Kennedy Passed On March As He Pushed Civil Rights

The nation and much of the world last week paid tribute on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s enduring call to justice, delivered that Wednesday to an audience of a quarter-million on the National Mall and a vast television audience. It was a Wednesday this year, too, but that was just a coincidence.

It was a Wednesday rather than a weekend in 1963 because the Kennedy administration did not want all those black demonstrators hanging around Washington all weekend, according to Thurston Clarke's recently published "JFK's Last Hundred Days," which succeeds at making the familiar fresh.

Clarke's well-received book devotes a chapter to the day of the march and recounts the apprehension of the administration, which was trying to push a vital civil rights bill through a reluctant Congress.

The president, who had promised to attend the event but changed his mind, watched King's speech on television. When it ended, organizers of the successful, peaceful march, including King, met with the president at the White House.

Clarke's account of the encounter reminds us of the challenges civil rights leaders faced even from their friends. The president, who had as flawless a sense of a moment as you find in a politician, delivered a lecture to the leaders on how American blacks ought to be more like Jews. Jews, he told them, emphasized family and education in their private lives.

We know the details of the meeting because it was taped, though the president's guests would not have known that. A couple of the leaders then did a brave thing. They argued with the president in the White House. Remember, it's 1963. Few African Americans had been invited to meet with the president in the White House over the nation's 187-year history.

One leader, Clarke writes, interrupted Kennedy "to say that black college graduates were driving garbage trucks in California. Floyd McKissick of CORE chimed in that his organization had trained two hundred young people in North Carolina only to have them rejected for jobs for which they were clearly qualified." Kennedy took it all with grace and segued into the politics of getting his civil rights bill enacted into law.

These days, the government is far more likely to have records of the details of our private conversations than we are to know theirs. We know that Kennedy sought and surrounded himself with people possessing divergent opinions to a degree we no longer see in American government. Presidents seem to have much thinner skin then they did 50 years ago. I don't think there's been a pattern of vigorously arguing or interrupting the president in the Oval Office in the 21st century.

The price of the elevation of deference inside the White House may become clearer as the nation embarks on a murky mission in Syria. As I write, news reports reveal details of the planned attack on Syria in response to Bashar Assad, Vogue magazine's favorite dictator, dropping chemical weapons on innocents near Damascus. American bombs may be hitting their targets as you read this. Congress, however, will not be asked to act on the use of force.

If The New York Times report is correct on the military plan, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden could not have done a better job at alerting the Syrians to America's military response. Obama spokesman Jay Carney added some clarity last week, which must have provided Assad some relief. This is not about regime change. Though Secretary of State John Kerry called Assad's Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons a "moral obscenity," Assad need not worry about America using its might to remove him from his violent perch.

This is taking shape as a teach-him-a-lesson action. The lesson for Assad may be that he can violate international law with impunity. Lack of a clear plan that weighed a range of consequences was a frequent criticism of opponents (and some early supporters turned critics) of George W. Bush's war in Iraq.

Obama's shifting policies in the roiled Middle East keeps putting America in league with al-Qaida and other extremists in the Syrian revolt, at the expense of the secular forces we ought to have assisted long ago.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at

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