry you would eat anything. That always left him with the humility that comes from having been, in the words of the blues, “so down you don’t know where up is.”

Thanksgiving had profound meaning to a man whose thin figure metaphorically reflected the near starvation he endured as a child. The reason we have family and friends around the table is to share whatever we have with those we love. If we cannot share it with them, regardless of their political beliefs, their personal quirks and bad luck stories, who can we share it with?

So before the you dig in for that Thanksgiving meal, say a few words or have a moment of reflection for the hope that the spirit of Thanksgiving imagined by Hale and Lincoln might infect this nation. Then end with a personal pledge, a kind of Thanksgiving Resolution, as Hale recommended, to honor this holiday with an act of charity.

Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day

October 3, 1863

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

A. Lincoln



BONUS: Can you identify George Custer in the picture? Send me a comment about what his posture and dress might signify.

May all of you enjoy this Thanksgiving!

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Robert and Ethel Kennedy listen to a recording of JFK’s Civil Rights Speech on a trip to South Africa

George Corley Wallace surely stands as one of the twentieth century’s most pivotal and enigmatic figures. While arguments still rage about Wallace’s true nature, most historians would agree that the former Alabama Governor and presidential candidate was an astute and clever political operator. After James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi under the protection of United States marshals, Wallace knew it would not be long before a similar attempt would be made at the last segregated state university–the University of Alabama.

When a federal court ordered Alabama to admit two African American students in the spring of 1963, Wallace probably replayed the Meredith admission in his mind. The situation in Mississippi had spiraled out of control in a wave of violence. A reporter and a local resident were shot to death, two hundred federal marshals and National Guard troops were injured, vehicles and buildings were burned, and a stolen fire engine and a bulldozer tried to force their way into the administration building. (See Ted Sorenson, Kennedy, p. 486) Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett had earned the enmity of the nation for his intransigence while at the same time doing little to appease his segregationist base.

Meanwhile, the Kennedy Administration was also planning for the inevitable confrontation at Alabama. In Mississippi, the Administration had relied on Barnett’s state police to keep order, but before the riot they disappeared without notice. Kennedy was not about to let the situation get out of hand again, initiating contacts with Alabama educators, editors, clergy, and business leaders. When the court issued its order, the President ordered troops at Fort Benning onboard helicopters so they could be flown to campus at the first sign of trouble.

Wallace needed a way to save face; Kennedy needed to prevent the violence. After a series of negotiations in which even Bobby Kennedy tried to reason with Wallace, the two sides had written the script for one of America’s most memorable pieces of political theater. Wallace would stand in the “schoolhouse door” symbolically blocking integration, delivering a typical Wallace in-your-face defiant torrent of words. Across from him, Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach would read the court order. Offstage, the students would register.

Katzenbach even arranged to place a podium opposite Wallace that he would use to deliver his speech. The podium showed how little the administration understood what they were up against, for it symbolized the federal government’s imperiousness, with the short, feisty Wallace taking on the role of the rebellious student or defiant defendant every classroom secretly admires and every courtroom drama places in a starring role.

Shortly after the little drama had played out, the two students were taken to their dormitories without incident. Kennedy then federalized the National Guard and three hours later the two students registered. George Corley Wallace got exactly what he wanted out of the confrontation. Historian Taylor Branch in his monumental Parting the Waters believes the confrontation:

Helped elevate Wallace from the marginal stature of a Ross Barnett to a Presidential candidate. His stand against Washington and do-gooder bureaucrats planted a conservative standard which, further rinsed of its racial content, came to dominate American politics for more than a generation. (p. 822)

That night, after both Wallace and Katzenbach had delivered Academy Award-level performances, John Fitzgerald Kennedy decided to appear on national television to address the American people about Civil Rights against the objections of some of his advisors. According to Branch, Burke Marshall remembered Robert Kennedy alone supported the idea. At six o’clock Kennedy ordered network time and gave speech writer Ted Sorenson some ideas. But that left little time to prepare one of the more important addresses of the Kennedy presidency. In his book on Kennedy, Sorenson writes:

Having assumed that the tranquil resolution at Tuscaloosa that afternoon made a speech unnecessary, I did not start a first draft until late in the afternoon or complete it until five minutes before he went on the air. There was no time for a redraft. “For the first time,” the President told me in my office afterward, “I thought I was going to have to go off the cuff.” He did, in fact, extemporize a heart felt conclusion. (p. 495)

Sorenson notes that in actuality the speech had been three years in the making, drawing on meetings with Civil Rights leaders, members of Congress and discussions in the administration. Sorenson writes of Kennedy’s evolution over this time, observing:

His assumption of the powers of the Presidency accelerated the change in his outlook. As a strong President, he had no intention of permitting Southern Governors and others to defy the courts and his office…

Above all he was motivated by a deep sense of justice and fair play. “I do not say that all men are equal in their ability, their character, or their motivation,” he declared more than once, “but I say they should be equal in their chance to develop their character, their motivation, and their ability. They should be given a fair chance to develop all the talents they have.” (p. 472)

When the camera lights turned on the night of June 11, 1963, they not only illuminated the President’s speech, but shone brightly on a problem that had been too long neglected. Those lights would reach into the back roads of Mississippi, the streets of Birmingham and into every American home.

Although Kennedy’s speech was not as dramatically extemporaneous as Harry Truman’s St. Louis speech, it was far from being a tightly prepared oration, which made it both more personal and more powerful. The President begins with a review of the day’s events. From this he quickly moves to a historical section, which ends with one of the sentences that many Americans can still recite from memory:

This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.

In his Let the Trumpet Sound, Stephen Oates points out that the phrase echoes one King often used “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the research I was able to do, I found no answer to the question of whether Kennedy consciously chose to echo King. King’s phrase was well-known at the time, which leads me to speculate that he and/or Sorenson intended it to resonate with King.

Kennedy reminds Americans that the nation is in the midst of a struggle to “promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free.” This leads him into a paragraph that uses the word “oughta” over and over again, to paint a picture of a truly free America. The word choice is interesting in that its informality helps reinforce that Kennedy speaks from the heart and also helps him connect with his listeners using a more conversational tone. Had he used the more formal “ought” it would have made the speech sound like he was lecturing the American people.

What strikes me as remarkable about this passage is how it evokes three cornerstones of Liberal America: social and economic justice, educational equity, and voting rights.

It oughta be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops. It oughta to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street, and it oughta be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal. It oughta to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color.

According to Sorenson, the paragraph which follows was used by Kennedy in the television debates with Richard Nixon. It consists of facts about the realities of life in America for a “Negro Baby,” statistics that came to Kennedy from Civil Rights leaders. That Sorenson would borrow this passage for a speech made on short notice would not be unusual, but the interesting part about it is that three years after Kennedy first uttered its phrases, little had changed: the chances of completing college, of becoming unemployed, of life expectancy and lifetime earnings. More important, this marks the first time an American president would tell the American people the facts about racial inequality.

It seems fitting that these statistics should be followed by the most important and quoted section of the speech. Today the beginning of this section might seem tame, but in 1963, most Americans still regarded racial injustice as a “Southern problem.” It would have been easy for the President to take a similar perspective but instead he reminds those watching on television that “this is not a sectional issue.”

Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.

The status of John F. Kennedy has diminished since Sorenson wrote his laudatory biography while the memory of Camelot was still fresh. Yet this paragraph certainly ranks among the great pieces of rhetoric uttered by any American president. If we remember the moment, and how little time Kennedy had to prepare the speech, those words speak not merely of memorable rhetoric but of the moral values that drove it. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.” Even in these days when the media tell us “moral values” were the voters’ concern in 2004, what politician has sought to frame equality as a moral issue?

Kennedy also is not content to frame Civil Rights as a moral issue, he asks each American to imagine what life would be like should the color of their skin suddenly change from white to black.

Who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay? One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

Having framed the issue, Kennedy offers his solutions, first in general terms and then specifically outlining the provisions of the Civil Rights Bill his speech was designed to showcase.

We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.

The original provisions of that bill included the right to be served in all public facilities, an end to segregation in public education, and greater protection for the right to vote.

The ending to the speech begins with a summons to American greatness not unlike that in Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.

This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to ten percent of the population that you can’t have that right; that your children cannot have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go in the street and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.

After the speech Martin Luther King sent the President a telegram:


The segregationists would answer in their own way. The day after the speech Medgar Evers was returning home from his voter registration work for the NAACP. The web site Africa Within describes what happened next:

As he left his car with a handful of t-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go,” he was shot in the back. His wife and children, who had been waiting up for him, found him bleeding to death on the doorstep. “I opened the door, and there was Medgar at the steps, face down in blood,” Myrlie Evers remembered in People magazine. “The children ran out and were shouting, `Daddy, get up!'”

Civil Rights worker Fannie Lou Hamer was in jail when Kennedy delivered his speech and Medgar Evers was murdered, recovering from a brutal beating she had received in a Mississippi jail. In the 1964 credentials fight over the Mississippi delegation she would tell her story on national television. It would rivet the nation.

By then John Kennedy was dead. It would take until 1965 for all the proposals he had made in his Civil Rights speech to become law. Shortly after Kennedy’s death Martin Luther King said that in some ways it was a blessing for Civil Rights.

I’m convinced had he lived, there would have been continued delays and attempts to evade it at every point and water down every point. But I think his memory and the fact he stood up for this civil rights bill will cause many people to see the necessity for working passionately. (Branch, p. 922)

King did not know when he said this that his phone conversations were being wire-tapped. Taylor Branch believes:

The reaction to Kennedy’s assassination pushed deep enough and wide enough in the high ground of political emotion to enable the movement to institutionalize its major gains before receding. (p. 922)

Branch’s assessment of Kennedy’s assassination also might apply to principles that run through Democratic Party leaders from William Jennings Bryan to Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Harry Truman. John Kennedy’s Civil Rights speech aimed to fill in the one gaping and inexcusable hole in Bryan, Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman: their ignoring–even disdain for–Civil Rights for people of color. Yet as King rightly pointed out (and Sorenson indirectly confirms), the Kennedy administration’s support remained lukewarm.

Since 1963, the legacy of Bryan, Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman has had a diminishing influence on the Party. In the years following the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, virtually no Democratic nominee or president has seen fit to uphold the legacy of the four Democratic Party leaders and fewer still have directly invoked their names or words. Now “triangulation” dominates the Democrats and triangulation is something John F. Kennedy pioneered.

The speech itself, as King recognized, deserves its place in history. The picture at the head of this post symbolizes that importance. Robert and Ethel Kennedy listen to a recording of his brother’s Civil Rights speech during a visit to South Africa in June 1966. Kennedy and a South African tribal leader lean over a record player, listening intently.

In the end JFK stands as an important transition from the Democratic legacy to the New Democrats, from ideology to triangulation. That the four leaders who best personified the legacy all used triangulation as a strategy goes without saying, but it did not rise to the level of a political philosophy as it has today.

Meanwhile the necessity for working passionately continues. Last summer, Republicans in Congress– most of them Southerners–tried to block an attempt to renew the Voting Rights Act. That four score and three years after John Fitzgerald Kennedy made his Civil Rights speech, Republicans would brazenly move to gut it says all you need to know about why I term the present philosophy of the Republican Party the Counterrevolution.

The renewal of the Voting Rights Act was named after Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer. Yet Fannie Lou Hamer died poor and largely forgotten in 1977. The words on her tombstone still reverberate almost half a century after John Kennedy proclaimed equal rights a “moral issue.”

I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

NOTE: You should also listen to and view Kennedy’s speech.

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