Opinionista Jeff Kelly Lowenstein 25 June 2020

I was a Fulbright exchange teacher: Should J William Fulbright’s legacy be cancelled?

As statues topple around the world in the wake of protests following the killing of George Floyd, historical legacies are coming under close scrutiny. One of them is the complex past of US Senator J William Fulbright.

I first arrived in South Africa in August 1995, my initial steps in the country fulfilling a long-held dream of coming to the land of the freedom struggle I had first supported as a student nearly a decade earlier.

The Fulbright Teacher Exchange Programme backed my year-long stay. I lived, taught and coached in Tongaat at the Uthongathi School, one of the nation’s first private multi-racial schools. Vukani Cele, my exchange partner, taught and coached at the Boston-area middle school where I normally worked. 

Embodying the programme’s core purpose of promoting intercultural understanding, Vukani’s friends took me in as a brother. They took me to the slaughter of a cow in honour of Chief Albert Luthuli’s grandson’s wedding in Stanger, and drove me to the Simba 4 Nations Cup final in Johannesburg. I witnessed the anguished testimony during the TRC’s first day of hearings in KwaZulu-Natal, and listened with rapt attention to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s closing statement about the miracle of those who had been able to go beyond their agony and forgive. 

Vukani had an equally magical year, travelling all over the country, dialoguing with eminent South African historian Leonard Thompson and meeting then-President Bill Clinton after being chosen to represent our programme.  

Our ties have deepened in the quarter-century since we first met. Vukani, our friends and I communicate often on WhatsApp, and meet in person when I am able to return to the country. I have since had treasured Fulbright experiences in Chile, New Zealand, and, in 2017, again in South Africa. I have served the community as an interviewer and reviewer and coached colleagues and students as they’ve gone through the application process.  

It is precisely because of how much the programme has meant to me that I feel compelled to speak about what I have recently learned about Fulbright’s record on race throughout his 30-year career in the Senate and his actions toward the programme in Africa.

Senator J William Fulbright maintained a perfect anti-integration voting record for nearly three decades from his first election to the House in 1942, according to political science professor Neal Allen. He voted against civil rights bills of varying strength and substance in 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1968 as well as against the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Fulbright’s opposition to integration extended beyond voting. An active participant in civil rights filibusters in 1948 and 1964, he was also one of the 19 signatories of the Southern Manifesto, Allen explains. The declaration protested the ground-breaking Supreme Court decisions that declared legalised segregation unconstitutional and mandated school integration.  

Two years later, when nine black teenagers bravely sought to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Fulbright sided with the intransigent white opposition that threatened the students’ lives. Indeed, Allen notes that it was only when he was faced with a significant number of black voters in his home state that Fulbright “first deviated from the segregationist line with his vote to extend the Voting Rights Act (VRA)”.

Allen asserts that these actions were in large part a consequence of Democratic single-party rule in the South during that era. For his part, Fulbright characterised his choices as a matter of political expediency consistent with both his gradualist philosophy of racial change and his commitment to having his positions guided by “the ascertainable majority will” on issues where his constituents had personal experience.  

But, as journalist Theo Lippman, Jr. pointed out shortly after Fulbright’s death in 1995, no senators from the border states of Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware signed the Southern Manifesto. Neither did the two senators from Tennessee or one of the two from Texas. Fulbright’s 1957 vote against a mild civil rights bill also ran counter to all border state senators, Lippmann added. Although some commentators have said that he renounced his earlier views late in life, Fulbright reverted back to form in voting against civil rights legislation in 1974 – the year he lost his seat to pro-civil rights liberal Dale Bumpers. 

“Though he was not the first Senator to oppose the United States involvement in war there, he, more than any other politician except perhaps Eugene McCarthy, made opposition respectable, even possible,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Yergin wrote in a 1974 New York Times article. 

Perhaps more damning, Fulbright displayed political courage on the domestic and international fronts – and was returned to office repeatedly by his state’s voters.  

“In 1954, he was the sole senator to vote against funding Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunting committee, and he instigated the Senate’s condemnation of McCarthy,” Sydney Blumenthal wrote in The New Yorker after Fulbright’s death. 

A decade later, Fulbright helped sponsor the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that led to the escalation of the Vietnam war. (He often called that vote – and not his opposition to the many civil rights measures – the worst he had ever cast.) He broke with the Johnson administration a year later, after concluding that it had falsely said a communist uprising in the Dominican Republic required American intervention. The following year he held hearings that laid bare Johnson’s Vietnam policy and began a shift in American public opinion. 

“Though he was not the first Senator to oppose the United States involvement in war there, he, more than any other politician except perhaps Eugene McCarthy, made opposition respectable, even possible,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Yergin wrote in a 1974 New York Times article. 

These choices had consequences. Johnson struck Fulbright from the White House invitation list. Their once-close friendship ended – and with it, his political influence on the administration. Nevertheless, Fulbright acted on principle on some of the nation’s most critical and wrenching issues facing the United States this past century and was rewarded at the ballot box by his constituents.  

Fulbright’s leadership of the programme that was a hallmark of his liberal internationalist viewpoint deserves critical scrutiny, too, according to Alessandro Brogi, Giles Scott-Smith, and David J Snyders, editors of a 2019 essay collection about Fulbright’s life and legacy. They write that the senator’s views on race “did not stop at the water’s edge. Nowhere was his prejudice more apparent than in the implementation of the Fulbright programme in Africa”. 

Hannah Higgin writes in one of the book’s chapters that Fulbright took a dim view of the increasing presence in the 1960s of African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American exchange students coming to the United States. Fulbright also blocked the potential appointment as assistant secretary of educational and cultural affairs of Robert Kitchen. An African American, Navy veteran and Columbia PhD, Kitchen was described by then-President Lyndon Johnson as being universally seen as doing outstanding work. Having previously worked in Liberia and Sudan, he was poised to expand the agency’s presence in African countries, among other developing nations, Higgins says.  

Fulbright’s response was to tell the president that the job “was a really important one”.

Fulbright’s civil rights record, if not his racial attitudes on the international front, has been openly discussed for decades. Indeed, his actions in this arena cost Fulbright the position of Secretary of State in President John F Kennedy’s cabinet in 1960. But they appear nowhere on the Fulbright programme website or in the page with his biography, which cites his “notable examples of principled dissent”, working to build national consensus and the indispensable role he played in Washington during the turbulent Vietnam era. 

When Johnson and Harry McPherson, the man who was leaving the position, insisted during a phone call that Kitchen was the strongest candidate, Fulbright said about Kitchen’s race: “Well, of course, that’s what bothers me.” Later in the conversation, he said that he didn’t know how Kitchen “would go down in the most important countries at all”.

Fulbright’s conduct in this area convinced the book’s editors that the colour line “bridled his conception of universalism at home and abroad”.

To be fair, the US State Department has made efforts since the 1990s to increase diversity, drawing fire in some quarters for being excessively focused on these issues. Recognising that some student grantees of colour have experienced racism and discrimination, the programme has implemented new diversity initiatives that include a revised set of pre-departure materials and working to improve Fulbright grantee support overseas.  

Fulbright’s civil rights record, if not his racial attitudes on the international front, has been openly discussed for decades. Indeed, his actions in this arena cost Fulbright the position of Secretary of State in President John F Kennedy’s cabinet in 1960. But they appear nowhere on the Fulbright programme website or in the page with his biography, which cites his “notable examples of principled dissent”, working to build national consensus and the indispensable role he played in Washington during the turbulent Vietnam era. 

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last month, statues of everyone from Confederate generals to Ulysses S Grant, George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt are being forcibly toppled or slated for removal. Police departments are facing defunding or outright abolition, and schools are being renamed. South Africa’s transformation of the Old Fort Prison complex to Constitution Hill, that holds the country’s highest court, points toward an alternative direction to these cancelling options in regards to Fulbright’s views and actions on race. 

Still and yet, in this moment of national reckoning and rage, we must grapple with the full complexity of the record of the Arkansas senator, whose liberal vision of intercultural exchange and enrichment coexisted with an endorsement of white supremacy in the United States and Africa. DM

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