Friday, December 31, 2010

The Politics of Outer Space: The Cold War and the Gemini Program

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below, I discuss the Cold War motives for the beginning of the American space program.

The rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union extended even into outer space. Fear spread across the country when, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, into orbit around the earth. Americans immediately worried about the military implications of the Soviet scientific achievement, and worried that a fleet of spacecraft far beyond any American defense system could bombard the United States with nuclear warheads. The Soviets launched Sputnik II, with a dog named Laika on board, in November. Worried about not just the military aspects of Soviet space flight, but also the blow to the prestige of the United States, which had been seen as the world’s scientific leader, the Eisenhower Administration inaugurated a crash space program to catch up with the Soviets. The United States put an unmanned craft of its own, Explorer I, into orbit on February 1, 1958.

This first American spacecraft sent data back to Earth, producing an important scientific discovery, the Van Allen radiation belt. By July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower had signed legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which would plan future space missions, design new spacecraft, and determine priorities in what was already being called a “space race” with the Soviet Union.

Many blamed the American education system for allowing the U.S. to fall behind the USSR in space technology. Congress passed, and Eisenhower signed, the National Defense Education Act, which aimed to improve math and science programs at public schools and universities across the country. NASA soon announced the beginning of the Mercury space program, which would culminate in manned flights in space. Meanwhile, Soviet scientists continued to give the United States headaches, sending out unmanned space ships on three separate missions. One vessel flew past the moon, another struck the lunar surface, and a third took the first-ever photographs of the dark side of the moon.

Always romantically attracted to adventure, Kennedy approved the Apollo program, which aimed to land humans safely on the moon. American scientists felt even more pressure when the Soviets sent the Vostok I into Earth orbit carrying cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who on April 12, 1961 became the first human in outer space. By this time scientists working for the American government had developed powerful Saturn V rockets that could carry heavy payloads deep into space. Many of the scientists involved in the space program, like Dr. Werner Von Braun, formerly developed deadly war rockets for Nazi Germany but had been brought to the United States as part of what the military called “Operation Paperclip.” The United States government decided that it was in the national interest to ignore the war crimes committed by some of the German scientists if they could help the country keep up with the Soviets in the arms and space races.

American astronaut Alan Shepard became the second man in space on May 5, flying onboard the first of the Mercury program rockets. President Kennedy now felt confident enough to announce even bolder plans for NASA. During a May 25, 1961 speech before Congress, Kennedy announced, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Kennedy accelerated the Mercury program. By February 20, 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, making the round trip three times and spending what was then a record 34 hours in space. Soon the United States launched the Telstar TV satellite, which made worldwide television broadcasts possible for the first time. In May 1965, Ed White became the first American to conduct a space walk. Even when three astronauts, White, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Roger “Bruce” Chafee, burned to death inside the command module of Apollo I on January 27, 1967, Americans felt confident that the United States would meet its goal of landing on the moon by the end of the 1960s.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

High-Stakes Gambling in "The New Frontier"

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the dangerous adventurism in foreign policy of the early Kennedy administration.

At the time, the words struck the audience in Washington, and the larger television audience around the world, as an eloquent promise of American resolve to make the world a better place. On a day when eight inches of snow fell and the temperature was 22 degrees (which felt like 7 degrees when the wind chill was considered) Kennedy still stirred his heavily bundled inaugural audience on January 20, 1961 with this bold notice: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

The words proved tragically prophetic. The audience could not know it, but in their drive to pay any price and bear any burden, Kennedy and his two successors would commit American prestige, money, and troops in increasing numbers to oppose what was seen as a global communist menace in Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. A decade after Kennedy’s inaugural speech, with its promise of an aggressive foreign and military policy, Americans would tire of both the price and the burden of extending what Kennedy called “the New Frontier” around the globe. The first act in a tragic drama would unfold within weeks in Cuba.

The Bay of Pigs Fiasco

During the Eisenhower administration, the CIA formulated a plan for the invasion of Cuba and the overthrow of Fidel Castro. The agency informed Kennedy that the plan was ready for implementation soon after he took office. Kennedy, a fan of the James Bond spy novels written by British author Ian Fleming, liked the boldness of the scheme and signed off on the operation. On April 17, 1961, a force of 1,400 CIA-trained and armed Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. The CIA had failed to notice the presence of coral reefs in the bay. The reefs tore the undersides of several landing craft. Swamps surrounded the landing site, trapping the invaders. Castro responded quickly, and Cuban ground forces and attack planes quickly routed the invaders. As the invasion quickly went awry, Kennedy cancelled a planned air strike for fear it would reveal the degree of American complicity in the invasion. Kennedy would publicly acknowledge responsibility for the mission’s failure. The incident would foster in Kennedy a distrust of the military and intelligence leadership that had assured him that Cubans would support the invasion and that the invasion would succeed. Publicly, a shaken president took responsibility for the failure. “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” he told a press conference.

The failure of the invasion inspired a Cuba obsession within the Kennedy administration. In the coming months, the CIA concocted a variety of schemes to overthrow Castro. In “Operation Mongoose,” the CIA drew up plans to sabotage the Cuban economy and concocted outlandish plans for killing the Cuban leader. Knowing that Castro liked to scuba dive, the CIA drew up one assassination scheme that involved planting explosives in a colorfully painted shell in hopes it would draw Castro’s attention. Another plan would have infected Castro’s diving suit with a fungus that would cause a painful skin infection. Castro liked to smoke cigars, so CIA planners discussed planting in Castro’s possession an exploding cigar with enough firepower to kill him.

The CIA knew that Mafia kingpins wanted to get even with Castro because he had closed down lucrative casinos in Havana, and eliminated mob-run drug and prostitution rings in the island capital. The intelligence agency offered $150,000 to mob leaders Sam Giancana, Santos Trafficante and Johnny Roselli in return for a successful assassination of Castro, but all attempts failed. Castro remained Cuban leader until his resignation for health reasons in February 2008. Meanwhile, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the plots against Castro worsened U.S.-Soviet relations and set the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The Kennedy-Khrushchev Clash

Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev finally faced off against each other directly in a summit in Vienna in June 1961, just two months after the Bay of Pigs disaster. Many Kennedy advisors wanted the president to cancel the meeting, expecting it would result only in escalating tensions, but Kennedy wanted to present himself as a strong, resolute leader willing to stand up to his adversaries face-to-face. The meeting proved to be another disaster. Khrushchev berated Kennedy, whom he saw (in the wake of the Cuban incident) as weak and indecisive. Kennedy wanted Khrushchev to back down in his support of communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia, but the Soviet leader insisted that the USSR had a moral obligation to support what he called “wars of liberation.”

The two leaders also butted heads on the issue of Berlin. The city had been divided in two since the end of World War II, with the Western allies controlling the western part of the city and the Soviet Union and its allies controlling the east. At various times, the Soviets had cut off Western access to West Berlin, which was surrounded by East Germany. Khrushchev told Kennedy that the Soviet Union was ready to diplomatically recognize East Germany as a separate country. The East German government would determine whether western people and goods could enter West Berlin. Kennedy replied that the United States would defend West Berlin at all costs. A report said the meeting ended with “table banging and talk about missiles flying.”

Kennedy returned home worried that the Soviets were contemplating starting a nuclear World War III. He went on national television calling up the reserves and asking for the public to support doubling the size of the military draft, the mass construction of bomb shelters, increased funds for civil defense, and a boost in the military budget by $3 billion. Kennedy also concluded that the United States would have to increase its involvement in Vietnam in order to demonstrate that his administration would not tolerate further communist expansion. “We have a problem in trying to make our power credible and Vietnam is the place, ” Kennedy told his friend James Reston, a reporter for "The New York Times."

Meanwhile, through the summer 6,000 East Germans fled to West Berlin every day. In response the East German government constructed a 12-foot wall, complete with sniper nests, which would divide the city until the fall of the communist regime in 1989. After a year had passed, the Berlin Wall was more than seven miles long and fences were placed around the remaining almost 92 miles of East Berlin. Over the years at least 163 men and women died attempting to cross from East to West Berlin. Meanwhile the Soviet Union resumed testing nuclear weapons and Kennedy responded in kind.



The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Bay of Pigs misadventure had a terrifying sequel. Alarmed by America’s attempts to unseat him, Castro pleaded for more visible support from the Soviet Union. Khrushchev ordered the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba capable of striking any major city on the American East Coast. By the fall of 1962 American spy planes had photographs of the missile sites under construction. That October, the world came as close as it ever did to a nuclear holocaust.

Why did Khrushchev make such a provocative move? “Khrushchev would have understood if Kennedy had left Castro alone or destroyed him in the Bay of Pigs invasion nineteen months before,” Kennedy biographer Ralph G. Martin wrote. “But when he saw a young president rash enough to strike at Cuba but not bold enough to finish the job, Khrushchev decided he was dealing with an inexperienced leader who could be intimidated and blackmailed. That’s when he gambled with the missiles.”

Kennedy’s military advisers proposed a wide range of options, including bombing the missile sites or an invasion of Cuba. Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, pushed for a bombing raid. Kennedy knew such actions would put Khrushchev’s credibility on the line and that the Soviet premier might respond with a nuclear strike against the United States. United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson urged the president to tell Khrushchev that the United States would dismantle its nuclear missile bases in Turkey and evacuate the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in return for Khrushchev removing the missiles sites under construction on the island. Kennedy responded that the Russians would interpret this as a sign of weakness and become more aggressive.

Kennedy opted for a naval blockade of Cuba, what he called a “quarantine,” which would intercept Soviet ships carrying missile parts. Kennedy addressed the American people in a national TV and radio broadcast October 22, 1962. Referring to Allied appeasement of Adolf Hitler’s aggression in Europe, Kennedy told a riveted audience, “The 1930s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war.”

The crisis happened in a highly charged political climate. The off-year elections would take place the next month, and historically the president’s party loses seats in the Congress in non-presidential election years. Kennedy worried about his re-election chances in 1964 in light of the lingering impact of the Bay of Pigs disaster and white Southern anger over his perceived friendliness to the Civil Rights Movement. He knew he would pay a heavy price politically if he backed down in his confrontation with Khrushchev. Kennedy’s tough stance on Cuba reaped a political benefit for the Democrats. The president’s approval rating during the crisis shot up from 66 to 74 percent. One Republican congressman, Thomas Curtis of Missouri, even accused the White House of contriving the standoff “for election purposes.”

Domestic politics aside, four missile sites in Cuba were fully operational, and nuclear warheads were already on the island. Nineteen American ships stood between Cuba and a fleet of 25 Soviet vessels. Ship captains were ordered to stop any vessel with a cargo hold large enough to contain a nuclear warhead. Soviet vessels approached the American ships, but half turned back while the other half stopped their advance. “Doomsday didn’t happen that day because we were lucky,” a Kennedy advisor later recalled.

On October 26-27, the White House received two very different teletype messages from Khrushchev. In one, the Soviet leader insisted that the missiles in Cuba were for defensive purposes only and that the Russian ships that approached Cuba did not carry weapons. Khrushchev urged Kennedy to ratchet down the tension so as to not “ . . . doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war.” Khrushchev suggested that Kennedy promise that he would not invade Cuba. In return, the Soviet Union would withdraw military advisors from the island.

The next day the White House received an angrier message from Moscow. This time the Soviet leader insisted that the United States withdraw nuclear warheads from Turkey before the Kremlin would consider removing missiles from Cuba. The Kennedy team worried that such a move, made publicly, would undermine the confidence of NATO allies in American assurances of protection. Presidential advisers argued over how to respond to the mixed messages coming out of Moscow. Which one reflected the Soviet government’s current thinking? The president’s National Security Council again debated the merits of invading Cuba or bombing the missile bases. Still smarting from the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy dismissed the more aggressive suggestions of military leaders like Gen. Curtis LeMay. Meanwhile, a plume of smoke wafted from chimneys at the Soviet Embassy as staff, worried about the likelihood of war, began burning secret documents.

The president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, proposed a simple solution to the dilemma. The younger Kennedy suggested that the President ignore the angry second message and respond positively to the more friendly and conciliatory first teletype. A positive response was sent, but the Soviets were warned not to reveal the American agreement to pull missiles out of Turkey. (Kennedy had already planned this course of action anyway.) Meanwhile, the attorney general met with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and warned him that the situation might spin out of control. The military was pressuring the president, Bobby Kennedy said, and might even overthrow him unless he took a tough stand. The attorney general then warned that unless the missiles were removed, a bombing raid would be authorized.

For several hours the Cabinet awaited what they feared would be Armageddon. Then, on Sunday morning, October 28, a radio bulletin announced that Khrushchev had accepted Kennedy’s terms for ending the standoff. Many in the Cabinet felt they had won a major showdown with the Soviets after embarrassing diplomatic defeats at the Bay of Pigs and the Vienna Summit. Upon hearing the news, Secretary of State Dean Rusk exclaimed, “We were eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked.” The president was more reflective, suggesting that the missile crisis was less of a personal triumph than a reprieve for humanity. Having reached the edge of universal annihilation, both Kennedy and Khrushchev stepped back.

A larger number of voters cast ballots on Election Day in 1962 than in any off-year-election in four decades. The Democrats gained four seats in the Senate and lost only two seats in the House, the best showing for a president’s party in an off-year election since the Democratic landslide of 1934 during the Roosevelt administration. Former Vice President Richard Nixon, in a bitter press conference, blamed his loss in the California gubernatorial race that autumn on the Cuban Missile Crisis, claiming that TV and newspaper coverage of Cuba prevented him from “getting our message through.” Undoubtedly, the public widely perceived the president as having prevailed over the Soviet Union in the most dangerous encounter between the nuclear superpowers in the post-Hiroshima world. Even though polls suggested domestic issues rated higher in voters’ minds, the electorate rewarded the Democrats for Kennedy’s toughness.

Khrushchev already faced domestic political problems from hardliners who thought that removal of the Cuban missiles showed weakness to the Americans. Others in the Kremlin leadership objected to what they saw as Khrushchev’s volatile leadership style. The Soviet premier now faced anger from his Cuban ally as well. Castro, with the Bay of Pigs behind him and aware of previous American assassination attempts against him, had urged the Soviets to keep the missiles on the island and had even suggested that the time had been ripe for the USSR to launch a preventive first strike. Tension marked the Soviet-Cuban relationship for the next two years until opposition to Khrushchev in the Kremlin culminated in a 1964 coup.

Nevertheless, the successful conclusion of the crisis convinced both Kennedy and Khrushchev that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R could negotiate over their differences. In the coming year, the United States dismantled the missiles in Turkey, a telephone “hotline” to the Kremlin was installed in the Oval Office to facilitate instant communication between the American and the Soviet leaders, and the two countries began hammering out an agreement on ending testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. A new tone had been set in American-Soviet relations.

“Both the United Sates and its allies have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race,” Kennedy said in a speech to graduating students at American University on June 10, 1963. “Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours . . . For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Race, Religion and the 1960 Presidential Election

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe social factors that determined the outcome of the 1960s presidential race.

Surprisingly, presidential candidates largely overlooked the civil rights struggle in the 1960 election. Several signs pointed to a favorable year for the Democrats, out of power in the White House for the eight years of Dwight Eisenhower, but the party still relied heavily on its Southern segregationist wing. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who waged an unsuccessful campaign to win the party’s vice presidential nomination in 1956, opened the race as a top contender because of family money, a highly publicized war record, his personal attractiveness, and the glamour of his wife, the former Jacquelyn Bouvier. Kennedy feared alienating key white Southern politicians as he fought an uphill primary battle with two-time presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, the favorite of the liberal wing, and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who had the support of many key Democratic leaders in the South such as U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who also hailed from the Lone Star State.

Kennedy avoided discussing civil rights issues as much as he could during his primary battle, and he actively courted and won an early endorsement from arch-segregationist Alabama Gov. John Patterson. Noting that Eisenhower had pulled Southern whites into the Republican camp in his 1952 and 1956 campaigns against Stevenson, the eventual GOP nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon, also sought the backing of whites in Dixie who supported Jim Crow laws.

Eisenhower, a World War II hero, would not be on the ballot in 1960, the first of many political problems facing the Republican Party. The Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik space satellite in 1957 panicked many American voters, who feared that the Russians had rapidly caught up or even surpassed the United States in technology and that this might make the country militarily vulnerable. Voters also remembered the 1957-1958 “Eisenhower” recession, in which five million Americans lost their jobs. Reductions in federal spending, tight Federal Reserve Board policies that made borrowing more expensive, an inflation rate of 2.7 percent, and reduced consumer spending caused the sharpest economic downtown since the end of World War II. In the 1958 off-year elections, voters blamed the Eisenhower administration for the economy. Unhappy with what was seen as its tepid response to the downturn, they handed the Republican Party a stinging defeat. Democrats picked up 16 seats in the United States Senate and 49 seats in the House of Representatives to claim a commanding majority. The Republicans controlled only 14 of the lower 48 state legislatures.

Democratic candidates spent the next two years playing on voter fears that the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear supremacy and warned of a non-existent “missile gap” between the two countries. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev added to the uncertainty when he claimed, with great exaggeration, that the USSR could wipe any country “off the face of the Earth.” Eisenhower’s winter of discontent grew colder still in May 1960 with the shooting down of American pilot Francis Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. Eisenhower then suffered the indignity of a Paris summit in which Khrushchev revealed the American president had lied about aerial espionage over the Soviet Union, got denounced by the Russian premier, and then had to cancel a flight to Japan because of anti-American riots in Tokyo.

These events, plus the 1959 Cuban Revolution followed by overtures toward an alliance with the Soviet Union by the island nation’s leader Fidel Castro, led many American voters to wonder whether Republicans had lost control of both domestic and international events. “The nation was threatened by a missile gap,” writes historian Allen J. Matusow of the American mood at the beginning of 1960. “ . . . but Eisenhower was more worried about the budget. The nation needed spiritual inspiration, but Eisenhower was playing golf. The nation needed strong leadership and an activist government, but Eisenhower was old, tired, and increasingly dominated by reactionary advisers. In contrast, the Democrats were prepared by history and by preference to use the state for great public ends and to lead the people out of danger.”

The Democratic Primaries

In spite of their many advantages going into the 1960 presidential race, the Democrats almost lost. Kennedy had essentially run for the presidency since 1957. That year saw publication of John Kennedy’s second book, "Profiles in Courage," a series of biographical sketches of eight senators who defied the wishes of their party or risked political popularity because of principle. There have been persistent rumors that Kennedy family friend and speechwriter Ted Sorenson had ghostwritten the book. In any event, the work became a bestseller and established Kennedy’s intellectual credentials. He then won a massive majority in his Senate re-election bid in 1958. Kennedy then toured the country, developed relationships with politicians across the country to build a network of support, and sent aides to acquire political intelligence on opponents and learn about local issues.

Nevertheless, Kennedy had to fight to win over liberals in his own party. His wealthy father, Joseph P. Kennedy, a former ambassador to England, had been seen as an appeaser of Hitler’s Germany in the days leading to World War II. The elder Kennedy was a close friend of Red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Bobby Kennedy, the Senator’s younger brother, had been the minority Democrats’ lead staff attorney advising McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which had the job of finding alleged communist subversion in the federal government. Finally, during debates on a 1957 Civil Rights Act, John Kennedy had sided with Southern segregationists on some issues. Liberals did not trust him because they felt that during his Senate career, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, he had shown “more profile than courage.”

Kennedy’s obvious intelligence, charm, humor and good looks, however, proved to be potent political weapons. As the historian Matusow notes, people were attracted to Kennedy because of his potential rather than his thin list of accomplishments. Aware that party leaders wanted a more experienced leader, like Adlai Stevenson, as the nominee, Kennedy decided to demonstrate his popularity through a series of primary victories. The big challenge came in the West Virginia primary contest against Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. Many expected Kennedy’s Catholicism to be a problem with West Virginia’s overwhelmingly Protestant voters. The only other serious Catholic candidate for president in American history had been Democratic nominee Al Smith in the 1928 presidential race and Smith lost badly, to a large degree because Protestant voters believed that a Catholic president would be subservient to the pope and would weaken American independence.

In speeches Kennedy told voters, “I refuse to believe that I was denied the right to be president on the day I was baptized.” During a television broadcast in West Virginia, he said, ‘. . . [W]hen any man stands on the steps of the capitol and takes the oath of office of president, he is swearing to support the separation of church and state . . . And if he breaks that oath, he is not only committing a crime against the Constitution, for which the Congress can impeach him – and should impeach him – he is committing a sin against God.” Kennedy beat Humphrey in the West Virginia primary by a comfortable margin and convinced Democratic Party elders that a Catholic could win the general election. Humphrey dropped out of the race and at the Democratic National Convention that summer, Kennedy outmaneuvered his chief rivals, Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson, to capture the Democratic nomination on the first ballot. In a controversial move protested even by his brother and campaign manager Bobby, Kennedy selected Johnson as his running mate. The move was aimed to comfort Southern Democrats but antagonized party liberals who questioned Johnson’s commitment to civil rights.

Civil Rights and the 1960 Campaign

On the Republican side, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller attempted to frustrate Vice President Nixon’s campaign for the GOP nomination by appealing to liberals within the party on civil rights. Many African Americans grew disgusted with the continued dominance of Southern segregationists in the Democratic Party and had voted for Eisenhower in 1956. Some African Americans felt reassured by Eisenhower’s use of the National Guard to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Nelson Rockefeller believed that the Republicans had a chance to win the black vote in 1960 and that this could give the party an edge in close races in major Northern and Midwestern states. Rockefeller demanded a stronger than planned civil rights plank in the 1960 Republican platform and Nixon, also hopeful of winning black support, acquiesced. The platform pledged “vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws,” support for “court orders for school desegregation” and creation of “a Commission on Equal Job Opportunity” and “Action to ensure that public transportation and other government authorized services shall be free from segregation.”

Nixon tripped over himself trying not to alienate black voters while at the same time hoping to carry white Southern voters as successfully as Eisenhower had in 1952 and 1956. Kennedy, meanwhile, described segregation as “irrational,” but was largely unaware of the conditions faced by African Americans in the South and seemed to have little emotional investment in the issue. Yet, he realized that the black vote could swing six of the eight most populous states his way in the November elections. Liberal advisors persuaded him to reach out to African Americans. Once, while driving his red convertible through Georgetown on his way to the Senate, Kennedy spotted Harris Wofford trying to get a cab. Wofford was an attorney advising Democratic campaign on civil rights. Kennedy pulled over, picked Wofford up and, as his left hand tapped on the car door, he said to Wofford, “Now in five minutes, tick off the ten things that a president ought to do to clear up this goddamned civil rights mess.” Giving tacit support to the sit-in movement, Kennedy also promised that with a “stroke of the pen” he would end discrimination in federally funded housing. An incident in Georgia, however, provided an important, lucky opportunity for the Democrat to win over African American voters.

On October 19, less than a month before the election, police arrested civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., along with 53 other African American protestors at Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta, for refusing to leave tables at the segregated Magnolia Room Restaurant. Five days later, authorities released the other protestors from jail, but King was sentenced to four months’ hard labor for supposedly driving with a suspended license, and was transferred to Reidsville State Prison. Members of the King family feared that the minister would be murdered while in custody.

Nixon instructed aides to tell the press that the Vice President would offer no comment on the issue. The Kennedy campaign, however, saw an immediate opportunity to gain ground with African American voters. “They’re going to kill him – I know they’re going to kill him,” King’s wife Coretta, who was six months pregnant, said in an urgent call to Harris Wofford. The campaign’s civil rights advisor shared her concern about King’s safety and sent an urgent message to Kennedy, who was campaigning in Chicago and in Michigan. Kennedy placed an immediate call to Mrs. King and told her he would see if he could assist the family.

Campaign manager Bobby Kennedy phoned the judge who had sentenced King. “It just burned me up . . . to think of that bastard sentencing a citizen to four months of hard labor for a minor traffic offense and screwing up my brother’s campaign and making our country look ridiculous in front of the world,” Bobby Kennedy later said. “. . . I made it clear that if he was a decent American he would let King out of jail by sundown.” It took a little longer, but within days authorities released the minister from jail. The incident got relatively little coverage in the white press, but word spread quickly in the African American community. The civil rights leader’s father, the influential minister Martin Luther King, Sr., had said that, “I had expected to vote against Senator Kennedy because of his religion. But now he can be my president, Catholic or whatever he is. It took courage to call my daughter-in-law at a time like this. He has the moral courage to stand up for what he knows is right. I’ve got all my votes and I’ve got a suitcase and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap.”

A blue-bound election pamphlet distributed to African American church congregations quoted the elder King’s endorsement and spread among black congregations in the days leading to the presidential election. Kennedy himself later laughed at the mixed message contained in the African American minister’s words. “He was going to vote against me because I was a Catholic, but since I called his daughter-in-law, he voted for me. That’s a helluva bigoted statement, wasn’t it? Imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., having a bigot for a father.” Then, acknowledging the controversies surrounding Joseph P. Kennedy, Kennedy grinned as he observed, “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?” Kennedy had won over black voters worried about his Catholic background, but his religion continued to be an issue with white Protestants.

The Catholic Issue Returns

As Kennedy became a more serious contender for the White House, several prominent Protestant ministers, such as evangelist Billy Graham, bestselling author Norman Vincent Peale, and W.A. Criswell (head of the largest Southern Baptist congregation in the world, First Baptist Church of Dallas), warned that a Catholic president represented a threat to religious freedom in America. Graham told one audience, “A man’s religion cannot be separated from his person; therefore where religion involves political decision, it becomes a legitimate issue. For instance, the people have the right to know a Quaker’s view on pacifism or a Christian Scientist’s view on medical aid, or a Catholic’s view on the secular influences of the Vatican.”

Kennedy had in fact repeatedly split with the Catholic Church on numerous issues, for instance backing bills that provided federal funds for public schools but opposing funding for parochial schools, and opposing the appointment of an American diplomat to Vatican City. Jackie Kennedy, his wife, fumed in frustration over the controversy. “It’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s a Catholic,” she said. “He’s such a poor Catholic. Now if it were Bobby I could understand it.” According to friends, John Kennedy believed in God but was uncertain about his relationship to the church and about the validity of specific church doctrines. Nevertheless, Rev. Peale presided over a national meeting that Billy Graham had helped organize, the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom, intended to fuel public worries about Kennedy’s religion.

Peale claimed in public statements that a Catholic president’s primary allegiance would be to “an authoritarian hierarchy” and to a “supposedly infallible man [the Pope].” Meanwhile, Graham’s father-in-law, Dr. Norman Bell, made a speech in which he claimed that the Roman Catholic Church is a “political system that like an octopus covers the entire world and threatens those basic freedoms and those constitutional rights for which our forefathers died in generations past.” In a sermon, Criswell, a segregationist, warned that under Kennedy the Catholic faith would be imposed on American Protestants.

Criswell’s words reached a wide audience. Eccentric oil billionaire H.L. Hunt printed pamphlets with quotes from Criswell’s sermon and sent them to churches across the country. John Kennedy concluded he had no choice but to directly address the issue as he had in the West Virginia primary, and the forum he chose was the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12. This was a city suspicious about Kennedy’s stands on civil rights and with a strong anti-Catholic bias in the white Protestant community. Kennedy planned to make opening remarks on church and state, then take questions from the audience. Many historians, journalists and political scientists rate it as the future president’s finest performance in the campaign.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and where no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote,” Kennedy said. “[An America] where no church or church school is granted public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.” The press covering the event interpreted this as the moment when Americans grew comfortable with the idea of a Catholic president. For the rest of the campaign Kennedy largely focused on Eisenhower’s handling of the Cold War and the sluggish economy, and tried to shift blame for these failings to Richard Nixon.

Television and the Kennedy-Nixon Debates

Television news came of age during the 1960 presidential campaign, and the signal moment arrived when Nixon and Kennedy debated four times on national network television. A championship college debater, Nixon had judged Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention during the summer as a failure and, in a moment of overconfidence, agreed to appear on a television stage with the junior senator from Massachusetts. Kennedy advisers, aware that many voters feared that the relatively young and inexperienced Democratic nominee lacked the qualifications to serve as president in the nuclear age, hoped that a respectable showing in TV debates would erase any advantage Nixon enjoyed from his eight years in the Eisenhower administration, including two stints in which Nixon acted as president when Eisenhower suffered heart attacks.

Nixon kept a promise to campaign in all 50 states, and maintained an exhausting schedule right up to the day of the first of four television showdowns. Kennedy, by contrast, allowed himself time to rest. Ill and suffering from a painful knee injury, Nixon arrived at the CBS television studios in poor shape for the critical first debate. Pale, tired and underweight, Nixon suffered from an unfortunate tendency to sweat heavily on his upper lip, which bore a heavy “five o’clock shadow” even after the candidate shaved. Nixon tried to cover the stubble with ineffective, light, “lazy shave” makeup that only highlighted the uneven facial hair. Reportedly, a Nixon campaign aide asked Robert Kennedy his assessment of the Republican’s makeup. As Kennedy biographer Ralph G. Martin tells the story, “Bobby noted Nixon’s paleness, his sunken cheeks and shadowed eyes, and replied, ‘Terrific! Terrific! I wouldn’t change a thing!’”

Eighty million Americans watched the first debate, which marked a shift in American culture in which Americans increasingly got their information from television rather than newspapers. In the years to come, expensive television advertising and staged events for network cameras would become at least as important in the thinking of campaign strategists as stump speeches, rallies and campaign buttons. Always the lifeblood of politics, money became even more central to any potential political candidate’s prospects.

Following their first TV faceoff, the consensus of the media and the political world was that a cool-headed Kennedy had triumphed and achieved his primary goal of attaining presidential stature standing next to nervous Richard Nixon. Nixon, stumbling over his words, directed his comments toward his debate opponent and often did not look at the camera, and he often appeared to be talking down to the Democrats. Kennedy, with a better understanding of television, directed his comments to the TV audience. “Nixon was best on radio simply because his deep resonant voice carried more conviction, command, and determination than Kennedy’s higher-pitched voice and his Boston-Harvard accent,” wrote "New York Herald Tribune" reporter Earl Mazo. “But on television, Kennedy looked sharper, more in command, more firm – his was the image of a man who could stand up to Khrushchev.”

Examining transcripts from the four debates, which occurred between September 26 and October 21, it is surprising to find how largely irrelevant the issues discussed would be over the next decade: farm policy, communist subversion, the importance of a president’s age, the U-2 spy plane incident, and the Chinese missile attacks on the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu. The communist insurgency in Thailand came up, but Vietnam was ignored. The civil rights struggle unfolding in the South was largely ignored, issues facing women were overlooked, and air and water pollution received no attention.

There was scarcely any distance between the two candidates on the issues. The sharpest difference came over Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. Kennedy had been briefed by the State Department about CIA plans to overthrow Castro, who was moving toward an alliance with the Soviet Union. During the debates, Kennedy pushed for a more aggressive U.S. posture toward Castro. Nixon, not wanting to tip off the secret CIA planning to the Russians, attacked Kennedy’s posture as reckless, but ended up making himself, in the intense Cold War climate of the day, look weak and vacillating.

THE REASONS FOR KENNEDY’S VICTORY

The election was a squeaker. Kennedy carried only 49.7 percent of the popular vote as opposed to Nixon’s 49.5 percent, a raw vote difference of 118,550 ballots out of nearly 69 million votes. Nixon would suggest that Kennedy won the Electoral College 303 to 219 because corrupt Democratic political boss Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago, stuffed ballot boxes. In Illinois, Kennedy’s margin was 8,856 out of a total of 4.75 million. Voting results in Chicago were suspicious. At Precinct 50, Ward 2, 22 registered voters somehow cast 74 votes for Kennedy and three for Nixon. Regardless, even if one accepts Nixon’s later claims that Kennedy stole the state’s Electoral College votes, as Matusow points out, “Illinois’ 27 electoral votes would have been insufficient to produce a Nixon majority in the Electoral College.”

Nixon partisans also accused Lyndon Johnson of stealing Texas’ 24 Electoral College votes, which clinched Kennedy’s victory even without Illinois. The claim that Nixon might have won Texas, however, is unlikely since Lyndon Johnson, the vice presidential nominee, had won previous statewide elections, and because the state had usually voted Democratic in the first decade of the twentieth century (except for when Al Smith, a Catholic, was the nominee in 1928 and when Adlai Stevenson backed the federal government in a dispute over offshore oil claimed by Texas in the 1950s.) Texas would even support Hubert Humphrey, a candidate with a liberal civil rights record, in 1968.

What made the election so close in spite of all the advantages enjoyed by the Democrats? It appears that despite Kennedy’s performance before the Houston ministers in the fall, many Southern and Western Democrats abandoned the Democratic nominee because of religion. The Democratic Party as a whole won 5 percent more votes in total than Kennedy did. In the South, Kennedy lost 17 percent of voters who normally cast Democratic ballots, a total of a million votes. He also lost votes from Democrats in the Midwest and the Plains States. He seems, however, to have clearly lost only two states because of anti-Catholic sentiment: Tennessee and Oklahoma.

Kennedy, however, did extremely well among Catholic voters, carrying 80 percent as opposed to the usual 67 percent carried by Democratic presidential candidates. In the industrial Midwest states, his gains among Catholics offset losses from anti-Catholic voters. He also lost few Southern whites on the civil rights issue even though he was more vocal in his support of integration. “Southern whites still tended to view both national parties as hopeless on this issue and to cast their votes instead for reasons of class or tradition,” as Matusow writes.

Meanwhile, even though at the start of the Democratic Convention Kennedy was the least popular among the party’s major candidates among African Americans, on election day he carried 70 percent of black votes. This constituency provided his margin of victory in South Carolina and Texas, and also may have pushed him over the top in nine other states, including electoral-vote rich Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Whatever his emotional distance regarding the civil rights struggle, Kennedy probably owed his presidency to African Americans.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

The Civil Rights Environment in the Early 1960s

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the harsh racial climate of the early 1960s.

In Mississippi, during the civil rights campaign of the 1950s and early 1960s, white people had a license to kill African Americans. In Liberty on September 25, 1961, a member of the all-white state legislature, E.H. Hurst, murdered an African-American man and former childhood friend, Herbert Lee, when the latter tried to register as a voter. In front of a cotton gin, Hurst shot Lee in the head as he sat in the cab of his truck. Lee fell out of the vehicle, and his body was left lying in an expanding pool of blood for two hours before a black undertaker picked up the body.

A farmer and father of nine, Lee had been active in the voter registration drive conducted in the black community by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He acted as a chauffeur for the group’s leader, Robert Paris Moses, a Harlem native who moved to the rural community to head the campaign. Even though Hurst murdered Lee outdoors in broad daylight in front of several witnesses, a coroner’s jury ruled the death a justifiable homicide. Hurst claimed that Lee owed him money and became threatening when the politician demanded payment. Hurst also told the jury he had accidentally pulled the trigger on his .38 pistol. One African-American witness, Louis Allen, had been threatened and out of fear testified before the jury that the five-foot-four Lee had tried to strike Hurst, who stood more than six feet, in the head with a tire iron.

By October, a federal grand jury had convened to consider indicting Hurst for violating Lee’s civil rights. Allen told Moses that he was willing to recant his earlier statements and would testify that Hurst killed Lee without provocation. Moses called the U.S. Department of Justice and tried to get protection for Allen, but the DOJ turned him down. Later, an FBI agent tipped off the local sheriff’s department that Allen was planning to testify against Hurst. Allen was attacked, the assailant breaking the witness’s jaw with a flashlight. Shortly thereafter, on January 31, 1964, an assassin killed Allen with three shotgun blasts. That killer also was never punished.

THE SIT-IN MOVEMENT

Even though the United States Supreme Court had ruled school segregation unconstitutional in the "Brown v. Board of Education" decision in 1954, by 1959 more than 99 percent of black and white students in the South still attended Jim Crow campuses. Across the former Confederacy, states denied African Americans the right to vote in spite of a 1957 civil rights law passed by Congress that reaffirmed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments guaranteed voting rights regardless of race or color. Throughout the South, blacks who asserted their constitutional rights to vote, or to sit near white people in movie theaters or on buses, faced getting fired or physical violence.

Tired of continued discrimination, four African-American students at North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro, N.C., Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, J.R. David Richmond, and white NAACP member Ralph Johns planned a direct blow against local segregation laws. After buying school supplies to establish that they were paying customers, the five staged a “sit-in” at the segregated lunch counter at the town’s F.W. Woolworth Company department store February 1, 1960. “We believe, since we buy books and papers in the other part of the store, we should get served in this part,” one of the students told a wire service reporter from United Press International. The demonstrators asked for coffee. A black dishwasher, fearful of losing her job, castigated them. “You’re acting stupid, ignorant,” she said. A white policeman closely watched the students and struck his billy club against the palm of his hand. C.L. Harris, the store manager, chose to ignore the five protestors. “They can just sit there. It’s nothing to me.” The five protestors sat at the lunch counter for hours as some white customers, assuming the men didn’t know any better, told them that they were at a ‘whites only’ counter.” Others cursed them while a small number patted them on the back and expressed support.

Protestors proved much harder to ignore the next day. Twenty-five participated in a second sit-in. On the third day, 85 showed up. The fourth straight day of sit-ins included white students from the University of North Carolina’s Women’s College in Greensboro. Soon, North Carolina students staged sit-ins at theaters, drugstores, and other businesses in a dozen towns across the state. Soon, sit-ins bedeviled Jim Crow businesses outside of the state, in Hampton, Virginia; and in Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee. In Little Rock, Arkansas, sit-in participants sported buttons that said, “I am wearing 1959 clothes with 1960 dignity.” On the seventh day of the campaign, civil rights demonstrators held 54 sit-ins in fifteen cities and nine states across the former Confederacy. Eventually 70,000 Americans would participate in the sit-in movement of 1960, and 3,000 would be arrested, with the demonstrations breaking out even as far away as Nevada.

If the first sit-ins were spontaneous, as the movement spread such demonstrations became more organized, with students receiving training in the non-violent techniques established by civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and his allies in the 1950s. Over Easter weekend, 1960, Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (a group led by King) presided over a meeting of sit-in protestors from across the country dubbed the “Sacrifice for Dignity” at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Baker urged the students to form their own civil rights organization, independent from older groups like the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality. They formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (better known as the SNCC or “Snick”) to direct the national sit-in campaign. In Nashville, protestors received a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts”: “Do show yourself friendly on the counter at all times. Do sit straight and always face the counter. Don’t strike back or curse back if attacked. Don’t laugh out. Don’t hold conversations. Don’t block entrances.”

Stores resisting desegregation soon displayed signs that proclaimed “No Trespassing” and “We Reserve the Right to Service the Public as We See Fit.” The protests were now receiving national media attention. As the non-violent sit-ins spread, whites often responded with brutality. At Nashville lunch counters, angry local whites burned the backs of black women with lit cigarettes, while in Biloxi, Mississippi, whites shot and wounded ten African Americans gathered at a public beach. The sit-ins made for dramatic television as well-dressed non-violent black protestors suffered beatings and other abuse from enraged white mobs. As newspaper photographers snapped pictures and television cameras rolled, whites hit black students, poured ketchup and mustard on their heads and pulled them off of stools. Jerome Smith, sitting in at a lunch counter in McComb, Mississippi, later recalled, “A [white man] grabbed a cup of coffee and struck one of us, George Raymond, sharply at the base of his skull with the cup, spilling coffee over him . . . A white tough jumped at me and beat me with his fists, yelling over and over, ‘I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him!’ About a dozen whites pummeled our group. They pushed us around and over counters and tables and kicked us through the door.” Smith said that outside the eating establishment, the mob seized him and threw him several times in the air. They let him hit the pavement and then kicked him. Nevertheless, he said that he and the other students remained nonviolent.

Such scenes had a profound impact on newspaper and magazine readers and television viewers across the country, with African-American activists winning sympathy from white audiences in the North, Midwest, and the West Coast. Even white Southern elites cringed at the spectacle of crude hoodlums bullying the brave and dignified sit-in participants. Long portrayed as inferior and uncivilized, African Americans projected an intelligent and even saintly image as they endured the blows of uneducated thugs. “Here were the colored students, in coats, white shirts, ties, and one of them was reading Goethe and one was taking notes from a biology text,” wrote conservative and segregationist newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick of the "Richmond News Leader." “And here, on the sidewalk outside, was a gang of white boys come to heckle, a ragtail rabble, slack-jawed, black-jacketed, grinning fit to kill, and some of them, God save the mark, were waving the proud and honored flag of the Southern States in the last war fought by gentlemen. Eheu. It gives one pause.”

President Dwight Eisenhower expressed sympathy for the black protestors, saying that he was, “deeply sympathetic with efforts of any group to enjoy the . . . equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.” In the North, blacks and whites organized boycotts of chain stores that practiced segregation in the South such as Walgreen’s, Woolworth’s and S.H. Kress stores. Yolanda Betzbeze Fox, a white former Miss America, protested at Woolworth’s stores in New York City, telling reporters, “I’m a Southern girl, but a thinking girl.” These sympathy boycotts put serious economic pressure on chain stores whose Dixie affiliates practiced segregation in the South, prompting a variety of reactions ranging from the closing of lunch counters to ending Jim Crow practices.

Change happened more rapidly in the border South. Four theaters and six lunch counters announced an end to segregation in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 10, 1960. Eager to avoid business disruptions and bad publicity, white business leaders and black political leaders worked out plans to quietly desegregate downtown department stores in Galveston and Houston. In Dallas, city leaders formed a Committee of 14 with seven whites and seven blacks. The black members of the committee were drawn from an older and relatively conservative generation of African-American leaders who had long pushed for incremental change. The committee convinced several stores such as Woolworth’s and Walgreen’s in the spring of 1960 to desegregate lunch counters. Nevertheless, sit-ins broke out all over Dallas, starting in October 1960. In the spring of 1961 a group of fifty-eight white and two black theology students from Southern Methodist University sat in at the lunch counter at the University Drug Store across the street from the college campus. When protestors refused to budge until the staff served them, owner C.R. Bright hired a fumigation service that pumped insecticide inside the store. Students began a sit-in at the Titche-Goettinger department store in downtown Dallas while 200 angry students returned to the University Drug Store for a five-hour protest that shut down business almost completely.

Even though Dallas television stations and newspapers refused to cover these incidents, by May 1961 the sit-ins tarnished Dallas’ national image as a city with a peaceful racial climate and threatened its economic bottom line. The Detroit Metropolitan Opera Company announced that it would no longer play to segregated audiences, specifically mentioning that Dallas had been notified of the new policy. Faced with possibly damaging business boycotts, the Committee of 14 achieved limited desegregation in downtown Dallas. On July 26, 1961, the Committee of 14 accompanied 159 black patrons to 49 downtown restaurants and lunch counters where they were served without incident. By then, the sit-in movement represented a passing of the civil rights leadership from an older generation to a young one. It also established a precedent for more “direct action” protests, which became the focus of the movement instead of the reliance on lawsuits that marked the NAACP strategy in the 1940s and 1950s.

According to 1960s chronicler Todd Gitlin, the sit-in movement in the first months of the new decade formed a sharp demarcation between the 1950s and the 1960s. “History rarely follows the decimal system as neatly as it did in 1960,” the sociology professor wrote in "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage." “Suddenly the campus mood seemed to shift . . . What had been underground flowed to the surface. After all the prologues and precursors, an insurgency materialized, and the climate of opinion began to shift, the way spring announces itself with scents and a scatter of birdsong before the temperature climbs to stay.”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

The Enduring Impact of the 1950s

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I discuss how the 1950s, usually seen as a placid time, laid the foundation for the turbulent 1960s.

In 1971, singer-songwriter Don McLean released an epic hit song, “American Pie,” which traced in symbolic language the journey of American politics and culture from the time of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and his fellow rock stars in 1959 to the assassinations and climate of fear that menaced society by the end of the 1960s. In McLean’s lyrics, Buddy Holly’s death is characterized as the “day the music died,” but more broadly the songwriter suggests that America passed from a more innocent time just after World War II to an epoch of disillusionment and division during the Vietnam War.

That image of the 1950s as placid and monotone resulted from a conscious propaganda effort by American elites, according to English scholar Alan Nadel. He argues in "Containment Culture: American Narrative, Postmodernism and the Atomic Age" that the politically powerful in the immediate post-World War II era sought not only to contain communism – to prevent the Soviet empire from expanding beyond Eastern Europe – but to contain the revolutionary changes in family life that had taken place during the Great Depression and World War II. In the tumultuous 16-year period from 1929 to 1945, women had often served as the primary breadwinners for the family, and managed the home alone while their husbands wandered off in search of work or to fight in Europe and Asia. These women had experienced, often for the first time, relatively decent wages and the wider social circle at factory shop floors, and came away from these experiences yearning for a life beyond the home.

The expectations, frustrations, and dreams that fueled the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s – what Betty Friedan would call “the problem with no name” -- were in place by the early 1950s. The African American Civil Rights Movement, meanwhile, had already reached full tilt and blacks had already scored some of their most important legal victories in their campaign for equality before 1960, starting with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Mexican American politics remained largely shaped by conservatism, but young Mexicans had before them the model of black protestors. Witnessing the triumphs and tragedy of the African American civil rights campaign in the Fifties would inspire a more radical Chicano generation a decade later. Turmoil marked the Fifties, with only some of the ferment under the surface.

American sexual attitudes had always been more varied than the myth promoted by the decade’s situation comedies. Most did not live the tame, bland, conformist existence portrayed on programs like "The Donna Reed Show." Behind the walls of those suburban homes, Americans experimented with premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality and alternative family structures. If the 1960s would be characterized as the “Sexual Revolution,” the first shots of that rebellion had been fired in the late 1940s and the1950s. The popular culture reflected this more open sexuality in advertising. Movies, suffering a loss of audience because of the growing ownership of television sets, also became more frankly erotic in content.

Behind a sexual opening up of the culture loomed a growing awareness of the mass market provided by those millions of children born during the Baby Boom. In the earliest days of television, children’s programs rapidly expanded and advertisers realized they could go over the heads of parents and aim their commercials for toy guns, Barbie Dolls and G.I. Joe soldiers directly at children. As these children reached a rebellious adolescence, they wanted music, magazines, and movies that pushed the cultural envelope, that pierced the veil of the hypocritically Victorian middle class. Their parents’ generation, with its supposedly more traditional values, had forced their children to live in the shadow of nuclear mushroom clouds.

By the late twentieth century, conservatives would hail the 1950s as the “anti-1960s,” in other words a golden age of sexual discretion, intact nuclear families, patriotism, traditional values, and a respect for authority. Hollywood movies of the era, however, reveal a wide array of anxieties haunting what one 1970s television sitcom called “Happy Days.” The plot of movies from 1945 to 1960 reflect fears not just about the role of men in the post-war world, the impact of more assertive women on society, and the menace of juvenile delinquency. Movie audiences in the 1950s also shared with Hollywood screenwriters worries about the dangers of conformity and McCarthyism (the subtext of the 1956 science fiction classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), and the threat to human survival posed by nuclear weapons (an anxiety evident in a flood of movies about monsters created by radiation such as 1954’s "Godzilla" and "Them!", and 1955’s "It Came From Beneath the Sea.)" Monsters ranging from giant ants to masculinized, ambitious women terrified Americans, many of whom had only to glance at their backyard bomb shelters to be reminded of how fragile their suburban world had become.

The 1950s, however, served as the necessary prelude to the decade of hippies, war protestors, and youth rebellion that would shortly follow. Teenagers who engaged in “heavy petting,” who read horror comics, who idolized movie stars like James Dean and rock stars like Elvis, had already walked away from the worldview of their parents. Many youths in the Sixites would conclude that Auschwitz and Hiroshima consumed one world and that a new one must rise from its ashes, but doubts about America’s religious values and cultural priorities, its Cold War politics, about the media and the country’s leaders, sank deep roots in the fifteen years from 1945 and 1960.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.