U.S. National Archives Web Site Uploads Hundreds of Thousands of Diplomatic Cables from 1977
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 463
March 27, 2014
Edited by William Burr
Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young meeting with President Jimmy Carter. Young served as ambassador during 1977-1979, but was forced to resign because of an unauthorized meeting with Palestinian diplomats. (Photograph from Still Pictures Unit, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59-SO, box 39)
Washington, DC, March 27, 2014 – In February 2014, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) posted 300,000 State Department telegrams from 1977 — the first year of the Jimmy Carter administration — on its Access to Archival Databases system. This posting is another step in carrying out the commitment that NARA and the State Department have made to putting on-line major State Department document databases and indexes as they are declassified. The 1977 telegrams cover the gamut of issues of the day: human rights on both sides of the Cold War line, U.S.-Soviet relations, China, NATO issues, nuclear proliferation, the Middle East Crisis, African affairs, a variety of diplomatic and security relationships around the world from Latin American to Southeast Asia, and issues of growing concern, such as women in development. The last release of on-line State Department material — telegrams and other records for 1976 — was in January 2010. Meeting the requirements of the Privacy Act, budgetary problems, and a complex declassification process prolonged the review and release of the 1977 material.
NARA’s mass posting of State Department telegrams began in 2006 when it uploaded nearly 320,000 declassified telegrams from 1973 and 1974. During the following years, NARA posted hundreds of thousands of telegrams from 1975 and 1976, bringing the total to nearly a million. The Access to Archival Databases (AAD) search engine permits searches for documents on a year-to-year basis, but in 2012 Wikileaks usefully repackaged the telegram databases by aggregating them, making it possible to search through all of telegrams at once.
The National Archives has not publicized this or previous diplomatic telegram releases so the National Security Archive is stepping in to the breach to alert researchers and to offer some interesting examples of the new material. Some key documents are already available in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States historical series, but there is more material than the FRUSeditors can use on many topics. A stroll through the AAD search engine produces absorbing results. Among the highlights from the search conducted by the editor:
During Jimmy Carter’s first year, U.S. officials in Moscow and Washington wondered about Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s state of health and its implications for Moscow-Washington relations, which were already complicated by disagreements over strategic arms control and human rights policy. In an exchange of telegrams State Department intelligence and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow argued over the former’s view that Brezhnev’s health problems meant that he was “no longer in command of all aspects of Soviet policy.” For the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), even if Brezhnev was losing control, he could still be a channel of communication, not unlike Mao Zedong’s declining years where “we had more success with Mao’s slobbering and shambling through critical meetings with U.S. representatives …than we have had since Mao’s passing.” Disagreeing with that assessment, U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon acknowledged that Brezhnev “suffers from a variety of physical ailments” but he “is still in control.”
When two senior U.S. officials met with South Korean dictator General Park Chung Hee in 1977 to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces, they brought up human rights problems. The detention of dissidents arrested at Myeongdong Cathedral in 1976 was one issue that concerned the White House but Park was reluctant to take a lenient approach because it would “encourage defendants to violate Korean law again.”
According to a report from the U.S. Embassy in Thailand on the situation in Cambodia and the status of organized resistance against the Khmer Rouge, two informants declared that “the fruit of Khmer Rouge rule might well be the extinction of the Cambodian race.” While the Khmer Rouge had continued “to eliminate anyone associated with the former regime,” the “greatest threat to life in Cambodia” was disease and famine. The recent rice harvest had been good but the regime was stockpiling and exporting the grain.
A telegram on a conversation between U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and an influential figure in the South African National Party, Cornelius (“Connie”) Petrus Mulder, who was “more liberal” but did not want to get “out in front of agreed policy on apartheid.” Young conveyed the message that the administration sought “progressive transformation of South Africa toward majority rule” and the discussion covered the range of regional issues as well as the Young’s argument about the possibility of reconciliation based on the “sharing of economic benefits.”
In mid-1977, the Temple University biologist Niu Man-Chiang was visiting Beijing and met with Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-Ping in the Wade-Giles transliteration), who, after very difficult years during the Cultural Revolution, was again holding top-level positions. Deng claimed that he “was in charge of two things: science and the military,” but kept bringing the discussion back to economic policy, especially solving the problem of “feeding a growing population,” for which he proposed restricting births and growing more food.
The release includes telegrams at many levels of classification, from “Unclassified” and “Official Use Only” to “Confidential” and “Secret.” Moreover, telegrams with a variety of handling restrictions are available, including “Limdis” [limited distribution], “Exdis” [exclusive distribution], and “Nodis” [no distribution except with permission], as well as “Noforn” [no foreign nationals] and “STADIS” [State Department distribution]. Unlike the previous telegram releases, the one for 1977 includes the “nodis” items and also the closely-held cables with the “Cherokee” distribution control, usually reserved for messages involving the secretary of state and senior White House officials. The Cherokee control originated during the 1960s, when Dean Rusk was Secretary of State. It was named after Cherokee County, Georgia, where he was born. Information confirmed in e-mail from David Langbart, National Archives, 28 March 2014.
The downside of the 1977 release is that nearly 60,000 telegrams have been exempted altogether, about 19.5 percent of the total for the year. This means that thousands of documents will remain classified for years; even if persistent researchers deluge NARA with requests they will take years to process under present budgetary limitations. Yet, 19.5 percent is close to the same exemption rate for the previous two years: 23 percent for 1976 and 19 percent for 1975. The specific reasons for the withdrawal of a given document are not given; according to information on the Web site, they are withdrawn variously for national security reasons, statutory exemptions, or privacy. No doubt specific statutory exemptions such as the CIA Act and the Atomic Energy Act play a role, which makes one wonder how many exempted documents concern such things as obsolete nuclear stockpile locations that are among the U.S. government’s dubious secrets. Moreover, given the endemic problem of over-classification at the Pentagon, it is possible that the Defense Department erroneously classified some information, for example, telegrams relating to NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group.
The collection of telegrams is only a segment of the State Department record for that year; still to be declassified and processed for 1977 is the index to the P-reels, the microfilmed record of the non-telegram paper documentation. Moreover, top secret telegrams are not yet available for any year since 1973 and collections of “Nodis” telegrams from the mid-1970s remain unavailable. No doubt, NARA’s inadequate funding is an important cause of delay. OMB and Congress have kept NARA on an austerity budget for years; this is a serious problem, which directly damages the cause of greater openness for government records. In real terms (adjusted for inflation), the NARA budget has been declining since FY 2009, despite the agency’s ever-growing responsibility for billions of pages of paper and electronic records. Consistent with the policy of forced austerity, OMB has cut NARA’s budget for the next fiscal year by $10 million.
At the current rate it will be years before all the telegrams before all telegrams and other material for the 1970s, much less the 1980s, are on-line at AAD. While the State Department has moved forward in reviewing telegrams from the 1980s, its reviewers need to catch up with the “Nodis” and top secret central files from the mid-1970s and 1977 before they get too far ahead of themselves. As for the telegrams for 1978 and 1979, according to recent reports, they have been fully reviewed for declassification and physically transferred to NARA. When they will become available is not clear. They may have to go through a review for privacy information by NARA, for example, of material concerning visa applications. That was a major element contributing to the delay in the release of the 1977 telegrams. Such a review is justifiable, such as when social security numbers are at issue; certainly protecting private information deserves special care. Nevertheless, there is concern, even among NARA staffers, that the privacy review process may be becoming too extensive (e.g., excluding old mailing addresses). More needs to be learned about criteria used for the privacy review.
Note: As in the previous openings, some telegrams are missing for technological reasons. Over the years, when IT specialists migrated the telegram collections from one electronic medium to another some records were lost. Such missing records, of which there are over 3,800 for 1977 are indicated by this wording: “telegram text for this mrn [message reference number] is unavailable.” That does not mean that all are gone for good; some copies will show up in embassy files or presidential libraries. Moreover, copies can often be found in P-reel microfilm collections at the State Department and the National Archives, depending on the years. The “message attribution” information appended to such documents [an example] includes the microfilm numbers that can be used for requesting copies.
How a Woman Born into Slavery Helped Build New York City’s First African American Research Library
by Elizabeth Hohl
HNN March 31, 2014
Image via University of North Carolina.
A short article sandwiched in between a controversy in the harness racing world and assorted advertisements reminds us of how important the knowledge of history is. Published in the New-York Daily Tribune on January 26, 1896, “Literature by Negroes” announced a new project by a local club: “Under the skylight of a business house in Murray St. is the nucleus of a unique library, which treats the rise and development of the American negro (sic).” The Women’s Loyal Union (WLU), the article explained, sought a home for the books, pamphlets and periodicals collected in an effort to preserve and transmit African American literature, history and culture. Formed in December of 1892, the WLU supported “all constitutional, natural and civil rights of the people of African descent in this country.” The group emerged shortly after the Lyric Hall testimonial that helped launch Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign. Journalist Victoria Earle Matthews (1861-1907), president of the WLU, was one of two organizers of the event that enabled Wells to share her story from a public platform and bring attention to racist mob violence in the New South. Matthews served as the driving force behind the initiative featured in the article, too.
The establishment of a collection of books and other materials may seem like a departure from a civil rights agenda but for Matthews, the two remained inextricably linked. Born into slavery in Fort Valley, Georgia, she moved to New York City with her mother and sister after the Civil War. Her entrance into the workforce as a domestic effectively ended her formal education. However, she became an avid autodidact. Social worker Frances R. Keyser characterized her as a “book-loving” individual who “never missed an opportunity to improve her mind”. With journalist and historian J. E. Bruce, Matthews formed the Enquiry Club in the early 1880s. Bruce credited her with focusing their reading and discussions on history. He recalled; “under her presidency, [we] got very busy and soon…discover[ed] that after all we who call ourselves Negroes are really somebody, that our forebears had done some things for which they have not been given full credit.” Though the group disbanded after two years, Matthews continued to promote the significance of what she called Race Literature. For her, such literature by African American women and men offered not only a counter-narrative to a distorted view of the past and present but critical sources of pride, purpose and identity — fuel for the engine of social justice and a changed sense of self. Bruce believed she “had planted the seeds” that flourished into the Black Studies movement.
The Daily Tribune reporter regarded Matthews as chiefly responsible for assembling “this novel collection.” Most likely, it was she who envisioned the possibility of a more permanent home such as “an alcove … in one of the public libraries of New York.” Moreover, Matthews’ persuasive powers may also have convinced luminaries such as D. Alexander Crummell to pledge items from their private collections for a reference section, according to the article. Yet, public library space did not materialize during the late nineteenth century; not until 1925 did the forerunner to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture open. The full realization of Matthews’ dream took decades to accomplish.
All or part of the materials mentioned in the article appear to have been placed at the White Rose Home, the settlement house Matthews co-founded. She drew upon this collection for the classes she offered in Race History. Keyser described her as she neared the end of her losing battle with tuberculosis, still determined to share what she knew. Such knowledge had empowered her and she wanted to provide young people with similar inspiration. Awareness of “the work and worth of the men and women of their race” was transformative. As Women’s History Month draws to a close, it is worthwhile to remember Victoria Earle Matthews and the belief that sustained her: history matters.
Elizabeth Hohl is a lecturer at Fairfield University. She holds a PhD in women’s studies and history.
Many who reacted to President Obama’s recent suggestion that he might pull out all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by December have used the U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan after World War II to argue that troops can bring the security and stability needed for long-term nation building.
Although the occupations in Europe and Asia were logical responses to wars against the United States just as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan followed upon 9/11, the analogy should end there. Successful nation building does not depend mostly on the occupying force but rather on the capacity — more important, the willingness — of the occupied society to carry it out. The Germans and Japanese under occupation had the capacity to rebuild their nations simply because they had already been industrial, centralized nations before the war. They also had the willingness because anti-Nazis in Germany and anti-militarists in Japan, who hated the ideologies behind the aggression of their nation, were now in charge.
A far better analogy for the situation in Afghanistan takes us back a generation further, to the U.S. occupations in Central America and the Caribbean around World War I. Then as now, the United States perceived a security threat — German gunboats, schemes to build another canal in Central America — that compelled them to occupy small, poor, agricultural nations.
Like Afghanistan, those places strained the definition of “nation.” Nicaragua (occupied 1912-1933), Haiti (1915-1934), and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924) were all afflicted by caudillos, strongmen whose power rested on their control of small private armies and especially their ability to resist centralized power. “Leaders” in Managua, Port-au-Prince, and Santo Domingo were beholden to these regional power brokers. Presidents were weak, corrupt, and isolated. They expressed nationalism but didn’t really care about the future of their country. Such characters should sound familiar to anyone who has dealt with Hamid Karzai.
Seeing decentralization as debilitating to security or development, occupying Americans tried to build nations. They had locals build roads and string telegraph wires alongside them. They funded hospitals and reorganized schools. They surveyed lands, to make them easier to buy and sell. Most important, they trained national constabularies that were, for the first time, able to use those roads to put down any caudillo’s regional challenge.
None of it magically created the “national feeling” that occupiers wanted. It didn’t help that Americans also used forced labor, torture, racism, and strong-arm diplomacy to speed up nation building. But even without such brutality, centralization was a pipe dream that barely advanced, even after decades of occupation.
The unwillingness of Latin Americans to centralize and adopt other behaviors of industrialized democracies was made most evident, as it is now in Afghanistan, when talk of withdrawal came up. After World War I, when the Germans no longer threatened the Caribbean basin, the strategic rationale for troops evaporated. Even violent insurrectionary movements had been wiped out or had laid down their weapons.
So it was time for U.S. troops to go, but they soon learned that withdrawal would be a long, drawn-out process that entailed coming to terms with the painful reality that nation building had failed. Marines oversaw elections in each of these three occupations, but in each, candidates made wild promises and vicious accusations while they betrayed political allies. They remained wedded to personalism, following leaders who presented absolutely no program for the betterment of their nations. They continued draining the treasury and using governments not to implement policy but to hand out jobs to friends and family.
American occupiers were without good options, as the Obama administration is today. If they insisted on keeping a high level of troops, they faced calls for “self-government” from Latin Americans and cries from back home that the money would be better spent in the United States, especially as the Great Depression stifled budgets. If they kept a small amount of troops in country, as they did in Nicaragua for thirteen years and as Obama is now considering, those troops merely propped up a puppet government that fell as soon as they left. And the more Americans negotiated withdrawal agreements, the more they gave in to Latin American demands to control their own politics. Delay, then as now, was a losing strategy.
When the Marines did leave the Caribbean, the result they witnessed in each occupation was the worst of all worlds: dictators used the coercive power of national constabularies to destroy, rather than build up, what incipient democracy there was. Anastazio Somoza in Nicaragua, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and eventually François Duvalier in Haiti crushed caudillos and “nationalized” power without the required nationalism.
The lessons for Afghanistan today are dispiriting and opaque. There will be no happy ending, no riding into the sunset. Leaving earlier rather than later, as most Americans seem to want, makes sense, but isn’t a panacea. Afghans will sooner or later have to face their own demons and progress at their own pace. Peoples cannot be forced into nationalism; they must build it through their own initiative, trauma, and tears.
I’m late to the 50th birthday party for New York Times v. Sullivan—deliberately so. It’s no fun to be the sourpuss. Sullivan has been celebrated by top legal and media figures from the moment it was decided until its half-centenary this month. Alexander Meiklejohn, the philosopher, called it at the time “an occasion for dancing in the streets.” In his meticulous 1992 book, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment, famed Supreme Court reporter Anthony Lewis wrote that the case “gave [the First Amendment’s] bold words their full meaning.” And a few weeks ago, University of Chicago Professor Geoffrey Stone wrote that, whatever its flaws, Sullivan “remains one of the great Supreme Court decisions in American history.” The New York Times itself, the winner of the case, congratulated the nation and the Court on “the clearest and most forceful defense of press freedom in American history.” I used to be a newspaper editor. I was dealing with libel threats at my college paper before I was old enough to vote. So I’m grateful for Sullivan’s broad protection of free speech and press. The Court’s decision defused an existential threat to press freedom—a systematic campaign (detailed well by Lewis in Make No Law) to drive the major networks and papers out of the South by using local libel laws to bleed or bankrupt them. The Court was wise to stop that cold. And yet … and yet. There are some ghosts at the Sullivan feast. Here are their names: Ralph David Abernathy, S.S. Seay Sr., Fred L. Shuttlesworth, and J.E. Lowery. These four black ministers fought against Southern apartheid—and though the fight in the end was won, these four men lost a great deal in the struggle. Their story is the underside of New York Times v. Sullivan, the part that the “post-racial” America of 2014 is not eager to remember. On March 29, 1960, The New York Times published an advertisement funded by Northern supporters of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council, who were locked in a struggle to desegregate Montgomery, Alabama. Entitled “Heed Their Rising Voices,” it described a number of actions the city government had taken to thwart Civil Rights Movement protests and punish those who engaged in them. A few of the facts, however, were wrong—not surprising, given that it was written by Bayard Rustin, another Civil Rights hero who was not on the ground in Alabama. Rustin also signed the four ministers’ names to the advertisement—without notifying or consulting them. Days later, L.B. Sullivan, police commissioner of Montgomery, filed suit in a state court against both the Times and the ministers for supposedly defaming him. Even though he hadn’t even been named in the advertisement, the all-white jury awarded Sullivan the full half-million dollars he asked for. A few similar verdicts would have bankrupted even the Times; it pulled its reporters out of Alabama. Other cases were filed against other news organizations; Southern officials boasted publicly that they had found a tool to silence the hated Northern press. The four ministers were also adjudged liable for the full amount. The trial judge wouldn’t even allow them to move for a new trial. Alabama authorities seized their cars and land without waiting for their appeal. Even though both cases ended up in the Supreme Court, they were presented very differently. As Lewis notes dryly, “The Times petition did not emphasize the racial issue.” The issue, for the Times, was press freedom. The ministers’ lawyers, however, cited the shocking racial climate in the court—the jury was all white, the courtroom was forcibly segregated by the trial judge, the judge permitted Sullivan’s lawyers to use derogatory racial terms and refer to cannibalism in the Congo, and the judge refused to call the ministers’ black lawyers “Mister,” as he did Sullivan’s (and the Times’s) white ones. “[T]he jury had before it an eloquent assertion of the inequality of the Negro in the segregation of the one room, of all rooms, where men should find equality before the law,” the ministers’ brief said. One of the lawyers, Samuel Pierce (later a member of Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet), told the Court, “it is difficult to see how there can be equal protection under the laws and due process in a court where there’s not even equality of courtesy or recognition of human dignity.” Judgment day for the ministers and the Times came on March 9, 1964. In a single opinion for the Court, Justice William Brennan wrote first, that “an otherwise impersonal attack on governmental operations” can never be defamatory of a government official who is not named in the attack, and, second, that even false statements of fact about public officials are protected by the First Amendment unless they are made with “actual malice.” That term means that the person making the statement must either know it is false or at least think it may be false; “pure heart, empty head” protects against libel of officials. Sullivan was and remains a triumph for the Times and the press. But here is the opinion’s entire discussion of the ministers’ claims: “The individual petitioners contend that the judgment against them offends the Due Process Clause because there was no evidence to show that they had published or authorized the publication of the alleged libel, and that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses were violated by racial segregation and racial bias in the courtroom.” Because it had decided the First Amendment issue, Brennan wrote, “we do not decide the questions presented by the other claims of violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Am I the only one who wonders why a Court that was bold in defense of the press could not even mention segregation? Or to wince when the opinion relies on the words of a slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson? Am I the only one who remembers that Brennan, the liberal icon, told four brave men their issues were not worthy of address? L.B. Sullivan lives on in the case’s name. The ministers have disappeared. As a Southern-born white, I do not owe my freedom to The New York Times but to men like those four ministers. Abernathy, Seay, and Shuttlesworth are dead, but Joseph Lowery, who is 90, gave the invocation at Barack Obama’s first inauguration. The Timesrecorded his attendance at the commemoration of King’s “I have a dream speech” last August. But as far as I can tell, it did not give him any credit for its landmark free press victory. My point is not to skewer the Times, which I admire; it is to remind us all that American history has a tendency to grow whiter over time. Know these names: Abernathy, Lowery, Seay, Shuttlesworth. Know the names of the other African Americans who risked (and sometimes lost) everything they had to free Americans of every race. And by all means celebrate New York Times v. Sullivan. In some ways it really is an occasion for dancing in the streets. But perhaps we should not expect Joseph Lowery to dance. Garrett Epps, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a novelist and legal scholar. He teaches courses in constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore and lives in Washington, D.C. His new book is American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution.
In the first photograph, the crowd outside the church seems to be waiting for something to come down the street. Children stand up front so they can see. Women, in the garb of the mid-1800s, shield themselves from the sun with umbrellas. White-gloved soldiers mill around. And a few people have climbed a tree for a better view.
(Mathew Brady/The National Archives)
In this second shot, some heads are bowed. Men have taken off their hats. And the blur of a large black object is disappearing along the street to the left of the frame. What the scene depicts, why it was photographed, or where, has been a mystery for decades, experts at the National Archives say. But a Maryland man has now offered the theory that the two photos are rare, long-forgotten images of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York City.
(Mathew Brady/The National Archives)
Paul Taylor, 60, of Columbia, a retired federal government accountant, believes the scene is on Broadway, outside New York’s historic Grace Church.
The day is Tuesday, April 25, 1865, 11 days after Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.
If Taylor is right, scholars say he has identified rare photos of Lincoln’s marathon funeral rites, as well as images that show mourners honoring the slain chief executive.
Plus, it appears that the photographs were taken from an upper window of the studio of famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, which was across the street from the church.
“It’s a big deal,” said Richard Sloan, an expert on the Lincoln funeral ceremonies in New York. “What makes it even a bigger deal is to be able to study the people. Even though you can’t see faces that well, just studying the people tells a story.”
Sloan added, “It’s as if you’re there, and you can see the mood.”
Many people, including children, are in their Sunday best. A few look up at the camera. Flowers are in bloom. But there is no levity.
Sloan said he is convinced that the pictures show the funeral scenes: “There’s no doubt about it.”
But experts at the Archives caution that although the theory sounds good, there could be other explanations, and no way to prove it conclusively.
The digital photographs were made from some of the thousands of Brady images acquired by the federal government in the 1870s and handed down to the National Archives in the 1940s, according to Nick Natanson, an archivist in the Archives’ still-picture unit.
Next year is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.
The two photos in question, both captioned “scene in front of church,” apparently had gone unnoticed for decades.
“We’ve had many inquiries about many images in the Brady file,” he said. “I can’t remember . . . any inquiries about these two particular images. I don’t think I ever noticed them before.”
But something about them intrigued Taylor when he saw them among the hundreds of Brady photographs posted on an Archives Flickr photo-sharing site in January.
Both were unusual four-image pictures — four shots of the same scene grouped together.
“I was just struck by the scene,” Taylor said. “That is not your normal scene in front of church. There’s just people everywhere: the streets, the sidewalks, the roof. They’re in the trees. This is not your normal Sunday.”
In the second picture, “I saw this black streak,” he said. “When I looked at it closer, I saw what it was. It was a funeral vehicle. . . . I knew it was Lincoln. It had to be. It couldn’t be anybody else.”
Natanson, of the Archives, was skeptical. “It still strikes me as odd that . . . there wouldn’t have been some mention or some hint [in the caption] of the monumental nature of the event,” he said.
There could have been other events, “maybe even other processions, maybe even other funerals” during that time period, he said. “I don’t think its possible to establish this without any doubt.”
But if Taylor is right, it could be an important discovery, Natanson said: “It isn’t as if there are dozens of images of the funeral procession anywhere.”
The funeral observances for Lincoln, who was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, went on for more than two weeks. During that time, the president’s body was moved by train on a 13-day, 1,600-mile journey from Washington to Springfield, Ill., where he was buried May 4.
Along the way, the train stopped in over a dozen major cities, and his coffin was removed for numerous processions and elaborate tributes.
Washington historian James L. Swanson has called the funeral journey a “death pageant” that was viewed by millions of people and that helped create the image of Lincoln the martyred president.
New York was the fourth major stop on the journey, after Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia.
The president’s coffin, with the lid unfortunately open, was placed on view in New York’s City Hall on April 24, according to Swanson’s account. Lincoln had been dead for 10 days, and his face was “not a pleasant sight,” the New York Times reported.
The next day, with the lid closed, the coffin was borne through jammed streets aboard a black hearse decorated with flags and black plumes and drawn by a team of 16 horses shrouded in black.
A half-million people lined the route, much of which was along Broadway.
“Thousands and thousands of these lookers on were too young . . . and were doubtless brought in order that in old age they might say they saw the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln,” the Times wrote the next day.
Taylor said his investigation of the photos began Jan. 4, when he first noticed them. The captions didn’t give him much to go on. The problem was that the original glass negatives probably didn’t have captions on them, said Brady biographer Robert Wilson. And by the time the government acquired the negatives, any caption information that went with them was probably lost.
Taylor turned to the Internet for images of historic churches, to see whether he could find the one in the Brady images. He looked up historic churches in Baltimore. No luck. Then he tried historic churches in New York.
That search brought up Grace Episcopal church, the 168-year Gothic edifice on Broadway at Tenth Street.
“I’m looking at it, and that was it,” he said. “I had it.”
He e-mailed his findings to the Archives on March 3.
Taylor, who said he has long been fascinated by historic photographs, said he does not think the images have ever been published before.
Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War photography, agreed, but he wrote in an e-mail: “There is always a slim chance that somebody somewhere has recognized and printed [them] in some obscure . . . publication.”
“Either way, it’s incredibly historic, (a) totally fresh piece of our American photo history,” he wrote. “Even if someone materializes, that still means 99.9 percent of us, enthusiasts and historians, have never seen it.”
Fifty years later, new accounts of its fraught passage reveal the era’s real hero—and it isn’t the Supreme Court.
The Atlantic March 19, 2014
President Johnson confronts Senator Richard Russell, the leader of the filibuster against the civil-rights bill. (Yoichi Okamoto/National Archives)
In the winter of 1963, as the Civil Rights Act worked its way through Congress, Justice William Brennan decided to play for time. The Supreme Court had recently heard arguments in the appeal of 12 African American protesters arrested at a segregated Baltimore restaurant. The justices had caucused, and a conservative majority had voted to decide Bell v. Maryland by reiterating that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause did not apply to private businesses like restaurants and lunch counters—only to “state actors.” The Court had used this doctrine to limit the reach of the Fourteenth Amendment since 1883. Brennan—the Warren Court’s liberal deal maker and master strategist—knew that such a decision could destroy the civil-rights bill’s chances in Congress. After all, the bill’s key provision outlawed segregation in public accommodations. Taxing his opponents’ patience, he sought a delay in order to request the government’s views on the case. He all but winked and told the solicitor general not to hurry.
And then the conservatives on the Court lost their fifth vote. Justice Tom Clark changed his mind and circulated a draft opinion granting the appeal. In a revolutionary constitutional change, lunch counters and restaurants would suddenly be liable if they violated the equal-protection clause. But Brennan foresaw a new difficulty. By now it was June 1964, and a coalition of northern Democratic and Republican senators looked set to break a southern filibuster and pass a strong civil-rights bill. Would a favorable Supreme Court ruling actually give wavering senators an excuse to vote no? They might say there was no need for legislation because the Court had already solved the problem. So Brennan, ever nimble, engineered a tactical retreat by assembling a majority that avoided the merits of the case altogether. It was an alley-oop to the political branches. They grabbed the ball and dunked it. Ten days after the Court’s decision, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the president signed it into law.
In the popular imagination, the Supreme Court is the governmental hero of the civil-rights era. The period conjures images of strong white pillars, Earl Warren’s horn-rims, and the almost holy words Brown v. Board of Education. But in Bell, the Court vindicated civil rights by stepping aside. As Bruce Ackerman observes in The Civil Rights Revolution, Brennan realized that a law passed by democratically elected officials would bear greater legitimacy in the South than a Supreme Court decision. He also doubtless anticipated that the act would be challenged in court, and that he would eventually have his say. The moment demonstrated not merely cooperation among the three branches of government, but a confluence of personalities: Brennan slowing down the Court, President Johnson leaning on Congress to hurry up, and the grandstanders and speechmakers of the Senate making their deals, Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey foremost among them. In this age of obstruction and delay, it is heartening to recall that when the government decides to act, it can be a mighty force.
But three equal branches rarely means three equal burdens, and the civil-rights era was no exception. Although the Court-centered narrative undervalues the two political branches, of those two branches it was the executive that provided decisive leadership in the 1960s. Just as the intragovernmental cooperation of 1964 is striking in light of today’s partisan gridlock, the presidential initiative displayed during the mid-’60s is worth considering in light of Barack Obama’s perceived hands-off approach to lawmaking. Of course, no discussion of civil-rights leadership is complete without including Martin Luther King Jr., who provided moral and spiritual focus, infusing the movement with resolution and dignity. But the times also called for a leader who could subdue the vast political and administrative forces arrayed against change—for someone with the strategic and tactical instincts to overcome the most-entrenched opponents, and the courage to decide instantly, in a moment of great uncertainty and doubt, to throw his full weight behind progress. The civil-rights movement had the extraordinary figure of Lyndon Johnson.
The Civil Rights Act turns 50 this year, and a wave of fine books accompanies the semicentennial. Ackerman’s is the most ambitious; it is the third volume in an ongoing series on American constitutional history called We the People. A professor of law and political science at Yale, Ackerman likens the act to a constitutional amendment in its significance to the country’s legal development. He acknowledges the Supreme Court’s leadership during the 1950s, when President Eisenhower showed little enthusiasm for civil rights, and when Congress passed the largely toothless Civil Rights Act of 1957. During those same years, the Court spoke with a loud, clear voice, unanimously deciding Brown, which ordered the desegregation of schools, and Cooper v. Aaron, which held that state segregation laws conflicting with the Constitution could not stand. But the Supreme Court does not command the National Guard or control the budget. Someone needed to enforce those decisions in the defiant South. That is why, Ackerman writes, “the mantle of leadership passed to the president and Congress,” beginning with the 1964 law.
But the political branches ventured into the fray only in the last weeks of 1963. President Kennedy had introduced the bill in June of that year with much ambivalence. As Todd S. Purdum, a senior writer at Politico, recounts in An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Kennedy had led a sheltered life in matters of race. While generally sympathetic to civil-rights ideals, he “believed that strong civil rights legislation would be difficult if not impossible to pass, and that it could well jeopardize the rest of his legislative program.” He had tried to attack literacy tests and other barriers to voting with legislation but had twice been defeated in the Senate, where the old bulls of the South wielded the filibuster with practiced skill. (Roy Wilkins of the NAACP observed, “Kennedy was not naïve, but as a legislator he was very green.”) He regarded Martin Luther King Jr. warily, and with each new southern crisis saw his agenda slipping away. But events finally forced Kennedy to act. The Freedom Riders in Montgomery, the dogs and water cannons in Birmingham, and the sit-in in Jackson all made further equivocation on civil rights impossible by the spring of 1963. Four hours after Kennedy’s speech calling for legislation, an assassin murdered the NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in his own driveway. Five months after that, the bill was stuck in the House Rules Committee—“the turnstile at the entry to the House of Representatives,” in Purdum’s phrase—and the country had a new president.
Purdum, whose book is an astute, well-paced, and highly readable play-by-play of the bill’s journey to become a law, describes the immense challenges facing Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination. “When it came to civil rights, much of America was paralyzed in 1963,” he writes. That certainly included Congress. The civil-rights bill, which had been languishing in the House since June, had no hope of coming to a full vote in the near future, and faced even bleaker prospects in the Senate. In fact, Kennedy’s entire legislative program was at a standstill, with a stalled tax-cut bill, eight stranded appropriations measures, and motionless education proposals. And Congress was not Johnson’s only problem. He also had to ensure the continuity of government, reassure the United States’ allies, and investigate Kennedy’s assassination. Purdum’s version of this story is excellent, but he cannot surpass the masterful Robert A. Caro, who offers a peerless and truly mesmerizing account of Johnson’s assumption of the presidency in The Passage of Power.
Days after Kennedy’s murder, Johnson displayed the type of leadership on civil rights that his predecessor lacked and that the other branches could not possibly match. He made the bold and exceedingly risky decision to champion the stalled civil-rights bill. It was a pivotal moment: without Johnson, a strong bill would not have passed. Caro writes that during a searching late-night conversation that lasted into the morning of November 27, when somebody tried to persuade Johnson not to waste his time or capital on the lost cause of civil rights, the president replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” He grasped the unique possibilities of the moment and saw how to leverage the nation’s grief by tying Kennedy’s legacy to the fight against inequality. Addressing Congress later that day, Johnson showed that he would replace his predecessor’s eloquence with concrete action. He resolutely announced: “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”
The New York Times journalist Clay Risen contends in The Bill of the Century that Johnson’s contribution to the Civil Rights Act’s success was “largely symbolic.” One might say the same thing about Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. Sometimes symbolism is substance—especially where the presidency is concerned. The head of the executive branch firmly seized the initiative, taking up a moribund bill addressing the nation’s most agonizing problem. Here was Johnson, president for only five days, working out of the Executive Office Building because the White House was still occupied by Kennedy’s family and staff, with an election already looming less than a year away. Instead of proceeding tentatively, as most anyone in those circumstances would have done, he radiated decisiveness, betting everything he had right after he got it. As Caro shows so persuasively, from that moment, Johnson’s urgency and purpose infused every stage of the bill’s progress. And in the days and weeks that followed, the stagnant cloud that had settled over Kennedy’s agenda began to lift.
Symbolism was the least of it. Johnson took off his jacket and tore into the legislative process intimately and tirelessly. As the former Senate majority leader, he knew his way around Capitol Hill like few other presidents before him—and none since. The best hope of moving the civil-rights bill from the House Rules Committee—whose segregationist chairman, Howard Smith of Virginia, had no intention of relinquishing it—was a procedure called a “discharge petition.” If a majority of House members sign a discharge petition, a bill is taken from the committee, to the chagrin of its chairman. Johnson made the petition his own personal crusade. Even Risen credits his zeal, noting that after receiving a list of 22 House members vulnerable to pressure on the petition, the president immediately ordered the White House switchboard to get them on the phone, wherever they could be found. Johnson engaged an army of lieutenants—businessmen, civil-rights leaders, labor officials, journalists, and allies on the Hill—to go out and find votes for the discharge petition. He cut a deal that secured half a dozen votes from the Texas delegation. He showed Martin Luther King Jr. a list of uncommitted Republicans and, as Caro writes, “told King to work on them.” He directed one labor leader to “talk to every human you could,” saying, “if we fail on this, then we fail in everything.”
The pressure worked. On December 4—not two weeks into Johnson’s presidency—the implacable Chairman Smith began to give way. Rather than have the bill taken from his committee, he privately agreed to begin hearings that would conclude before the end of January, and then release the bill. Smith looked set to renege on his agreement in the new year, but reluctantly kept his word, allowing the bill to be sent to the full House on January 30, 1964. Risen credits others with this development, suggesting that it was Representative Clarence Brown of Ohio, a Republican member of the Rules Committee, among others, who got Smith to move. Risen is particularly sharp on the evolution of the Republicans during these tumultuous years, but here he accords them too much clout. Brown had to answer to House Republican Leader Charles Halleck of Indiana, whose support Johnson likely bought by proposing, and then personally securing, a NASAresearch facility at Purdue University, in Halleck’s district. And the entire Republican caucus in the House was wilting under Johnson’s relentless and very public campaign to portray “the party of Lincoln” as obstructing civil rights by opposing the discharge petition.
Johnson kept the bill moving in the Senate by dislodging President Kennedy’s tax-cut bill from the Finance Committee. As vice president, Johnson had advised Kennedy not to introduce civil-rights legislation until the tax cut had cleared Congress. Kennedy didn’t listen, and now both bills were stuck. (Like House Rules, Senate Finance had a wily segregationist for a chairman: Harry Byrd of Virginia.) Risen minimizes the significance of this problem, writing that the tax bill “presented no procedural obstacle to the civil rights bill, only a political one.” (And when does politics ever derail legislation?!) As Caro explains, the tax bill was a hostage. By holding it in committee, the South pressured the administration to give up on civil-rights legislation, with the implication that the withdrawal of the latter might produce movement on the former. But Johnson and Byrd were old friends, and during an elaborate White House lunch they came to an understanding: if Johnson submitted a budget below $100 billion, Byrd would release the tax bill. Johnson then personally bullied department heads to reduce their appropriations requests, and delivered a budget of $97.9 billion. The Finance Committee passed the tax bill on January 23, 1964, with Byrd casting the deciding vote to allow a vote, then weighing in against the measure itself. The Senate passed the tax bill on February 7, mere days before the civil-rights bill cleared the House.
Finally, Johnson helped usher the bill to passage in the Senate by working to break the southern filibuster, which was led by his political patron, the formidable Richard Russell of Georgia. In light of the Senate’s fiercely guarded independence, the president could not operate in the open; he had to use proxies like Humphrey, who was his protégé and future vice president, as well as the bill’s floor manager. Johnson impressed upon Humphrey that the vain and flamboyant Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois was the key to delivering the Republican votes needed for cloture:
“You and I are going to get Ev. It’s going to take time. We’re going to get him. You make up your mind now that you’ve got to spend time with Ev Dirksen. You’ve got to let him have a piece of the action. He’s got to look good all the time. Don’t let those [liberal] bomb throwers, now, talk you out of seeing Dirksen. You get in there to see Dirksen. You drink with Dirksen! You talk with Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!”
Johnson demanded constant updates from Humphrey and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and always urged more-aggressive tactics. (“The president grabbed me by my shoulder and damn near broke my arm,” said Humphrey.) Even though Senate Democrats did not deploy all those tactics, Johnson’s intensity nevertheless set the tone and supplied its own momentum. He kept up a steady stream of speeches and public appearances demanding Senate passage of the strong House bill, undiluted by horse-trading. And he personally lobbied senators to vote for cloture and end the filibuster. Risen contends that Johnson “persuaded exactly one senator” to change his vote on cloture. Given that it is of course impossible to know what motivated each senator’s final decision, this lowball figure is expressed with too much certitude. Evidence presented by Purdum and Caro suggests that Johnson’s importuning, bribing, and threatening may have made an impact on closer to a dozen. The Senate invoked cloture on June 10, breaking the longest filibuster in the institution’s history. The full Senate soon passed the bill. Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964, and immediately turned his energies to what would become another landmark statute: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Risen’s attempt to minimize Johnson’s significance in the passage of the Civil Rights Act—“he was at most a supporting actor”; “he was just one of a cast of dozens”; “the Civil Rights Act was not his bill by any stretch”—is perplexing. In an otherwise strong book, his revisionist view is less a question of facts than of emphasis: after all, Purdum too notes that Johnson “strategically limit[ed] his own role” at key moments (careful, for example, not to upstage Dirksen). But Risen seems bent on denying Johnson his due, drawing nearly every inference against him and repeatedly overstating the anti-Johnson case. On the one hand, Risen is right to take a fresh look at the evidence and tell the story from a new perspective, focusing on unsung heroes such as Dirksen, Humphrey, Representative William McCulloch, and Nicholas Katzenbach of the Justice Department. He makes a fair point in questioning the way history awards presidents the credit for measures that by necessity cross many desks. On the other hand, Risen is simply wrong to portray Johnson as some hapless operator for trying multiple tactics and targets, some of them unsuccessfully. Johnson’s very comprehensiveness is what jarred the sluggish and paralyzed Capitol into action and ultimately moved the bill.
If the president led and Congress followed, where did that leave the Supreme Court? Three months after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the Court heard arguments in a pair of cases challenging the constitutionality of its most contentious provision—Title II, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations. In December 1964 the Court decided Katzenbach v. McClungand Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, upholding Title II as a valid exercise of Congress’s commerce power. In the years since, the act has been a remarkable success. Its acceptance in the South was surprisingly quick and widespread. In a stroke, the act demolished the rickety but persistent foundation for segregation and Jim Crow. Title II reached far into the daily lives of southerners, creating an unprecedented level of personal mingling between the races and making integration a fact of daily life. Title VII, meanwhile, has vastly reduced workplace discrimination, through the efforts of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although years of toil, struggle, and bloodshed still lay ahead, the 1964 law dealt a major blow to the system of segregation. The past 50 years of American history are almost unimaginable without it.
And yet the anniversary prompts an ominous reconsideration of the Supreme Court’s role in civil rights. In 1954, the Court launched the federal government’s assault on segregation, with Brown. In 1964, it got out of the way of the political branches, then quickly ratified their work. Today when it comes to racial civil rights, the Roberts Court is an aggressively hostile force. Recall Ackerman’s contention that the 1964 act has taken on the weight of a constitutional amendment. At a literal level, this is of course untrue: the act was not ratified by three-quarters of the states and is not part of the written Constitution. This means that a constitutional amendment is not needed to overturn the Civil Rights Act, which is vulnerable to a subsequent act of Congress or, more to the point, a decision by the Supreme Court.
Ten years ago, even mentioning this possibility would have seemed outrageous. But last June, the Court decided Shelby County v. Holder, striking down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as unconstitutional. Section 4(b) listed the states with a history of voting discrimination that were required to seek preclearance from the Justice Department or the courts before amending their voting laws. The 5–4 decision by Chief Justice John Roberts is nothing short of appalling: as unpersuasive as it is misguided, it is, in Ackerman’s words, “a shattering judicial betrayal” of the civil-rights era. It is also the Roberts Court’s most brazenly activist decision: Congress has reauthorized the Voting Rights Act four times, most recently in 2006, with votes of 390–33 in the House and 98–0 in the Senate. In her brilliant dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg summed up the decision’s obtuseness: “Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Shelby County may be so unique that it portends no harm for the Civil Rights Act. After all, the preclearance regime was extraordinarily invasive. Ackerman calls it the biggest federal intrusion into the prerogatives of the southern states since Reconstruction. But Title II of the Civil Rights Act is also strong medicine, reaching beyond state actors to tell private businesses whom they must serve. It was by far the act’s most controversial provision—and it remains controversial among some conservatives. In 2010, Senator Rand Paul caused a sensation by arguing that the provision in the Civil Rights Act dealing with “private business owners” (ostensibly Title II) is unconstitutional. He quickly walked back his comments, but his father, Ron Paul, proudly continues to make the same argument, and the Tea Party is listening. The Heritage Foundation’s Web site files the McClung decision upholding Title II on its “Judicial Activism” page, tagged to the terms Abusing Precedent and Contorting Text. The Voting Rights Act decision can only embolden Title II’s opponents.
And they just might get a hearing. Three trends in the Roberts Court’s jurisprudence suggest that the justices would be more receptive to a challenge to Title II than any prior Court. First is its disregard for precedent. The Roberts Court has repeatedly ignored prior decisions when doing so enabled a conservative victory—most notoriously in the areas of gun regulation (District of Columbia v. Heller) and campaign finance (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). Hence it is little comfort that the Court upheld Title II in 1964. It had also previously upheld the Voting Rights Act and its reauthorizations. Second is the Roberts Court’s impatience with open-ended civil-rights measures, which some justices believe are no longer necessary. “The tests and devices that blocked access to the ballot have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years,” the Court wrote in Shelby County, dismissing the need for ongoing vigilance against voting discrimination. And third is the Court’s continued disdain for the commerce clause. Remember when Roberts’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act made the point that the act was not a valid exercise of Congress’s commerce power? He was singling out the section of the Constitution that supports the Civil Rights Act.
The 1964 law is not in imminent danger from the Supreme Court. But it is worth considering how a hostile Court changes the equation from 1964, when the judiciary acted in concert with the political branches. The new paradigm places a premium on presidential leadership, at the very least in nominating judges and justices who are in sympathy with the great statutes of the 1960s. But the battle over the Civil Rights Act shows that presidents who are serious about concrete social progress must do even more.
Lyndon Johnsons, of course, do not come along every four or every 40 years. Even if they did, Johnson brought plenty of darkness (election stealing, a credibility gap, Vietnam) along with the light (Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Great Society). Moreover, not every president needs to be a legislative genius in order to pass laws. Obama, after all, gambled big on the Affordable Care Act, investing the same type of capital in health care that Johnson invested in civil rights. It is now the law of the land. But the energy and purpose that Johnson brought to the Civil Rights Act struggle remains inspiring, and is a model for all presidents. As Richard Russell, the South’s leader in the Senate during the 1960s, put it to a friend a few days after Kennedy’s assassination: “You know, we could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.”
Michael O’Donnell is a lawyer in Chicago. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and The Washington Monthly.
A recent advertisement in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition for blu eCigs, a popular brand of electronic cigarettes, hit what one public health expert has called “a new high in terms of chutzpah.” It is audacious, though a more literal description might be that the ad hit a new low: it’s a crotch shot, showing a woman’s body cropped from just above her pierced belly button to her mid-thighs. A miniscule black bikini bottom, adorned with the company’s logo, barely covers what’s underneath. Posed provocatively around the bikini, the woman’s hands appear ready to remove the item of clothing, if you can call it that. The caption reads, “Slim. Charged. Ready to Go.”
Doctors and public health advocates worry about ads like these, which associate e-cigarettes with female sexuality in a bid to attract male consumers, especially teenage boys, who may be tempted to take up vaping and thus put themselves at risk for nicotine addiction.
Beyond the health consequences of such marketing tactics, anyone who cares about the effects of exploiting and sexualizing women’s bodies has obvious reason for concern, too. After all, the blu eCig model seems as much the commodity as the e-cigarette. She is objectified by the ad’s producers, as she will be, presumably, by its consumers as well.
Tobacco and women’s bodies have a long history, to which e-cigarettes (technically tobacco-less) are indebted. Yet this ad belies the complexity of this past. Surprisingly, the sexual sell in the tobacco market—and tobacco use itself—provided modern American women a way to lay claim to their desires, sexual and otherwise.
For years, Americans frowned upon both female tobacco use and female sexuality. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Victorian understanding of separate spheres, which deemed women morally superior and sexually passive, proscribed a variety of activities, like sex (outside of procreation), drinking, business, and politics. These pursuits and pleasures were for men, as was enjoying tobacco—whether it was by chewing it or smoking it in a pipe or cigar, all sensual activities that bordered on the sexual. Tobacco use was simply off-limits to respectable, middle-class women, white and black. Only prostitutes, actresses, and bohemians indulged in the tobacco habit, which sealed its association with a lack of womanly virtue.
Change came fitfully. In the 1880s and ‘90s, the American Tobacco Company, the Durham, North Carolina, manufacturer that pioneered the selling of cigarettes, bucked traditional standards. It wasn’t that the company targeted potential female smokers; rather, it introduced salacious trade cards into cigarette packs to appeal to men. The cards featured pictures of women scantily dressed, at least by the conventions of the day. Uncovered arms and legs were in abundance, as were stockings, ribbons, and fringe. The cards were brazen acknowledgements of women’s sexuality. Respectable Americans were not ready, and critics pounced.
Image via Duke University Library.
Yet by the 1910s and ‘20s, a full-blown challenge to Victorianism was underway, with young women leading the charge. They demanded the right to bob their hair, wear cosmetics and short skirts, and, like their male peers, dance, drink alcohol, have sex, and, of course, smoke cigarettes. As Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, a precocious teenage smoker and quintessential Jazz Age figure put it, flappers altered everything about their behavior and appearance and “went into the battle.” The battle to break free from restrictive norms and assert their individuality was waged, and largely won, in cities and on college campuses, in cars and in nightclubs, and in tobacco advertising campaigns, which increasingly supported women’s new desires. Liggett and Myers, maker of Chesterfields, released a magazine ad in 1926 with the tag line “Blow Some My Way.” The illustration featured a woman gazing longingly at her cigarette-smoking companion.
Several years later, a woman in a Chesterfield spot, shown lighting her partner’s cigarette, said coyly, “Somehow, I just like to give you a light.” The Chesterfield slogan, “They Satisfy,” drove home the message: female sexuality and tobacco use were now celebrated.”
By the 1930s and ‘40s, the use of female sexuality to promote tobacco had even migrated to the tobacco farms of the Southeast. This region grew much of the tobacco sold in the United States, and during the lean years of the Depression, it needed to pump up demand. Trade boards sponsored beauty pageants for rural women (all white, given Jim Crow customs), who vied for the title of tobacco queen and sometimes competed in skimpy two-piece outfits made out of dried tobacco leaves. Hardly asked to shun the product, women and tobacco were one and the same.
This fact alone made the photographs taken of the beauties arresting, but the images were also suffused with sexual innuendo and phallic images. These photos show contestants and queens putting themselves up for evaluation and auction, like tobacco brought to market for sale. They leisurely puff on foot-long cigarettes and smoke corncob pipes as men, standing in intimate proximity, look on with rapt attention. What these men were thinking was an open question. In one photograph from the mid-1940s, a North Carolina tobacco queen held a tobacco leaf over her breasts. It was obvious that with one movement she could have been topless.
Image via North Carolina Department of Archives.
Used for marketing purposes, these images were intended for tobacco consumers everywhere, but it’s worth emphasizing that this unusual iconography was intended, in part, to chip away at deep-rooted objections to female smoking in rural areas, where only 8 per cent of women smoked, compared to about 40 percent in cities. The photographs glamorized the sensuous pleasures of tobacco use, suggesting to farm women that smoking, and freer expressions of sexuality, were theirs to claim. Women in more conservative parts of America who subsequently picked up the tobacco habit thus redefined what it meant to be female in their communities. In the South especially, where a Gordian knot of patriarchy and white supremacy depended upon the sexual subordination of women, this was not an inconsequential development.
All of this culminated in the famous Virginia Slims campaign, launched by the Richmond, Virginia-based Phillip Morris Company in 1968, to promote the new, slimmer cigarette made just for women. Capitalizing on the modern women’s movement, Phillip Morris embraced the language of feminism to demonstrate, as the tag line proclaimed, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” Ads contrasted the contemporary, sexually liberated woman, Virginia Slims in hand, with her oppressed female forebears. In one magazine spot, images of a turn-of-the century housewife suffering from the drudgery of household chores—like churning butter!—were paired with the tongue-in-cheek rhyme, “I want a girl, just like the girl that married Dear Old Dad. She’ll wash the floors, polish up the doors, and never make me mad. She won’t smoke or be a suffragette, she will always be my loving pet.” Underneath, the Virginia Slims smoker smiled knowingly at the reader.
The modern woman had come a long way, and tobacco, as this history demonstrates, had helped get her there. Still, there were clearly pitfalls in this strategy of advancing women’s emancipation. Lung disease and death seem a poor trade-off for not having to wash the floors.
Moreover, the line between sexual empowerment and sexual objectification was a thin one, easily transgressed. Sometimes it was difficult to determine who controlled the sexuality on display. The recent blu eCigs advertisement highlights this problem in a striking way: it’s hard to argue that the bikini-clad woman is empowered when you can’t even see her face. This ad, in short, provides a cautionary reminder. When it comes to fighting for women’s liberation, we must be careful in selecting our weapons.