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A Memoir of Race and Politics
By Harry S. Ashmore
Pantheon Books, 1994, 441 pages

Civil Rights and Wrongs is a social, political, and personal memoir of American race relations during the second half of the twentieth century. Ashmore chronicles the politics of race from World War II through the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation, to the bombings in Birmingham, the rise to prominence of figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the "counterrevolution" of the Reagan years, the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, and President Clinton's reversal on the Lani Guinier appointment in 1993.

Ashmore begins by describing the social mores and attitudes of his native South in the first half of the century — the system, derived from the old slave-holding days, which ensured that blacks would always be on the lowest rungs of the social and economic ladder. He also discusses his own involvement in the transition from a backward region resting on apartheid values to today's modern, urban, desegregated South. The social segregation implicit in the "Southern Way of Life does not seem to me inherently evil," he writes. "It was defensible as a necessary bridge in the Negro's passage from slavery to citizenship. What was indefensible was the white South's refusal to recognize that in practice the effort to translate custom into law did not grant to the black South any effective guarantee of human dignity."

Ashmore contends that the modern era of civil rights began a generation earlier than generally recognized. The Brown decision, the Greensboro sit-ins, and the Montgomery bus boycott were all milestones, but the political developments that made the civil rights movement possible took place in the thirties, thanks in large part to the New Deal. Since then, he says, black history has oscillated between periods of accommodation and periods of protest, between integration and separatism, between nonviolence and violence.

The heart of the book is given to Ashmore's use of presidents, from Roosevelt to Clinton, as a framework for examining racial politics. This approach stems from his view that "progress toward the nation's declared goal of equal justice under law can be initiated only in the trenches of government." Ashmore portrays Roosevelt as "an eloquent pragmatist," but one who "never overcame the reservations of the black leadership." Truman's commitment to civil rights, in Ashmore's view, was limited to the rights and immunities spelled out in the Constitution. Eisenhower felt that the Brown decision was too radical and took a dim view of civil rights. Kennedy was a middle-of-the-road politician, Ashmore maintains, with only a marginal commitment to racial integration. The Lyndon Johnson years were perhaps the most significant in terms of civil rights gains. The War on Poverty, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and the JOBS program were unprecedented initiatives, launched despite tepid public support, according to Ashmore. Nixon appealed to "racist sentiment" and "disposed of virtually all of the poverty programs inherited from the previous administration." His successor, Ford, at best maintained the status quo, at worst heightened racial tensions by refusing to use federal marshals to stop anti-busing violence in Boston. The Carter years saw increasing numbers of blacks in government, but Carter ultimately failed, in Ashmore's estimation, because he "produced little more than a temporary halt in the effort to roll back the few Great Society programs that had survived eight years of Republican rule." The Reagan/Bush years amounted to a "counterrevolution," Ashmore charges, during which "it was never possible to separate racism from doctrinaire insistence that the federal government should have no role in determining social policy." Bill Clinton, a fellow Southerner from Arkansas, the state where Ashmore established his reputation as an acclaimed newspaper editor, is described as younger, and more sensitive to the racial issue. Clinton was "better equipped than anyone put forward by either party since the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson." Nevertheless, he says, Clinton has yet to distinguish himself on the racial issue and "the task of redemption remains unfinished."

"There is reason to wonder," Ashmore concludes, "whether the American political system as it has evolved under the impact of the expanding cities is anywhere giving us the kind of public and private leadership our age demands."

RELATED INTERVIEW: Harry Ashmore talks with Scott London about American race relations