Saturday, June 24, 2006

news and history

I've been working through Taylor Branch's trilogy on America in the King Years. One thing I find particularly fascinating is its tengental critique of daily journalism. Branch blends newspaper accounts with myriad source material, and he often plays the supposedly unbiased news against what actually happened. Too often, the news comes off looking like a loser.

One passage in particular struck me, because it called to mind an earlier post I wrote about a KC Currents segment about the N-word. This anecdote is about a campaign stop in New Orleans in 1964, where President Johnson addressed an audience dense with segregationist Dixie-crats, many of whom were tacitly supporting his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater out of spite for the Civil Rights Act.
"Whatever your views are," Johnson added with a significant pause, "we have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, and we have the law of the land. And two-thirds of the Democrats in the House and the Senate voted for it, and three-fourths of the Republicans. I signed it. And I'm going to enforce it. And I'm going to observe it."

Having hushed his audience in the coded language of Sothern politics, without mentioning the new Civil Rights laws by name, Johnson pushed on.

"I am not going to let them build up the hate, and try to bury my people by appealing to their prejudice," he vowed, and lean forward to tell "you folks" a tale of death-bed lamentation over a wasted political career. Johnson recalled how an old senator, "whose name I won't call," once beseeched speaker Sam Rayburn for encouragement to make just one speech toward the common good of his dispoiled state.

"I feel like I have one in me," Johnson quoted the senator. "The poor old state. They haven't heard a Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is nigger, nigger, nigger!"

The audience gasped, reported one historian. An eye-witness called the shock in the banquet hall a physical thing. Surprise. Awe. Ears heard what they plainly could not hear. A president of the United States had shouted the word three times, in a context that at once revealed and rejected a racial core of politics.

The initial grudging and scattered applause grew into an ovation that lasted fully seven minutes.

But the next day, the reporters lacked the nerve to quote him exactly. From Jet magazine to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the president's climactic phrase was rendered "Negro, Negro, Negro." The New York Times dosged the word choice by ommitting the passage all together...

It was not until Johnson wrote his memoir that the word "nigger" was put into the mouth of a president of the United States.

If you recall my earlier post, I mentioned that the two gentleman in the radio segment were local journalists, and one said that the Star has a policy against use of the word. But above we see an incident in which the word was bellowed in a pivotal way during a pivotal period in history. Now, in Johnson's memoir, and Branch's phenomenal book, and whatever other historical materials exist, this has emerged as what is true, and it carries with it profound significance.

Yet those whose duty it was to report what was actually happening in the world chose instead white wash it (full pun intended). And the so-called paper of record for the nation, the one that declares its impossible mission everyday, "All the news that's fit to print," winds up codified in history -- at least in this instance -- as an agent of evasion, or worse, deception.


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