The Politics of Race:
An Interview with Harry Ashmore

By Scott London

Harry Ashmore was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and political writer who chronicled American racial politics for more than half a century. He was fated, as he put it, "by place of birth and choice of profession" to deal with the race issue at first hand. Born in South Carolina in 1916, he was brought up in a region still deeply wedded to the attitudes and values of its slave-holding days.

Harry S. Ashmore
Harry S. Ashmore

After combat service in Europe during World War II, Ashmore became editor of the Charlotte News in North Carolina. In 1947, he took over the editorship of the Arkansas Gazette. The following year he and his newspaper were awarded double Pulitzer prizes for their reportage during the Little Rock school integration crisis, a watershed moment in the history of American race relations.

Ashmore went on to write eleven books, to direct a prestigious West Coast think tank, and to serve as advisor to numerous Democratic presidents and presidential nominees. In his last book, Civil Rights and Wrongs, published in 1994, he looked back on half a century of racial politics in the U.S. asserting that relations between whites and blacks had reached an all-time low.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society initiatives of the 1960s succeeded in eliminating second-class citizenship and breaking down some of the barriers of social and economic segregation, he observed. Yet the United States still has a long way to go in fulfilling the spirit of those reforms. In the wake of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and the Los Angeles riots, he said, the nation appears to be slipping rather than advancing in its commitment to tolerance and equal opportunity.

The following interview was conducted at Ashmore's home in Santa Barbara, California, not long before he passed away in 1998. The conversation ranges widely, from the infamous Rodney King beatings and the media frenzy surrounding the O.J. Simpson murder trial to Ashmore's personal recollections of Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Jackson, and other noted civil rights leaders. One of Ashmore's final interviews, it aired on National Public Radio stations in the United States on Martin Luther King Day, 1998.

Scott London: At what point in your life did you realize that the race issue was the most significant question facing the nation?

Harry Ashmore: For anybody who was born in South Carolina and grew up between the two world wars, it was an inescapable issue. I was in college during the first years of the Franklin Roosevelt administration and I was a product of the Depression years. Anyone who grew up in that milieu could hardly escape the realization that blacks, who were a very important part of the population numerically, were denied all of their civil rights, even though we professed to believe in democracy and the full participation of all people. We also violated all of our religious precepts. We talked about the "brotherhood of man" and "all men are brothers" — except we wouldn't let blacks worship with whites in the same churches. I think anybody growing up at that time became conscious that there was a great disparity between what we professed to believe and what we actually practiced. It dawned on me, although I was no great crusader.

I also became convinced by seeing the enormous changes that were taking place. After three and a half years of service during the Second World War, I began to realize what enormous dislocations were taking place demographically. The black population had been redistributed and I realized that the black vote was going to become a factor that would make a big difference in the South. So at the end of the war when I went back to North Carolina, as editor of the Charlotte News, I was perfectly aware that one of the big changes that was going to take place was accommodating the black voting population into the political system. That, of course, was what the South had to grapple with in the years that followed.

London: In your book, Civil Rights and Wrongs, you describe the Second World War as a watershed in American race relations. Why was the war so important?

Ashmore: The civil rights movement virtually didn't exist as an important political factor until World War II and the election just preceding it. By the time it ended and the GIs all came home, the demography of the country had changed. A great number of blacks moved from the rural South to the great cities, such as Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington D.C. The political balance also changed. The black vote was now important enough that it had to be taken into account. By 1948, when Harry Truman ran for reelection, it provided the margin that won him the election. This was the first time the black vote was a significant factor in an American election. Also, the year before the war ended, the Supreme Court ruled out the white primary in the south which had been the primary means of keeping blacks from voting. So blacks were beginning to vote in significant numbers in the South and they were already free to vote outside the South where their numbers had increased significantly.

London: You have said that the issue of race is inseparable from American history. How so?

Ashmore: When the republic was founded, the great issue was slavery. The people in Philadelphia who wrote the Constitution couldn't handle the issue, so they swept it under the rug. There is no mention of slavery in the Constitution — except for the fact that slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining representation in Congress and so forth. Most of the states of the nation at that time were slave states. Slavery was built into their economy. That created economic divisions, moral divisions, and questions of political representation which shaped the early history of the country and led finally, of course, to the Civil War. The Civil War was fought not on the question of whether there should be free slaves or not — although that became one of the issues — it was fought on the issue of economic divisions between the two parts of the country.

After the Civil War — after the Southern states were defeated and became, in effect, a kind of occupied province of the North — the great industrial revolution transformed the United States. The South was pretty much left behind. So until World War I a great majority of the blacks were left in the South. They had been slaves and were freed but were treated as second-class citizens. They were denied a lot of their civil rights under dispensations that were approved by the Supreme Court and by the national government. So this is threaded through all of our history.

London: What historical figure has had the greatest impact on American race relations, in your view?

Ashmore: Without any question, it would be Martin Luther King, Jr. If you think about the great change that has taken place in race relations it really begins in 1960 with the emergence of Martin Luther King and his acceptance — briefly — as a national hero. I think that he managed to bridge a gap that probably couldn't have been done without somebody like him.

First of all, he came with an appeal to the common Christian heritage of whites and blacks in this country. He stayed with that. And he also insisted on a non-violent movement, the Gandhi approach. Without that, I think the white reaction would have been very sharp — or much more so. I think that disarmed a lot of the resistance that which has since reemerged. Martin Luther King Jr. was the symbolic leader of the blacks who also reached out and was received by a majority of whites. For a while, he was accepted as a genuine hero.

London: You knew King. What most impressed you about him?

Ashmore: He was an extremely impressive person. He was a man of great courage — every time he drew a breath he was exposed to some real danger. He had a great deal of faith, commitment, and charm. And I think he was one of those people who come along at moments in history when we need someone like that. He had an ability to communicate. Those speeches still have resonance — "I've been to the mountain top and I've looked over and seen the promised land. I may not get there with you." Well, he had this quality of charisma — I don't like to use the word, but it fits him in the classic sense. I think he had deep conviction, a skill with words and an ability to communicate and project a deeply emotional feeling that got a response from whites, many of whom were hostile to the ideas that he was preaching. That was one of the great qualities of King.

Personally, he was of course very prepossessing. I don't know what else to say about him. About the only time that I had a long conversation with him was toward the end when he was on the wrong side, as far as the public was concerned, on the Vietnam War. The impression I was one of ineffable sadness, as I wrote in my book, Civil Rights and Wrongs. He realized that he had not succeeded in exporting his movement to the great cities. He had tried in Chicago and failed. He also realized that his side was losing out on the Vietnam War. And he had lost the political influence that he had in the Johnson administration because he broke with them on Vietnam. So I think "sadness" would be the word I would use if I had to characterize the impression I had at the last and the only long conversation I've had with him.

London: In your book, Thurgood Marshall stands out as another key player in the civil rights movement.

Ashmore: Yes, I think the legal battles that he led for the NAACP which brought about the changes in the Supreme Court's reading of the law were profoundly important. Marshall was one of the great figures of the movement. But his was not the popular appeal. King was doing the popular thing; Marshall was leading the battle within the courts, trying to change the basic structure of the Constitutional interpretation. And he succeeded in doing so.

London: Are there any white civil rights champions to speak of?

Ashmore: There are no real heroes on the white side. Whites, generally speaking, defaulted on this issue. Jack Kennedy's heart was in the right place, but it was kind of a detached issue for him. The one who finally made the real difference on this — and of course it didn't last — was Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon came in — for reasons of his own ego, his background, his history — and put through what I think were the fundamental changes that the Supreme Court had set up but which required congressional action. He rammed through the legislation that really made possible the emancipation of the black middle class. But he failed to get his objective, which he declared was a "war on poverty," because he fell into the trap of the Vietnam War. He also ran into the countercultural revolution which began on the campuses and which became principally an anti-war movement. All of that jarred and scrambled the politics. The result is what we now we see where the forward progress for blacks has been halted with the liberation of the middle class but has not reached down to the ghettos and the poverty belt. Welfare has kept them alive, but that is about all.

London: You have also worked with Jesse Jackson. I understand you both grew up in the same town.

Ashmore: Well, Jesse and I had this gag that we had gone to separate schools together. Of course, he had grown up in Greenville, South Carolina, a generation behind me, so we needed a little poetic license to make the gag work. But he had been educated in the separate school system, the black school system in Greenville, while I had been educated in the white school system. There wasn't any question that the black school system was not as good as the white one, but it was pretty good and Jesse got a good education in Greenville. It was segregated — separate and unequal — but it was not a bad education.

I have seen a lot of Jesse over the years and I've worked with him on occasion. I find him a very interesting character. He is far more worldly than Martin Luther King was. King had a real spiritual dedication. Jesse is torn between being the preacher and being the politician. These roles do not come together very easily. King always avoided the political role. He stayed on the spiritual side. His mission was to convert and bring the people along. He of course negotiated with the powers but he never himself became active in politics. But Jesse blew hot and cold.

Jesse is now a political factor and a public relations master of a kind. He has a real instinct for manipulating the media — he can always make a headline. Now he has his own television show and writes a newspaper column (or it's written for him). I think Jesse is a real voice. He sees himself as a spokesman for the real dispossessed — for the poor, the outcast. And I think he has a vision extending beyond blacks. But, unfortunately, in political terms it doesn't work that way. So his Rainbow Coalition is all black. He hasn't been able to establish a real rapport with the Hispanics, for instance. As a matter of fact, there is probably as much tension between blacks and Hispanics in a place like Los Angeles as there is between blacks and whites. So Jesse has not been able to bridge that gap.

London: In general, the question of race tends to be dealt with as a social or cultural issue. But you seem to come at it from a distinctly political angle.

Ashmore: In Civil Rights and Wrongs, I have treated it primarily as a political issue. I've approached it that way because I've been a political writer. But obviously it has very deep economic and cultural aspects. In fact, I would think that as a cultural issue it has had perhaps its greatest importance. One of the greatest difficulties we've had has been adjusting the precepts of the white culture to accept the black culture. The blacks, however, have been in this country as long as the whites have, so they have been pretty much acculturated. Their religion is Christian and Protestant for the most part, their language is English, and most of their customs are adapted from the predominant white culture.

There are some aspects of the African heritage that are important. It seems to me that blacks are making a great thing of this now. They create and exalt their African heritage and it has become part of their pride and their identity. It's understandable, but I also think it's greatly exaggerated. In the first place, there's practically no such thing as a pure black left in the United States. They are intermingled with the whites, with the Indians, and with all the others.

There's been no significant black immigration into the United States from Africa, or even from the Caribbean until very recent years and then it's come principally from the Caribbean. So these are people who have been here as long as the white people. They have lived together with the white people. And while there have been barriers put up of segregation — first of slavery and then of second-class citizenship and social segregation — nevertheless they have lived together with whites and I think they are pretty much acculturated.

Once we removed the artificial barriers that held them back economically and socially, then almost overnight we saw a large black middle class emerging which has been growing ever since. This black middle class now accepts the standards and lives pretty much as the white middle class.

London: You once said that the trouble with the race issue is that it's only dealt with in extremes on both sides. The effect of this kind of polarization is that there may be less contact between blacks and whites now than there has ever been.

Ashmore: I think that's so. There is much less informal social intercourse between blacks and whites today than we have had in the last twenty or thirty years. I think it's been going backwards. This is a very serious consequence since the ultimate resolution involves some kind of integration where people can at least accept common values and make some sacrifices.

An example of this is the chorus of bigotry on American talk radio. I was listening to Rush Limbaugh and Gordon Liddy on the car radio today and everything that was said was insulting to blacks and Hispanics, whether it's explicit or not. That is the spirit of the call-in. It's going on day in and day out. Of course sensitive blacks resent this. Many of them have now come to the conclusion that they can't trust whites to ever abandon their notion of white supremacy.

It seems to me that everything that is happening politically now exacerbates the cultural polarity between whites and blacks. As long as a majority of whites take the position which currently they are taking — that they will not pay any penalty or any taxes in order to provide benefits that do not accrue to them but that accrue to the underprivileged — we will continue to go backwards. Whether this is a transitional situation remains to be seen.

London: After the Los Angeles riots, there was a lot of talk about the racial divide in the U.S. Some said that the country was splitting into two parts, one part white and one part black. Is this a new problem or just the most recent manifestation of long-standing crisis?

Ashmore: The riots are all related. There were the hundred riots in the days of the long hot summers in the 1960s. The recent riots in Los Angeles simply indicate that the causes of the riots in Detroit and Watts and other places have not been dealt with. In fact, they have gotten worse.

London: Rodney King asked the question, "Can we all get along?" What do you think?

Ashmore: I think we have to. If we can't get along we will simply continue in the mode we are in now, which is confrontation, polarization, refusing to give any benefit of the doubt to people who disagree. This is the condition of the electorate at the moment. I don't think it can continue.

London: You have described the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings in 1991 as "the most dramatic political confrontation since the Watergate hearings." Why was that event so significant?

Ashmore: First of all, George Bush picked Clarence Thomas who was totally unqualified to sit on the Supreme Court by almost any measure. Clarence Thomas is a mixed up, neurotic character who had gotten on the fast track by espousing Reaganomics. The whole political strategy was to embarrass the Democrats by having a black arch-conservative succeed Thurgood Marshall and reverse the direction of the Court. So I think the cynicism of the thing had a lot to do with it.

Then the confrontation with Anita Hill brought out the whole latent feminist movement in the country. They set out to destroy her. They didn't succeed because she was a pretty damn convincing witness. They couldn't make the case that she was neurotic, that she was trying to destroy him, that she was in love with him, that she was an unrequited woman, or some kind of left-wing conspirator. She clearly wasn't any of those things.

Once the hearings were underway, there was simply nothing the committee could do to stop it. And there was nothing Thomas could do except play the race card because if he conceded that there were anything to the charges brought against him he obviously would have been disqualified. So he had to play the race card. When it got to the Senate, they barely confirm him. But he is on the Court for life now.

So it seemed to me that the whole hearing was a real travesty. There was also the fact that it was on television and had all this sex-stuff in it which generated an enormous audience.

London: The O.J. Simpson case was something of a parallel in that sense. You wrote in an op-ed piece that the Simpson trial could be taken "as a metaphor for the current state of the nation's strained race relations." What did you mean by that?

Ashmore: What the O.J. Simpson case demonstrates to me is the power of television. O.J. Simpson is a complete creation of television. Here is a guy whose skills are athletic — and they are considerable, he really was a spectacular football player. But then his image as good ol' O.J. was created in order to sell Hertz cars and other things. They also put him on television as a commentator. He was a lousy commentator because he doesn't really know a lot about anything but football. But he is a pleasant guy, so they put him on there as a black who has no enemies, a black who is acceptable to whites. And he becomes good ol' O.J., everybody's friend. This was all done by television.

He became so accepted by the establishment that he became very rich. He had a walled estate, a Rolls Royce in the driveway. He was accepted in all the country clubs. He could play golf anywhere he wanted to. A big celebrity. When it turned out that he has a slight weakness for abusing his wife, that was covered up for a while — as it would have been for a white celebrity. I don't think race had a hell of a lot to do with it.

But then comes this spectacular chase on television. He was caught, obviously, but was trying to escape. And everybody is out applauding "Go O.J.!" and "Go Juice!" Then they got him into court. He had all this money in back of him and all the best hired guns you can get. They recognized that the only way they were going to get him off was either by having some proof that somebody else murdered his wife or by playing the race card. So they played the race card.

Of course, this is one of the great ironies now. If it happened that O.J. had been a poor black man, then the criminal justice system would not have given him a fair trial. But instead he got the fairest trial money can buy by playing the race card. The whole thing became such a television spectacle that I find it impossible to think that the criminal justice system can work in this milieu the way we expect it to work. I don't see how any verdict could be delivered that was going to be satisfactory to both a majority of whites and blacks.

London: To what extent did the O.J. Simpson case raise questions about deep-seated racial divisions?

Ashmore: One of the striking things was that O.J. had a hell of a lot of white support. I mean, it didn't come down to white people saying that because he is black he is guilty. Blacks were mixed too, perhaps more so than the whites, conditioned by this matter of macho violence against women. Black men beating up on their women is very common in their community. So it's a very mixed bag as far as individuals are concerned.

London: As we look to the future — say, ten or fifteen years out — do you see us making any real progress on the racial issue?

Ashmore: I don't think that there is any way that we are going to get rid of the racial issue. It's going to be around in one form or another. Many of the people who are outspoken on these questions are talking about white supremacy again. Or they are talking about closing our society and keeping out all of the "outsiders" — and blacks are considered to be outsiders even though they have been here as long as everybody else.

I thought we made a lot of progress during the 1960s. At least we eliminated second-class citizenship as such. But obviously, race and its offshoot issues are still dominant. I think that all that has to be dealt with, but I wouldn't make a prediction as to how it is going to come out.

This interview aired on the public radio series "Insight & Outlook" in January 1998. It was published in the anthology American Decades: 1950-1959 (Thompson Gale) in 2005.