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The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality Hardcover – Bargain Price, May 29, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
In this critical look at Kennedy's handling of the civil rights struggle, Bryant, a former BBC Washington correspondent, provides a riveting but flawed read. From Kennedy's first campaign for Congress, when he targeted black voters, to his last days wooing Southern moderates in Texas, this narrowly focused book depicts Kennedy as a "minimalist" whose "sometimes cynical, sometimes sincere" manipulation of black opinion gave him a false sense of accomplishment. It shows how Kennedy swerved from rapprochement with segregationist Democrats during his failed bid for the vice-presidency in 1956 to the liberal vanguard during his run for president. Bryant claims that until halfway through his presidency, Kennedy viewed the race problem with "cool detachment," worrying mainly that the Soviet Union would cast the U.S. as weak on human rights. His taste for "piecemeal reform" might have worked with the wider public, Bryant argues, but it emboldened both white and black militants, and his call for legislation to speed up school desegregation came too late. By the time he was assassinated, Kennedy had "abdicated his responsibility to lead the great social revolution of his age," Bryant asserts. While that may be true, this well-written book fails to consider the immense distractions of the other historic struggle that Kennedy faced: the Cold War, at its height. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Bryant seamlessly explicates the years of Kennedy's first campaign for public office in 1946, his rise in the U.S. Senate, and his successful presidential campaign of 1960 to illustrate how he deftly handled civil-rights issues to gain crucial political support from southern whites and blacks, as well as from urban black populations in the north. Without a clear statement during most of his presidency, however, Kennedy provided fuel for staunch white supremacists to maintain segregation, causing black activist groups to seek militant responses--a combination that led to some of the most violent outbreaks of the early 1960s. Through manuscripts, letters, exclusive interviews, and audiotape recordings, Bryant illuminates the play-by-play between politicians and activists surrounding election campaigns, speeches, meetings, and legislation at every civil rights-related turn of Kennedy's public service, while effectively narrating the political and social swelling and aftermath of such high-tension episodes as the Freedom Rides, James Meredith's enrollment in the University of Mississippi, and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A meticulously researched volume. Elliot Mandel
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
I have enjoyed it immensely having found it both detailed and informative reflecting exhaustive research. Nick Bryant gives a real insight into how civil rights fitted into the wider political ambitions of the Kennedy machine. Would Kennedy once in office be as true to the civil rights cause as his pre-election manoeuvrings suggested and if so, when, and what would be the catalyst? It is this question that made the book a real page-turner.
Bryant does not spare JFK cabinet and staff members either in this book. How they gave window-dressing posts in the JFK administration to genuine civil rights advocates (both white and black) but then impeded or ignored their suggestions. In this regard the political staffers like O'Brien, Salinger and O'Donnell were the worst, with RFK being the chief dragger at cabinet level.
Rising black frustration with the Kennedy administration's largely symbolic efforts on civil rights eventually caused the public demonstrations of 1962 and 1963. These in turn gave the federal government the political necessity and public support to make its first forceful actions on desegregation within southern states.
Bryant does not equivocate in his final - and most readable - summing up chapter of the book. He considers it likely that a surviving Kennedy would have got his civil rights bill through congress in 1964 and maybe improve on this by adding Title 3 enforcements in his second term. This assertion surprised me since - like some others - I cannot see Kennedy assuming the determination to break a southern filibuster before his second term. Beyond '64, Bryant suggests that Kennedy's innate tendency to avoid confrontation and his undeniable laziness towards domestic matters would most likely see him in turmoil as the ghetto riots of the 1960s engulfed him.
Of course Kennedy had other things to do during his 3 years at the helm but Bryant only mentions the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis and, towards the end, the Vietnam situation. This book would be improved, I feel, by adding a little more context to the various decision points along the way.
The writing style could also be improved a bit and made more readable without losing its historical coherency.
But anyone who sees Kennedy as a Lincolnian figure in relation to civil rights should read this book and see how little - if any - real leadership he gave to this most essentially moral component of US politics in the 1960s.
This book is well researched and well argued. Citing documents, interviews, press quotes and other sources, the author puts together a great examination of the US civil rights movement from a unique perspective, the Kennedy brothers. The author does a great job plotting out the evolution in mentality of both JFK and his brother, and how this evolution sometimes lined up with events, but often lagged behind what the nation needed to solve its problem. Overall, a very engaging and thought provoking history book.
This is not to discredit the man's obvious intelligence and ability to respond to the issues and questions of the day. His alliances with people who were known segregationists don't exactly point him in the direction of civil rights activists. His brother, then attorney general Robert Kennedy was the fire, the drive, the passion and commitment to civil rights.
While the civil rights/racial equality issue is the main focus of this book, other issues during the New Frontier are also explored. This is a well written book that will certainly maintain the interest of readers.