The assassination of John F. Kennedy raises two key questions about the civil rights issue. Will the grief and outrage felt throughout the nation create a broad and insistent enough public demand to pass the civil rights bill intact? And will the emotion that now colors public pronouncements carry over to permanently influence private attitudes in the North and South?
Chances for passing a strong civil rights bill have apparently been enhanced. The bill was originally inspired by the outcry following the Birmingham demonstrations last spring; but as the legislative process dragged on, the emotional fervor behind the bill waned and people began to have second thoughts. Extremist opposition in the South grew more virulent, ensuring the silence of all but a few moderates. Encouraged by fear-mongers, some Northerners began to dread what genuine civil rights might mean for the job market, property values, and their children's schools.
The President's death has re-awakened the emotional commitment in the nation, and in Washington, to the cause with which Kennedy was most clearly identified in the public eye. But people will forget even an assassination, and President Johnson has very wisely pressed Congress for immediate action.
Aware that many liberals doubted his devotion to civil rights, Johnson immediately called for the "earliest possible passage" of the bill now before the House. He also sanctioned the attempt by Rep. Richard Bolling (D.Mo,) to file a discharge petition that would extricate the bill from the hostile clutches of the Rules Committee, and its wily chairman Rep. Howard Smith (D-Va.) It is considered likely that Bolling will pet the 218 signatures he needs to bring the bill to the Boor, or will at least force Rep. Smith to grant a rule.
Both in the preliminary maneuvering, and in the equal voting in the House, many Representatives will now find it much more difficult to vote against strong civil rights legislation. This will be especially true of northern and western Republicans.
The same holds true in the Senate where the key vote will come on the move to end debate, and thus squash a filibuster. Sixty votes are needed for cloture, and the Democratic leadership will need significant Republican help to thwart the Southerners.
Other factors could aid the drive for the current legislation. The unequivocal commitment of Johnson--long associated with southern and western interests--could perhaps be more influential in those areas than the commitment of the northern intellectual, Kennedy. Moreover, Johnson is less cool, less detached than Kennedy, and could possibly preserve for some time the present emotional feeling in the country for civil rights action.
But if hopes for strong legislation have increased, the possibility of change in the underlying attitudes of the nation is doubtful. As for the South, many observers still subscribe to the analysis presented here this week by Birmingham lawyer Charles Morgan. "The triumph of hatred is due to the fact that good people do less than nothing. Their silence leads the racists to believe that their bigotry has acceptance," he said.
Yet a young doctor living in a suburb of Dallas wrote to his brother-in-law this week: "Joan and I are stunned, ashamed, and depressed.... This community bears a justifiable guilt, and we who stood around and listened to the trash--fearing a reprisal or a 'tag' if we spoke out--perhaps are the most guilty." It remains to be seen whether his feeling of anguish and shame is wide-spread, and strong enough to have a permanent effect on the public stance of Southern moderates.
In the North a major problem is the avowed liberal who subtlely but effectively discriminates in business and personal affairs. This group includes a wide range: from the executive who won't hire Negroes to the lower-middle class homeowner who is desperately insecure about his status, and opposes Negroes buying homes on his street. It is uncertain here too whether those store owners who displayed pictures of Kennedy in their windows will heed his exhortations, and those of his successor.
If the nation remembers long enough to force through a strong bill, it could forget in time to make the Negro's legal victory hollow and meaningless. Or John F. Kennedy may be able to secure in death a far greater victory for civil rights than he could have in life.