Sunday, December 22, 2013

JFK, LBJ, and Their Gift to Me

I am from that generation.  I am one of those who remembers where she was on the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963.  I was in fourth grade.  It being a Friday afternoon, I was at release time religious instruction at the parochial school in nearby Spring Valley, NY.  I remember the mother superior coming to the door of our classroom and telling us that the President had been shot.  She asked us to stand and say a prayer.  By the time the bus had brought us back to our public school, it was all over.  The President was dead.  The school closed early, and we all went home.  My mom was sick that day and asleep when I got there.  When I woke her and told her the news, she didn't believe me.  Surely I had misunderstood, she said.  Then she turned on the television.  It stayed on.  Like most Americans, our family cried and prayed for four days.  There is a photo of me in the Nyack Journal News kneeling and praying at St. Joseph's Church.  All thoughts of Thanksgiving were gone.

In 1961 JFK had declared that "this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."  The space race captured my imagination and ultimately gave me my first career.  (See Always an Attitude Analyst.)  I hung on every launch, even recording them on our family's reel-to-reel tape recorder.  I spent early evenings in wonder and awe just to look up at the sky and see the faint river of the Milky Way that was still visible from Rockland County, NY, in those years.

Whether JFK had the makings of a great President is something for the historians to ponder, but he did inspire the young people of my generation.  Not even quite seven years old, I remember his inauguration speech in 1961.  I remember the palpable fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of the Berlin Wall, and JFK's Ich bin ein Berliner speech.  The Vietnam War was already a rumble but one that was still distant to my ears.  The civil rights marches in the American South were something we heard and read about, but they seemed distant to our middle class white suburb of New York City.  What washed over me and my young friends was the dashing image of the handsome young President with the beautiful wife who was leading us boldly into the New Frontier.

On the fiftieth anniversary of JFK's assassination last month, both CBS and NBC streamed their four days of 1963 coverage over the Internet.  I found myself transported back in time as I watched again the TV images I remembered from my childhood.  How old those images now seem, how ancient the technology that relied on telephones and film.  How soothing it was to hear again the voice of Walter Cronkite, our Uncle Walter, try to guide a grieving nation through its torment.  There were long, unrehearsed interviews -- something one can scarcely imagine today -- with politicians and citizens both low and high.  People seemed to speak their mind with little concern over the proper spin.  There was something almost naive about the discourse.

The more I watched, however, the more I realized there was something missing.  None of the newscasters were women, and almost no women were to be found among those interviewed.  Even Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson were presented more as supportive adjuncts of their husbands than as independent beings.  Almost no African Americans were to be seen.  The world belonged to white men, and no one from the mainstream media of the day was questioning whether there was anything amiss in this norm.

Like many of my generation, I associate JFK's passing with the start of our country's descent into Vietnam.  I watched the anti-war demonstrations grow around me.  The Tet Offensive came in 1968, to be followed shortly thereafter by LBJ's unexpected declaration that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic nomination for another term as President.  As JFK's successor, LBJ had failed in our young eyes, and no one was sorry to see him go even if what followed was only a continuing descent into Nixon, Watergate, and disillusion.

On the final evening of re-watching the 1963 coverage last month, I unexpectedly had to reach for tissue as tears filled my eyes.  No, it wasn't memories of the slain young President that brought tears this time.  Rather, it was an offhand comment from a newscaster of that day wondering what would become of the civil rights legislation that JFK had proposed earlier that year.  With the young President gone, would the legislation be passed?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was JFK's gift to me.  Like most white, middle class Americans, for decades I was aware that the Civil Rights Act was a good thing that was needed to address the wrongs done to black Americans in the South and throughout even our supposedly more liberal North.  If JFK had lived, would the legislation have been passed by our U.S. House and Senate?  There are those who think that it may not have or that at least it would not have passed without significant changes.

Enter LBJ.  Just days after JFK's assassination, he addressed a joint session of Congress with the words, "No memorial or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights act for which he fought so long."  The consummate politician, LBJ pushed the legislation through both houses of Congress.  He signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964.  Journalist Bill Moyers, then a White House aide, says he came upon LBJ that evening and found him in a melancholy mood.  According to Moyers, LBJ predicted that "we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."  Even without Vietnam, LBJ may have sacrificed his own political career to the furtherance of civil rights in the US of the 1960s.

Lyndon Johnson Signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into Law
Little noticed at the time, Howard W. Smith, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act, had slipped in an additional element that neither JFK nor LBJ had envisioned:  a prohibition against discrimination based on sex.  Some say that Smith may have wanted to torpedo the legislation by inserting something no one would agree to at the time; others say he was a true believer and promoter of equal rights for women.  Whatever the motivation, Smith's insertion was preserved in the final version, enshrined in Title VII that prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

As a young person in the 1960s, I took no notice Title VII and its prohibition.  I doubt I was aware of it at all.  Today, however, it is a text that I read with reverence as it is this document, perhaps more than any other, that has made my life possible.

No document in U.S. political life, not even the Constitution, is frozen in time.  All are subject to interpretation.  This is what happened with Title VII.  In a series of legal actions in the1970s and 1980s, courts found that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and is, therefore, prohibited under Title VII.  Supplemental legislation added discrimination based on pregnancy, age, or disability to the list of prohibitions.  Then, just last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found in Macy v. Holder that discrimination based on gender identity is also a form of sex discrimination subject to Title VII remedies.  

It was shortly after the announcement of my transition in 2011 that the old EEO notices at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest came down, replaced by the new version with the following text:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, prohibits discrimination in hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, fringe benefits, job training, classification, referral, and other aspects of employment, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (includes pregnancy, gender identity and gender stereotypes) and/or national origin.
There, boldly proclaimed on bulletin boards throughout the U.S. federal government, is that most important text that gives me my right to exist, to live my life finally without fear of harassment in the workplace, of losing my job or career.  I still get a shiver of joy when I read those lines even as I know that there is still a long road ahead to outlaw discrimination based on gender identity at both the state level and nationally.

Did either JFK or LBJ know that the civil rights legislation they were calling for in 1963 would later be interpreted in a way that provides transgender protections?  I highly doubt it.  Better to say, "Of course not!"  The word transgender didn't exist yet, and the few public transsexuals were seen by the public at large as oddities at best and usually as something far worse.  If someone had been able to explain the implications to them in the context of their day of how this legislation would be interpreted in the decades to come, JFK and LBJ may even have recoiled.  Still, as the intelligent and far seeing men that both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson were, they may have paused after that initial reaction in the knowledge that the New Frontier and Great Society applied not only to the space race and competition with the Soviet Union but to all imaginable facets of the human condition.  In my imagination, I see that knowledge bringing a smile to their faces.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  More than my first career as a spacecraft attitude analyst, this is the gift that JFK and LBJ gave to me.  It is the gift that gave me the freedom, at long last, to live my life.  As the memories of 1963 fade again into the present, I smile warmly and give humble thanks.

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