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Political Considerations

Nick Bryant

     ... BBC reporter & author. Author of The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality, Mr. Bryant currently covers South Asia for the BBC. He holds a M.A. from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from Oxford University. Mr. Bryant is based in New Delhi, India, and Sydney, Australia.


America cannot survive as a nation unless it truly lives out the promise of its Constitution, says BBC reporter Nick Bryant. He demonstrates a direct link between today’s racial polarization in the United States and John F. Kennedy’s moral ambivalence at the beginning of the 1960s when America was crying out for decisive moral leadership on Civil Rights.

Kennedy's inaction on Civil Rights at the outset of his presidency radicalized both sides of the racial divide, Mr. Bryant reports. It was the result both of Kennedy being wrong about the Cold War and American history and being terrified by arch-segregationist Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia.

Mr. Bryant parallels the consequences of Kennedy's mistakes to George W. Bush's mistaken focus on Iraq and terrorism when tremendous problems at home are being neglected, brought horrifically to light by Hurricane Katrina.

The lesson of history is this, Mr. Bryant says: Presidents should be spending much more time focusing on the deep rooted problems which exist in America itself instead of pursuing misguided foreign adventures.

Had Kennedy seized the momentum of the late 50s and early 60s -- when vast numbers of fundamentally decent Americans were ready for racial justice and the Republican Party was not yet today's reactionary stronghold -- Mr. Bryant is confident today's racial polarization in the U.S. could have been avoided. Mr. Bryant concludes in his insightful book The Bystander that Kennedy’s failure resulted in America's failure to live up to its ideals.

Richard Russell was the prime strategist of the Southern Caucus, the rump segregationist camp devoted to keeping the system of racial apartheid in the South in place at any cost. Just when Russell had come to realize he was on the losing side of history, Kennedy's submissiveness emboldened Russell and his racist constituency. Mr. Bryant believes that Kennedy's inappropriate deference set up the dynamic that resulted in a decade of racial violence across the nation. 

Mr. Bryant is a great admirer of Americans' fundamental decency and a disillusioned fan of JFK. Keenly aware that Kennedy is considered a liberal icon, Mr. Bryant knows that painting JFK in an unfavorable light, especially regarding Civil Rights, depresses some. But telling the truth is part of being an adult, Mr. Bryant knows, and there is cause for optimism.

His optimism, Mr. Bryant says, comes in the form of the most unlikely figure of all: Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson really did come in and do extraordinary things on Civil Rights, Mr. Bryant reminds us. First, Johnson had to go nose to nose with his fellow Southerner Richard Russell until Russell understood his was a lost cause. Then Johnson got the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed; dismantled segregation in the South; got the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965; and another one passed in 1968.

But once again, the sad fact is Vietnam is what defines Johnson's presidency. Like Iraq, Mr. Bryant says, Johnson's Vietnam was a foreign adventure that went badly wrong.

American Presidents, Mr. Bryant concludes, are mistaken in thinking their presidencies will be defined by big global issues. They put the nation at grave risk when they ignore both pressing, neglected needs at home and the country's truly admirable ideals.

[This Program was recorded June 21, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Nick Bryant describes ways John F. Kennedy’s deliberate inaction on civil rights radicalized both racist segregationists and black leadership for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:19

Conversation 2

A great fan of John Kennedy and America growing up in England, Mr. Bryant was shocked and disillusioned to discover America’s failure to live up to its Constitution regarding Civil Rights. He links his own story to America’s Civil Rights Movement and work as a reporter examining newly available information about JFK’s disturbing record of compromise on civil rights. Mr. Bryant highlights the power of arch-segregationist Georgia Senator Richard Russell (for whom the U.S. Senate Office Building is named) and compares Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s approaches to integration. JFK’s moral ambivalence throughout his presidency is considered.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:31

Conversation 3

Mr. Bryant outlines the many ways in which Kennedy’s Cold War mentality and anger over resulting domestic inaction triggered the brutally violent Freedom Rides and inspired James Meredith to apply to “Ole Miss,” with devastating consequences. Mr. Bryant details how Kennedy squandered this ripe opportunity for racial justice, demonstrating how both Kennedy’s sense of history and of a potential communist threat were simply wrong. Mr. Bryant expands on Kennedy’s mistaken gradualist approach to civil rights in the South.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:19

Conversation 4

Problems ignored come violently and spectacularly to the surface, Mr. Bryant shows in a series of stories stretching from Birmingham, AL, to Washington, D.C. and across Kennedy’s presidency. Mr. Bryant compares that period to today’s belated realization of domestic injustice following Hurricane Katrina. The Kennedy Administration, Mr. Bryant says, mistakenly believed it would be defined by the Cold War and describes its belated and confused responses when it realized an imminent racial war at home was more pressing. He details the superficial nature of Kennedy’s civil rights record and how that continues to plague America’s racial politics today.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:55

Conversation 5

At the beginning of the 1960’s, Mr. Bryant shows, America was ready and crying out for moral leadership best exercised from the White House. He documents the surprisingly high levels of support for basic civil rights for all, on which JFK failed to act. Reminding us that the Republican Party was not then the reactionary party it has become, Mr. Bryant applauds most Americans' basic fair-mindedness and lack of prejudice.  He mourns the golden opportunity JFK missed to forge a national consensus on race and describes the resulting polarization between black and white Americans.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:49

Conversation 6

There is cause for optimism in telling the truth about JFK, Mr. Bryant insists. He points to Lyndon Johnson’s unlikely and genuine successes, forever overshadowed by a foreign adventure that went badly wrong. History’s lesson is that Presidents should focus on deep rooted problems in America itself, Mr. Bryant says, convinced it cannot survive as a nation unless it truly lives out the promise of its Constitution.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:49


Even when it is uncomfortable or disillusioning, it is always an excellent idea to tell the truth. We thank Nick Bryant for doing so, even thought it ran counter to his childhood adoration of John Kennedy. Happily, Mr. Bryant’s appreciation for America’s best values was enhanced by the experience, another lesson from which we can all take heart.

Related Links:

The Bystander is available from Basic Books in both hardcover and paperback.

Taylor Branch is generally considered to be the historian of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Our first conversation with him focused on Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65. In our second conversation we focused on At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968. As Nick Bryant says, President Lyndon Johnson's role is central to this story.

In The Age of Anxiety: McCarthyism to Terrorism, journalist  Haynes Johnson examines how much the Republican Party has changed since the McCarthy era, and how little.

Historian John Hope Franklin is one of those who has changed our understanding of Reconstruction from the view President Kennedy embraced. 

Dr. Franklin was appointed by President Clinton to lead the Presidential Advisory Board on Race in yet another attempt to address this still festering American dilemma.  Harvard Law Professor, Lani Guinier had a very different experience with the Clinton Administration.

Legal scholar Randall Kennedy has written extensively about the tortured history of race relations in America.

Historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn traces the effects the polarization which Nick Bryant says resulted from President Kennedy's failure to provide decisive leadership on civil rights.

Cultural observer Neal Gabler has focused his work on how America's "entertainment culture" and the "celebrities" it produces have undermined more substantive values. Both Mr. Gabler and Curtis White believe that Americans suffer from an acute failure of imagination.

Nick Bryant says that Americans must live up to the promise of the Constitution.  One of the first Americans to take that promise literally and seriously was John Brown.  David Reynolds documents Brown's actions in John Brown, Abolitionist.

Richard Rodriguez extends the conversation on "race" in America to include Brown, which is what he says we all are, rather than an arbitrary, binary distinction between "black" and "white."

Historian Richard Slotkin says that "race" and "violence" are the two cores issues which American culture must address.

In Race Matters Cornel West lays out the role of race in America. In Democracy Matters Dr. West show how a creative synthesis of America's diverse cultural traditions can lead to a more inclusive, prosperous and just nation.

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