The Life magazine dated November 22, 1963, which would have arrived on newsstands around November 15, featured a terrifying story by Theodore White, author of the groundbreaking bestseller The Making of the President 1960. Titled “Racial Collision,” and subtitled “the Negro-white problem is greatest in the North where the Negro is taking over the cities—and being strangled by them,” it was a terrifying intimation of an imminent racial holocaust. The first of two parts, the conclusion ran in the issue dated November 29—which ordinarily would have appeared on newsstands on November 22 but was held back to put the martyred President Kennedy on the cover, and to include, inside, several thousand words of what must have been some very speedily written copy about his death. That second part was even scarier. It reported terrors like Adam Clayton Powell’s call for “ ‘a Birmingham explosion in New York City’ this fall”; Communist infiltration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle; a civil rights group’s fears that it would be labeled “a front for the white man” unless a peaceful march was turned into “a violent putsch on government offices”; and some protesters&rssquo; demand for cash reparations for slavery—“There is a warning if such sin-gold is not paid by white Americans to black Americans, the ‘power structure’ is inviting ‘social chaos.’ ” And it quoted James Forman of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee reaching the following unsettling conclusion: “85% of all Negroes do not adhere to nonviolence.”
Such foreboding was entirely typical of that very tense summer and fall—and the culmination of fears that had been mounting ever since the Bay of Pigs and the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban missile crisis and the Oxford, Mississippi, crisis of 1961 and 1962. The fear escalated after Bull Connor’s fire hoses in Birmingham in the spring of 1963 unleashed what felt to whites like an uncontainable torrent of black rage across the country: in Columbus, Ohio, two men chained themselves to furniture in the state Capitol; in Boston, a black parent told the segregationist city school board “it is too late for pleading, begging, requesting, or even reasoning.” Whites thereby reacted against the rage: George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama. Medgar Evers was shot. Barry Goldwater began looking good to Republicans—and rival bands of Goldwaterites turned the Young Republican National Federation’s convention into a near-riot.
It felt like riots were breaking out everywhere.
On September 15, Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by Klansmen, killing four little girls.
In Dallas, on October 24, United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson was shouted down, spat upon, and physically assaulted on the street by right-wingers.
In Saigon, on November 2, South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in a US- backed coup.
And in Dallas, on November 22, President Kennedy was supposed to give a speech addressing the widespread feeling that America had become a very scary place, specifically as regarded the 1963 version of Tea Partiers, who had become so scary that many people presumed that they had been the ones that shot him. “In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations,” ran the text he was killed before he could deliver, “voices are heard in the land…preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that…vituperation is as good as victory and peace is a sign of weakness…. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants, far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.”
This was the world that Theodore White, in his next article in Life after his near-prediction of race war proclaimed, until the day John F. Kennedy was killed, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
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The story of how the myth of Camelot was invented is wonderfully told in a great little book from 1995 that I’ve never seen referenced before, Theodore H. White and Journalism as Illusion, by media scholar Joyce Hoffman. It begins: