Opposing Police Violence Should Not Be Controversial

bad apples

Two “bad apples” the rest of the police department mysteriously failed to smell for years.

Conor Friedersdorf watches a new cell phone video of police brutality and comments:

What do you think is more likely, that this traffic stop just happened to bring together the only two bad apples on the Gwinnett County police force? Or that there is a larger problem in its culture, illustrated by the fact that a young officer hired four years ago expected no consequences for needlessly kicking a handcuffed guy in the head in front of a sergeant? If I were the U.S. Attorney General, I’d dispatch someone to study whether civil rights are routinely violated in Gwinnett County.

The actual attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is aggressively ratcheting down federal oversight of local police departments, even as President Donald Trump leads a coalition that is actively hostile to Black Lives Matter, the policing reform movement.

I support praising good cops for the dangerous, sometimes heroic work that they do; and I acknowledge that they are frequently put in almost impossible situations, only to be second-guessed by legions if anything goes wrong, even when they are not to blame, or error in a way that millions would. What’s more, I don’t always agree with the tactics or the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, a diverse movement that attracts both impressive, sensible reformers and less responsible fringe elements.

But the Black Lives Matter movement is portrayed wildly inaccurately in conservative media outlets, which focus on the most extreme, unrepresentative rhetoric from the coalition, and all but ignores the actual policy demands that it has put forth.

That reform agenda doesn’t get the attention it deserves, as I’ve noted before.

Dubbed Campaign Zero, it draws its strength largely from the fact that many of the policies that it recommends are “best practices” taken from existing police agencies.

“They’re practical, well-thought out, and in most cases, achievable,” wrote Radley Balko, one of the country’s most knowledgeable law-enforcement-policy journalists. “These are proposals that will almost certainly have an impact, even if only some of them are implemented. The ideas here are well-researched, supported with real-world evidence and ought to be seriously considered by policymakers.”

Professor Harold Pollack, a policy expert at the University of Chicago, concluded in his assessment that, “One does not need to embrace every element to recognize that this well-crafted document provides a useful basis of discussion between grassroots activists, elected officials, law enforcement professionals, and policy analysts … And based on my own research on urban crime and policing, which has included the implementation of randomized-violence-prevention trials, interviews with incarcerated offenders, and collaboration with public-health and criminal-justice authorities, several proposals in Campaign Zero struck me as particularly smart.”

Read the whole thing. Opponents of Black Lives Matter have always tried to obscure the basic decency and reasonableness of black demands. They must do so, because admitting the reality of racial oppression raises too many questions about how they see the world and their place in it. Among those generally opposing BLM are white evangelicals, because in this, as in so many other ways, being white is more important to us than being evangelical.

Thoughts for Sunday

barth

Is it true that life comes from death?…

The evolutionary rhythm — from life into death, from death into life — which seems to meet us at the central point of the Bible, where the New Testament, in fulfillment of the Old, speaks of the sufferings and the glory of the Messiah — is this rhythm credible, rational, real?

Let us not be too hasty in answering this question positively: our positiveness might be wanting in specific gravity! Let us not contrast ourselves too quickly with those to whom the cross is a stumbling-block and a foolishness, for as a matter of fact we all belong with them…For the sake of the suffering of the millions, for the sake of the blood shed for many that cries against us all, for the sake of the fear of God, let us not be so sure! Such sureness is only a synonym for smugness. If any utterance at all is in need of substantiation, attestation, and demonstration in corresponding moral, social, and political action, it is the Biblical utterance that death is swallowed up in victory. But if we really believed this, our actions would manifest the possibility that lies beyond human thought: Behold, I make all things new. And if we were only aware how little that possibility is manifested in our conventional and self-reliant lives, we should assuredly take the utterance upon our lips only with the greatest shame, confusion, and restraint.

The only real way to name the theme of the Bible, which is the Easter message, is to have it, to show it, to live it. The Easter message becomes truth, movement, reality, as it is expressed — or it is not the Easter message which is expressed…

Karl Barth, “Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas,” April, 1920.

The 1950s: A Golden Age of Housing Discrimination

levittown

Levittown, Pennsylvania

In the summer of 1957, Levittown, Pennsylvania was a new suburban community north of Philadelphia. Each of Levittown’s sixty thousand residents was white. The developer of the new community—a man not given to humility—was William J. Levitt. He had built his namesake town, he said, “with no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice.” The racial character of the town was, instead, an unfortunate reality of doing business in America: “I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 per cent of our white customers will not buy into the community.”

The veracity of Levitt’s claim would be tested In August, 1957, when William and Daisy Myers and their three children moved into Levittown. Mr. Myers was an army veteran working in Trenton as a refrigerator technician, while Mrs. Myers was a stay-at-home mother. They seemed to fit the profile of the ideal suburban family. But they were black.

Angry crowds hundreds strong began gathering in front of the Myers’ house each evening. After some stone-throwing teenagers broke windows in the house, the Governor of Pennsylvania sent state troopers to keep order. When the largest demonstration yet left a policeman unconscious from a rock to the head, authorities banned any gathering of more than three people. A hastily organized “Levittown Betterment Association” sought means other than rioting to force the Myers family out.

Meanwhile, white neighbors who dared to be friendly with the new arrivals faced intimidation tactics: “KKK” painted on the wall of a house, a sign planted in a yard warning of surveillance, and a cross burning. Over a month after Mr. and Mrs. Myers moved in, with tensions unabated, state police resumed a 24-hour guard of the area. The campaign of intimidation soon descended into farce. Some Levittowners turned the house next door to the Myers’ home into an ostensible “clubhouse.” With a confederate flag flying, dozens gathered to sing racist minstrel songs, blow bugles as loud as they could, and “shout insults at the Negro family.”

A mystified William Myers said he was surprised by the extent of the controversy his move had caused. Surprised, but not shaken in resolve. The day after they moved in Daisy Myers told a black reporter, “We had a good night’s rest in our new home and we intend to stay here.”  If it was hard to believe she had really slept well while crowds threw rocks through the windows, her comment nonetheless showed her determination. While many left-leaning religious and civic groups expressed support for Mr. Myers, one man seemed to speak for many ordinary Levittowners when he said, “He’s probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.”

Meanwhile, Professor Dan W. Dodson, Director of the Center for Human Relations and Community Studies at New York University, decided Levittown would be an ideal site to explore his ideas about the integration of American communities.  The resulting documentary is one of the most fascinating sources to emerge from 1950s suburbia. Below are some clips from the documentary. If you’re not familiar with the realities of housing in the 1950s it might be shocking.

Do Historians of Evangelicalism Promote Racial Exclusion?

the evangelicals

I’ve started reading Frances FitzGerald’s new synthesis, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. It’s highly readable, engaging, and seems like it will serve as a useful overview for students or for people with a general interest in the topic. I’m not even half-way through, so consider what follows not so much a criticism of the book, but a broader commentary on the state of the field and our discourse. Perhaps it’s unfair to FitzGerald to use The Evangelicals as an occasion to do this, but her book repeats patterns we’ve seen in other work.

It begins with the publisher, which most likely has nothing to do with Fitzgerald. Open up the book jacket and you see this:

In this major work of American history, distinguished historian Frances FitzGerald describes the profound ways in which evangelicals have shaped our nation, our culture, and our politics. Her sweeping and authoritative account gives us the whole story for the first time.

You might say this is typical publisher overselling that doesn’t matter much. But why should we settle for misleading and exclusionary statements? Then turn to the end of the book, before the notes. FitzGerald has included a short glossary of theological terms. I don’t know if this was her idea or the publisher’s, but it’s a good idea. The first word FitzGerald defines is evangelical, using David Bebbington’s theological definition. There is no social definition; the theology does all the work here.

So, in sum we have:

  1. A book called The Evangelicals
  2. A publisher boasting it is “the whole story.”
  3. A definition of evangelicals that includes all Protestants who believe the theology Bebbington describes.

A book that did this would be really exciting. But it’s certainly not this book, which we learn pretty quickly when we turn to the introduction. FitzGerald writes,

This book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life,  but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years. It purposely omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation, but also of the creation of centers for self-help and community in a hostile world. Some African American denominations identify as evangelical, but because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals. Only long after the success of the civil rights movement did some black churchmen begin to enter the story of white evangelicals and their internal conflicts.

In other words, this is another book about white evangelicals and the Christian right, making the very title of the book misleading. I’d be curious to hear what scholars of African American Christianity think of FitzGerald’s words here. I’m curious to know what I’ll think by the time I finish this book and the other one on the docket, Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews’ Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars.

I don’t mean to pick on FitzGerald. After all, this is a synthesis that is in many ways only repeating the treatment (or lack thereof) of whiteness and blackness in many earlier books. Marsden, Carpenter, Sutton—wonderful books all, but no one is going to mistake them for sophisticated treatments of race. There are legitimate questions to ask about what we’re really doing with these methodological choices. FitzGerald describes it as historically driven, but I’m unconvinced. It is possible to describe exclusion without reinscribing it. We’ve failed to do that.

We run the risk of absurdity: defining our subject by race even as we pretend that race was not central to our subject.

The upshot of all this is that white evangelical is one of the most familiar phrases in our political lexicon, even though we can’t agree on what evangelical means, and we’ve barely even tried to figure out what whiteness has meant in the movement. This is so odd, so difficult to defend on a historical or intellectual level, that I begin to question our (I include myself in this) ethical stance. Does our work historicize racial exclusion, or recreate it? I think we would do well to sit with that question for a while.

Does Robert Caro Misunderstand How Power Works?

caro

I wish my office looked like this. There’s no twitter on typewriters.

That would be ironic, wouldn’t it?

I should begin by saying that I love Robert Caro’s books. Many years before I decided to become a historian, The Power Broker and The Path to Power fired my imagination and awakened me to the possibilities of historical storytelling. They really are astonishing achievements.

Their usefulness as a means of understanding power is less clear. But that is their stated purpose. Caro began his career interviewing people, but for decades now he’s been the kind of person people want to interview, so he has a very practiced narrative about what he does and why he does it. In an interview with the Paris Review Caro says:

I knew what I really wanted to do for my second book, because I had come to realize something. I wasn’t interested in writing a biography but in writing about political power. I could do urban political power through Robert Moses because he had done something that no one else had done. He had shaped the city with a kind of power we didn’t learn about in textbooks, which tell us that, in a democracy, power comes from being elected. He had shaped it with a different kind of power. So if I could find out and explain where he got his power and how he kept it and how he used it, I would be explaining something about the realities of urban power—how raw, naked power really works in cities. And I could do it through his life because I got the right man, the man who did something that no one else had done. I felt it would be great if I could do that kind of book—a book about political power—about national power. And I had had a similar flash about Lyndon Johnson. It was the Senate, it wasn’t the presidency. He made the Senate work. For a century before him, the Senate was the same dysfunctional mess it is today. He’s majority leader for six years, the Senate works, it creates its own bills. He leaves, and the day he leaves it goes back to the way it was. And it’s stayed that way until this day. Only he, in the modern era, could make the Senate work. So he, like Moses, had found some new form of political power, and it was ­national, not urban power. I wanted to do a book about that. That’s what first drew me to Lyndon Johnson.

There’s no question that Caro’s books are insightful. But do they distort as much as they reveal? Does Caro’s relentless focus on the life and character of a single man blind him to the broader structural forces that constrained or enabled Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson? To many historians, this might be a no-brainer. The answer is yes. But I want to sit with the question for a bit, because Caro is a corrective to our own era of skepticism of grand narratives, much less of grand men. Against our assumption that history makes people more than people make history, Caro insists that some brilliant individuals change the course of history.

But I’m still inclined to think Caro gets power wrong. See how he talks about Lyndon Johnson:

So here is this figure—a huge figure—this young man who’s rising, who’s ruthless and cruel, nothing can stand in the way of his ambition. And who at the same time has this immense compassion, along with a very rare ­talent—a genius, really—for transmuting compassion into something concrete, into legislative achievement…Lyndon Johnson, if I do him right, he’s this huge figure with these complexities. I’m trying to show him moving through American ­history, rising through it, ­political step by political step. And what was America in his times? And how did he change America? Because certainly he changed America. But you’re not making it a monumental story on a grand scale. It is a monumental story on a grand scale…

Everyone wants to say that if it weren’t for Vietnam, he would’ve been one of the greatest presidents. But “if it weren’t for Vietnam” is not an adequate phrase. You have to give equal weight to both the domestic and Vietnam. Medicare. The Voting Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act. Sixty different education bills. You’re filled with admiration for his genius, over and over again. Watching some legislative maneuver, you’re saying, Wow, how did he do that, I didn’t know you could do that! And then in the same book, you have Vietnam. This last volume is a very complex book to write.

Johnson is the sun, and everyone and everything else is just revolving around him. The huge Democratic majorities in congress fade from view; the social movements that compelled Johnson to act are out of sight. The booming economy that gave Johnson the political space to try the Great Society is completely ignored. This is a very individualistic view of power. I’d be curious to hear more from political scientists on this. My understanding is that Americans drastically overestimate the power of presidents to enact their agenda. I think Caro does too, even in the case of a crazy larger than life figure like Johnson.

More basically, if Caro wanted to understand power, did he choose the wrong genre? Is biography an inherently problematic way to get at Caro’s questions? What does biography do well, and what does it do poorly? I’m not sure, but one thing I can say for sure is that I will be in line for Caro’s next book, regardless of how much I disagree with it.

Should Yesterday’s News Be In Your Journal Article?

jah katrina

Trying too hard for relevance, or doing what historians do best?

Say you have a paper you’re thinking about submitting to a journal. Your first draft was written before November. Now, in the new political dispensation, do you go for the Trump tie-in? I’m wrestling with this question and I know at least one colleague who has a similar quandary.

Obviously a lot depends on your subject matter. It probably won’t work if your lead is, “The ancient Phoenicians, like Donald Trump…” If, on the other hand, you have a paper about American conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century that’s been sitting around and you think maybe you should finally do something with it (ahem, guilty), then the question becomes much more interesting.

The advantages of the tie-in to contemporary events are fairly straightforward. Grab interest, show relevance, maybe even offer historical depth and insight to a question that’s on peoples’ minds.

But the drawbacks are pretty big too. First of all, if you’re going to try to grab attention and show relevance, why are you planning to shop it to a journal in the first place? Go for the Atlantic or something! In the journal process, there’s a risk that your references to contemporary events will not age well at all. While your historical analysis may hold up, the tie-in to current affairs may appear dated really quickly. In fact, if you submit now and the article comes out in 2018 or 2019, you could end up being dated before it’s even published.

I’m inclined to think the risks outweigh the rewards. How many books have we read that use Obama’s election as a hook? Many of them are already stale. I’m thinking through this as I write. My sense is that references to current events are likely to work best when they meet two conditions:

  1. They’re done with full cognizance that it’s not really history. We’re too close to it, too invested, with too much unknown. It may add color and grab interest, but don’t make it more than it is.
  2. They emerge organically from the historical analysis. They’re earned. In other words, can you honestly say that you’re not reaching for relevance? Does the past you’re writing about really inform the present in a vital way?

If you can meet these two conditions it’s likely to go better. I’m not entirely sure my paper meets these two conditions but I’m tempted to take the risk anyway. It’s so alluring!

Department of Injustice

sessionsWhile the daily news cycle features a deluge of political controversies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is quietly setting out to implement the racist agenda he has advocated throughout his career. Adam Serwer gets us up to speed:

On March 31, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was cynically sold by his defenders as a champion of civil rights, ordered a review of the Justice Department’s approach to policing, asserting that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” During his confirmation hearing, Sessions said federal investigations of police departments were bad for “morale,” and waved away the idea that police abuses could be systemic, rather than the actions of a few bad apples.

As attorney general, Sessions said he read a summary, but not the full Ferguson report, which found that “95% of Manner of Walking charges; 94% of all Fail to Comply charges; 92% of all Resisting Arrest charges; 92% of all Peace Disturbance charges; and 89% of all Failure to Obey charges” were filed against black residents. But on the basis of the summary alone, Sessions concluded that the report was “pretty anecdotal” and “not scientifically based.”

The refusal to believe police abuse could be systemic rather than individual is, in the aftermath of all the data collected by the very agency Sessions now leads, a form of denial. Nor can Sessions’s decision be justified by the familiar excuse that police reforms lead to higher crime rates—the notion that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” is a normative standard that would eschew federal oversight of local police regardless of the crime rate or the gravity of any abuse that might occur.

Sessions is an advocate of an old false choice: some Americans have to choose between safety and the protections of the Constitution. You can have one or the other, but not both. Systemic police brutality is merely the price black neighborhoods have to pay for safety.

Serwer continues:

Sessions’s memo reads as an announcement that it is no longer the business of the federal government if American citizens’ rights are violated by those sworn to protect them and empowered with lethal force to do so. When local governments violate the basic constitutional rights of citizens, Americans are supposed to be able to look to the federal government to protect those rights. Sessions has made clear that when it comes to police abuses, they’re now on their own. This is the principle at the heart of “law and order” rhetoric: The authorities themselves are bound by neither.

Sessions says American policing doesn’t have systemic problems. This is the language of the uninformed, but Sessions can’t plead ignorance. In his case, it’s the language of cowardice, a man unwilling to admit that he supports racism.

In Praise of Conscientious Conservatives

will

George Will, the dean of the conservative commentariat. Now a man without a party.

There are still conservative writers out there who have kept their integrity in this dark political era. This group is not as large as we might wish, but we should promote their work and appreciate the stand they are taking even if we often disagree with their other opinions. It will be a bleak future for American democracy if the poles of political debate range from racist/incompetent populism to technocratic liberalism to leftism. There  must be a place for thoughtful conservatism. Do you believe in the value of reasoned debate and the vigorous airing of dissenting opinions? Then support conservatives of integrity.

Here’s a roundup of some of their recent work.

Wheaton grad and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson:

Republicans got an administration that is morally small. Trump’s proposed budget would require massive cuts in disease research, global development and agricultural programs — just as a famine gathers a hideous strength. The proposed budget practices random acts of gratuitous cruelty.

This is a pretty bad combination: empty, easily distracted, vindictive, shallow, impatient, incompetent and morally small. This is not the profile of a governing party…

It is now dawning on Republicans what they have done to themselves. They thought they could somehow get away with Trump. That he could be contained. That the adults could provide guidance. That the economy might come to the rescue. That the damage could be limited.

Instead, they are seeing a downward spiral of incompetence and public contempt — a collapse that is yet to reach a floor. A presidency is failing. A party unable to govern is becoming unfit to govern.

Another former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, on the healthcare debacle:

I take no pride or pleasure in saying “I told you so.” We’ve all been wrong about enough things to teach us humility about our rare bursts of foresight. What I would urge is that those conservatives and Republicans who were wrong about the evolution of this debate please consider why they were wrong: Consider the destructive effect of ideological conformity, of ignorance of the experience of comparable countries, and of a conservative political culture that incentivizes intransigence, radicalism, and anger over prudence, moderation, and compassion.

Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol:

Consider the last week alone: The Republican president continues to speak out with no recognition of the normal proprieties of the presidential office, no appreciation for the dignity of the nation he represents, and no acknowledgment that he should be constrained by the truth. Meanwhile, the president appoints his daughter a White House adviser, and empowers her husband to be involved in delicate matters of foreign policy. Nepotism is a fact of life, but it would be foolish to deny that unabashed nepotism is evidence of progress in degeneracy.

Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin:

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the flurry of unforced errors. President Trump has little relevant experience, zero curiosity in policy and a rotten temperament that suggests he is divorced from reality. His staff is a mix of ideological extremists and party hacks, none with White House experience. His 30-something daughter and son-in-law have no public experience, either. How did you think this was going to work?

And the man everyone on both sides loves to hate, David Brooks, on the failed health care bill:

I opposed Obamacare. I like health savings accounts, tax credits and competitive health care markets to drive down costs. But these free-market reforms have to be funded in a way to serve the least among us, not the most. This House Republican plan would increase suffering, morbidity and death among the middle class and poor in order to provide tax cuts to the rich…

The core Republican problem is this: The Republicans can’t run policy-making from the White House because they have a marketing guy in charge of the factory. But they can’t run policy from Capitol Hill because it’s visionless and internally divided. So the Republicans have the politics driving the substance, not the other way around. The new elite is worse than the old elite — and certainly more vapid.

These conservatives have kept their integrity. They insist that incompetence and corruption and cruelty are bad. As obvious as that ought to be, in our time these are controversial opinions. By airing them, these writers risk losing money, influence, and connections in the world of Republican politics. They are willing to pay a price for their integrity. May their ranks grow.

Notes from the Classroom: Contextualizing Racism in Immigration History

goldman

Emma Goldman. Anarchist, immigrant, radical.

In the immigration class I’m teaching this semester I’m wrestling with how to contextualize events for my students. I’m often quite uncertain about how I should frame various events and forces. But that uncertainty reminds me to try to convey the deeper critical thinking lesson to my students: that the contextualizing choices I end up making are really historical arguments in themselves. I’m not giving them “the history” that they can safely tuck away with the confidence that they now know what happened. I’m giving them arguments that they should question and probe with counterarguments, using historical evidence.

As we approach the nativist reaction of the 1920s, I’m wrestling with how to contextualize the racism of that decade. The problem is that the racism is so obvious and deplorable that I’m not sure students can take it seriously. Establishing the racist intent of the Johnson-Reed Act is like shooting fish in a barrel. And students don’t need to be convinced that a resurgent Ku Klux Klan with millions of members was not a good thing, or that whiteness as a condition for naturalization is offensive. It’s all so over the top, almost cartoonishly awful, that students are likely to be tempted to separate themselves from white Americans of that period. With surprising frequency, students reach for the comforting assumption that contemporary people are somehow more advanced.

In an effort to ward off those assumptions, on Wednesday I gave a lecture about immigrant radicalism in the early 20th century, with special focus on the anarchist movement. I gave a lot of attention to Emma Goldman’s radical views, and described several episodes of anarchist violence culminating in the Wall Street bombing of 1920.  Though the perpetrators were never caught, the bombing was most likely the work of Italian immigrant anarchists. It came on the heels of the 1919 mail bombings and the attacks on the homes of prominent government officials, including U.S. Attorney General Palmer.

So, whatever else it was, the famous Red Scare of 1919-1920 was in part a response to a campaign of terrorism on U.S. soil. The people implicated in these activities were disproportionately immigrants. As the American public was inundated with newspaper headlines linking immigrant groups with political radicalism and violence, it is not surprising that fear, and even hysteria, grew.

We should point out, as I did to my students, that there were many millions of immigrants and only a handful of violent anarchists. But that’s not exactly the point. The point is the quintessentially human overreaction of fear and bigotry on the part of the U.S. public and American policymakers. In other words, the people of the 1920s were like us.

The point of this framing is to help students grapple with the real problems policymakers at the time faced, to see how scary the future looked, and to wrestle with plausible alternatives. Were there alternatives to Johnson-Reed? What would have happened in a world without that legislation?  Students might prefer not to face uncomfortable scenarios, such as the possibility that this racist legislation both caused human suffering around the world and reduced future political violence in the United States.

The moral purpose of complicating the story is not to absolve people in the past of their racism, but to implicate ourselves. How might our fears cloud moral clarity and enable inhumanity to our fellow human beings? Take the question to its most extreme example. The profile of a genocide participant is not necessarily monstrous. Just as likely, it’s an ordinary person who is very afraid.

Remembering Racial Progress, Forgetting White Resistance

Senator_John_C_Stennis_in_unidentified_location

A young Senator Stennis. John C. Stennis Collection. Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.

My article on John Stennis, colorblindness, and American memory of the civil rights movement is out in the latest edition of History & Memory.* A taste:

On October 19, 1987, Stennis announced that he would retire at the end of his term. The Wall Street Journal summed up his career as a feel-good story of racial progress. “He succeeded white supremacist Theodore Bilbo,” the Journal declared, “and lived to vote for a holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.” As a narrative arc to make sense of the nation’s progress and the career of one of its longest-serving senators, this was extremely compelling. It was also flatly false. In fact, Stennis announced his retirement four years to the day after being one of only four democratic senators to vote against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on October 19, 1983. Had they wished, journalists and pundits might have noted this irony and constructed a rather different narrative arc for Stennis’s career. Instead, the legislative record itself became a casualty of the need to rehabilitate a figure who did not fit within the familiar media frames of American civil rights memory.


*If you don’t have access through your library or school I’d be happy to send you a pdf.