A History Lesson for Lawrence O'Donnell

On Thursday night, MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell accused Herman Cain of "sitting on the sidelines" during the civil rights movement.  The accusation has rightly been condemned as contemptible.  Politics is one sphere of human achievement, but there are many others.  Do we fault Albert Einstein for not going back to Germany in 1933 to march in anti-Hitler demonstrations?

Cain's defense was that he was in high school, under 18 years old, and his father had counseled him to stay out of trouble.  O'Donnell came back with what many liberals probably thought was a gotcha moment (at 11:10 in the video):

In fact you were in college from 1963 to 1967, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, exactly when the most important demonstrations and protests were going on.  You could easily as a student at Morehouse between 1963 and 1967 actively have participated in the kind of protests that got African-Americans the rights they enjoy today[.] ... You watched black college students from around the country and white college students from around the country come to the South and be murdered, fighting for the rights of African-Americans.  Do you regret sitting on those sidelines at that time?

Cain defended himself, saying that not every black student in the 1960s was protesting, but he left standing O'Donnell's charge that he had dissimulated the facts about being in high school during the civil rights movement.  Cain objected at one point that he graduated from high school in 1963 and entered college in that fall, mistakenly assuming that O'Donnell knew the civil rights timeline.

For Larry's benefit, let's look at that timeline:

1948: President Truman signs Executive Order declaring equality in American armed services. Cain was three years old.

1954: Brown vs. Board of Education. Cain was nine.

1955: Emmett Till is murdered in Mississippi. Cain was ten.

1955: Rosa Parks refuses to move to the back of the bus.  Cain was ten.

1957: Martin Luther King, Jr. establishes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Cain was twelve.

1957: President Eisenhower sends federal troops to Arkansas to intervene on behalf of the "Little Rock Nine."  Cain was twelve.

1960: Four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College begin a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC.  Cain was sixteen.

1961: The first Freedom Ride.  Cain was sixteen, a sophomore in high school.

1962: James Meredith enrolls at UMiss.  JFK sends 5,000 federal troops.  Cain is a junior in high school.

May, 1963: Bull Connor (Democrat) uses fire hoses and dogs on demonstrators.  Cain is a senior in high school.

June 1963: Medgar Evers is murdered.  Cain is graduating from high school.

August 1963: MLK's "I have a dream" speech.  Cain is on summer vacation between high school and college.

September 1963: Riots in Birmingham after four girls are killed by a bomb in their church.  Cain is about to begin his freshman year at Morehouse.

July 1964: President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Cain has finished his freshman year at Morehouse.

August 1964: Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner are murdered in Mississippi.  Cain is nineteen.

August 1965: Congress passes the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

O'Donnell's characterization of the civil rights movement as being at its "height" between 1963 and 1967, "exactly when the most important demonstrations and protests were going on," is common, but wrong.  The civil rights movement achieved victory in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

O'Donnell refers to "college students com[ing] to the south and be[ing] murdered, fighting for the rights of African-Americans."  He probably saw the movie Mississippi Burning and didn't realize that the murdered college students were no longer "fighting for the rights of African-Americans"; they were monitoring the enforcement of those rights established by a federal law passed earlier that year.

The 1963-67 period, however, was dominated by an entirely different protest movement -- the one against the Vietnam War.  Addled leftists, like those occupying our business districts today, are happy to encourage a big-tent mentality (especially if they're camping out in October): everyone fighting The Man -- anti-capitalists, anti-racists, anti-GMO food, anti-Jewish bankers -- is on the same team!  The aims of the anti-Vietnam War movement, however, had little to do with civil rights.

The assassination of MLK no doubt led to Lawrence O'Donnell's confusion.  MLK was a civil rights leader, and his assassination seems like the most primitive racist opposition to his ideas.  Yet by 1968, "the most important demonstrations and protests" were history.

During Herman Cain's college years, the main African-American protest movement was a reaction against the civil rights movement, which was criticized by black militants as too accommodationist.  Malcolm X, who called MLK an Uncle Tom, was assassinated in February 1965.  The Watts ("Kill Whitey") riots were in the long, hot summer of 1965.  The founding of the criminal Black Panther gang by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton was in October 1966.  The bottom line is that Herman Cain was too busy studying to bother with criminal loser radicals.a

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