I am in Mississippi this week doing research for my thesis. It is a fascinating experience. A lot of drudgery is involved, but I’ve also happened upon a few goldmines. One of the things that I can say with a great deal of confidence is that John Stennis never substantially changed his views on civil rights policy during his six decades in public life. The archives are pretty clear on this. But that presents a huge problem for American memory of the civil rights movement. Precisely because Stennis was so powerful and widely respected, he has to be either forgotten, remembered selectively, or be granted a story of redemption and change that is not true to the historical record. In the editorials and eulogies that poured out at his death, we see all three approaches.
The reaction to Stennis reveals an America that
is extremely uncomfortable with a realistic memory of the civil rights era. Bigoted
demagogues are happily recalled, because they fit comfortably in the national
narrative of progress. Remembering a man who was powerful and admired—even
loved—while remaining a white supremacist confuses this narrative. Thus the
dominant reaction to Stennis and what he represents is forgetting, collective
amnesia. He is written out of the record. Segregationists were bad, they were
vanquished. They can’t have survived.
But when he retired at the end of 1988 and died
in 1995, for a brief moment politicians and the press were forced to grapple
with his legacy. The way they did so was revealing. Some just completely ignored
his civil rights record. Most acknowledged it in a disapproving tone, only to
create an arc of redemption by noting his vote in favor of renewing the Voting
Rights Act in 1982. But Stennis’s personal papers reveal that vote as a craven
political calculation, divorced from his actual views on the subject.
The lesson is that Americans in the mid-1990s,
when faced with a respected segregationist whose life did not offer a story of
redemption, would create one anyway. It was surely not a conscious decision
taken by hundreds of individual editorialists. It was rather a collective
expression of America’s unease with its racial progress. Americans wanted to believe
that they lived in a country the civil rights movement created—full stop. But
they also lived in the America of the countermovement, the America of John
Stennis. To admit that fact would imply the need for more to be done to fulfill
the promise of equality and justice for all. That was a step a critical mass of
white Americans were unwilling to take.