Place and Change: Memphis Changes the World

A shy, skinny, eighteen-year-old truck driver walked into a tiny recording studio and asked to make a record for his mother’s birthday. The receptionist, Marion Keisker, asked if he was a singer. He looked down and mumbled that he was. She asked who he sounded like and he glanced up, grinned, and said, “I don’t sound like nobody.” And he was right. The world was about to change.

The ramshackle recording studio was in Memphis, Tennessee and that mattered. It mattered because place matters. Place has always been a catalyst of change. Memphis had become the continent’s largest inland port a hundred years before because it lay at the intersection of the mighty Mississippi that flowed from Minnesota, past Memphis, to the Gulf of Mexico and the Illinois Central Railway that tied the city to Chicago and New Orleans. Its serving as a vortex for people chasing a buck and a dream was rendered even more significant with the building of Highway 61 from New Orleans through Memphis to Canada. The river, rail, and road both fed and consumed post-WWII prosperity with a vibrancy that could be felt and, even more, heard. A new, angry, joyful, scary music raged as if the place inhaled surrounding sound then exhaled a hurricane.

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The cotton fields that had ringed Memphis ensured that generations knew of the music African-American slaves sang to pass their sunup to sundown work days. Their songs were mournful melodies, chants, or call and response rousers that bled spirituality while expressing justifiable despair and inexplicable hope. From slave songs, field hollers, negro spirituals, and country-gospel, came the blues. In 1912, Memphis songwriter W. C. Handy was commissioned to pen a tune for a corrupt Memphis mayor and he called it Memphis Blues. He wrote a number of similar songs and, despite others claiming the title, became the father of the blues.

African American Memphis businessman, Robert Church, Sr., purchased land and supported the building of clubs, bars, and the Church Park and Auditorium along what became Beale Street. It offered every known vice and a few it made up. Beale Street became home to a number of African-American owned businesses and where bands and singers played the blues. It attracted performers from Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans and every time they came they taught, learned, and went home to spread the news.

The music industry was as segregated as the city. White record shops would not stock “race” music and white radio stations wouldn’t play it. By 1949, Billboard magazine writer Jerry Wexler had developed an appreciation for the new African American music and decided that instead of “race’ music, he would call it rhythm and blues (R&B). It worked. The new name seemed to make it less offensive to white audiences and some white radio stations began to play it. In popularizing the new sounds, Memphis radio stations joined Beale Street clubs where laws were broken and highway 61 honky tonks and juke joints where it was ignored altogether.

White society could segregate everything but radio proved that the air didn’t care. White and black folks in Memphis could hear the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, with its lively bluegrass, Appalachian folk ballads, and proud and corny country and western based on three chords and the truth. On other stations, they could hear blaring big bands playing quick-tempo jump and swing along with smooth pop epitomized by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But at the same time, Memphis radio station WDIA was among America’s first to risk R&B records and it even hired African American disc jockeys to play them, including young blues singer Rufus Thomas and Riley King, an exceptional blues guitarist who everyone called B.B. Dewey Phillips at WHBQ was the city’s most popular disc jockey. While he was white, his nine to midnight Red, Hot, and Blue show played black and white music to a black and white audience. The air over Memphis was desegregating sensibilities below.

Among the R & B records played were 1948’s Good Rockin’ Tonight by Wynonie Harris and Rockin’ At Midnight by Roy Brown. Everyone understood that rock and rockin’ were thinly veiled euphemisms for sex. Sex was absolutely taboo in a society where pregnant teenagers were exiled, sex education was unthinkable, and birth control could not even be purchased by married women. Pile atop that the racist terror of oversexed black men with designs on white women, then the sexed-up “race” music, no matter what it was called, and all the radio stations, clubs, and honky tonks popularizing it, meant that something was both degenerate and dangerous. But it was as unstoppable as the Mississippi.

Among those attracted to the growing Memphis music scene was Alabama disc jockey Sam Phillips. Phillips moved to Memphis in June 1945. His Saturday afternoon WREC radio show became as daring as Dewey Phillips (no relation) in mixing black and white records. While working for the radio station at big band shows at the swanky Peabody Hotel, he spoke with white musicians who claimed to play differently when they came to Memphis and having to convert back when they left. He was told of black musicians who played Beale Street bars as well as Highway 61 juke joints and honky tonks who also played and sang differently when in or near Memphis.

Phillips saw that the supply of R&B records was unable to meet demand and recognized an opportunity. He rented an old radiator shop in downtown Memphis at 706 Union Street and had it renovated. In January 1950, he opened the Memphis Recording Studio. With primitive equipment, he recorded anyone with the money to rent time. Most left with nothing but their wax souvenir. Those with a unique song or style, though, found themselves signed to a deal that had Phillips license recordings to established companies that manufactured and distributed them. Through Phillips, independent companies along the rail, road and river lines in St. Louis, New Orleans, and, most importantly, Chicago’s Chess Records, began spreading the Memphis sound.

Among those Phillips recorded was B. B. King. King played a version of the blues that wrenched emotion from lyrics and, while still developing his style, defined songs with crisp guitar runs and riffs. Following King into the Memphis studio were bluesmen who honed their talents on Beale Street and whose music bled the amalgam of styles for which the city was becoming known: James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Junior Parker, Walter Horton, and the man who would become as legendary as B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf.

A Clarksdale, Tennessee disc jockey heard that Phillips was recording black singers. Ike Turner gathered his band and headed north. At first hearing, Phillips knew he had something special. Saxophonist Jackie Brenston sang the lead on a Turner composition called Rocket 88. The lyrics reveled in double entendre in equating a fast car to faster sex. The drums were relentless and the sax inventive. An amp had fallen off the car’s roof on the trip to Memphis and the resulting damage distorted the guitar, making it growl menacingly.

The 8-bar blues with the driving back beat sat perfectly at the core of the Venn diagram linking the pop, R&B, country, and the blues that Memphis musicians inhabited and traveling bands imitated. Phillips licensed the record to Chess Records and within weeks it was number one on the nation’s R&B charts with many pop stations and even country stations daring to play it. Rocket 88 was the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll record.

The success of Rocket 88 and other licensed recordings encouraged Phillips to launch his own record company. He called it Sun Records. Starting in February 1952, Sun enjoyed moderate success but Phillips grew increasingly frustrated by the persistent, racist resistance to R&B and blues records. He said to Marion Keisker, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a million dollars.” A little while later, on Saturday, June 26, 1954, the shy, skinny Memphis truck driver walked through his door to make his mama’s record. His name was Elvis Presley.

Phillips did not hear Elvis that day or a few months later when he returned to pay another four dollars to record again. When Phillips was again complaining about not being able to find the right singer to blend black and white, Keisker suggested the kid with the sideburns. Elvis was called and he ran to the studio, arriving panting for breath while Keisker was still on the line. Phillips had a couple of talented session players, guitarist Scotty Moore and stand-up bass player Bill Black, work with the kid. But that rehearsal and then a recording session revealed nothing particularly impressive. They were on a break when Presley spontaneously launched into an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup R&B song called That’s Alright Mama. Black and Moore jumped in, all three laughing at the loose-limbed, ragged sound they were making. But Phillips heard what he’d been searching for.

That’s Alright Mama was quickly pressed and a copy taken to Dewey Phillips at WHBQ. A couple of spins brought phones calls to hear it again and again. The record was played on Memphis radio stations and its local then regional success put Presley on the road. He bought his clothes from Lansky Brothers, a black shop on Beale Street. His on-stage gyrations were variations of the black performers he had seen in Beale Street clubs. He sang, and then soon would record, more black, R&B songs. But with equal conviction, he wore his hair and sideburns in a defiant, white-trash truck driver style and also sang white ballads, gospel, pop, and the country numbers he loved. He was, in short, the embodiment of Memphis, the meeting place, with its new music absorbing influences from the lines that connected it to the world, synthesizing them, and sending them back with the challenge to question the barriers of class, race, age, and gender, and concepts of right and wrong, and fun and indecent.

Presley’s growing success afforded even more allure to Memphis. Carl Perkins grew up in grinding, rural Tennessee poverty. He took his guitar and dream to Memphis where he consummated the marriage of country and rock ‘n’ roll in a new variant called rockabilly. His second Sun Records release, Blue Suede Shoes, became a national hit for him and then Elvis. Hoping to become a gospel singer, Johnny Cash, moved from Arkansas to Memphis where Sam Phillips encouraged him to sing his own compositions including his second Sun release, Folsom Prison Blues. It contains music’s nastiest line: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Roy Orbison was enjoying little success in his native Texas but knew of the musical mecca that Memphis had become. He impressed Sam Philips with his three-octave range, was signed to Sun, and soon Ooby Dooby was a national hit. Jerry Lee Lewis attacked more than played a piano. He was drawn to Memphis from Louisiana and after a stint as a Sun Records session player, recorded Crazy Arms and then the blatantly sexual Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire.

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET

Lewis, Perkins, Cash, and Presley, Sun Records, December 1956. (Photo: The Commercial Appeal)

By 1956-’57, the new music that Memphis had been central to creating was topping national charts, being heard on TV, and filling juke boxes, theatres, and arenas. Parents were yelling upstairs to turn that noise down. Rock ‘n’ roll had become a central element in the transformation of first America and then the western world from old to new. It provided an impetus and soundtrack for the move from the white, patriarchal, sexually repressed world of segregated people and ideas to what would become the more liberal, modern era. Rock ‘n’ roll was the voice of the baby boom, the gigantic demographic whose power was its numbers and a determination to be heard its creed. Rock ‘n’ roll was the notification that the generation that had survived the Depression and war and now yearned for things to be calm, controlled, and predictable, was losing its existential battle for cultural supremacy. It was the bridge from the composed assurance of Eisenhower to the audacious vibrancy of Kennedy.

Memphis was the place of change and the change could not be contained. Up Highway 61, in Hibbing Minnesota, Bob Zimmerman heard the news and would soon change his name to Dylan and immortalize the highway in song. Across the Atlantic, sailors smuggled American records into Liverpool and Manchester where kids named John, Paul, Mick, and Keith studied them and then helped England lead rock ‘n’ roll’s second wave and, with it, inaugurate a new phase in the generational revolution. Place would matter again in causing change. And the change began in Memphis.

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JFK and the Myths We Need Now

Myths matter. They are important in all societies. They help create, define, and preserve the values and institutions we deem important. They provide structure and stability. Myths present themselves in many forms and sometimes as people who were once politicians but somehow became much, much more. The Americans are quite good at myth-making. Abraham Lincoln became a myth; his deeds and character recalled in hushed, reverent tones as a model for citizenship and a reflection of all that is good about an entire people. The most recent of American politician-myth is President John F. Kennedy. His youth, looks, vigour, promise, and the degree to which he inspired hope and optimism, coupled with the Shakespearean tragedy of his bloody and public death, rendered his elevation from man to myth almost inevitable. That transition is instructive and important for us today.

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The public murder of a man who represented so much to so many, and by such a puny little assassin, was incomprehensible and overwhelming. People who had never met or even seen him wept as if a family member had passed away. I’m old enough to recall arriving home from Grade Two to find my mother weeping before the television. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. French president Charles De Galle said, “I am stunned. They are crying all over France. It is as if he were a Frenchman, a member of their own family.” In London, famed actor Sir Laurence Olivier interrupted a performance and had the audience stand as the orchestra played the American national anthem. Other Londoners stood in the multi-coloured glow of Piccadilly Circus neon and openly sobbed.

Canada declared November 23 to 29 an official period of mourning. Polish churches were crowded on its national day of mourning, and the Nicaraguan government declared a week of mourning. Flags were dropped to half-staff in Ottawa and other world capitals, including Moscow. In the United States and around the globe, airports, schools, streets, libraries, public squares, and more were renamed after him. In the Canadian Yukon, a 14,000-foot snow-peaked mountain became Mount Kennedy.

Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, was shattered by the murder of her husband, killed just inches from her side, but at the moment of the unspeakable violence, she understood what would happen and what she wanted to shape. She took charge. She arranged for the state funeral to reflect Lincoln’s. She insisted on an eternal flame at his grave and that he be buried at Arlington National Cemetery just across the Potomac River from Washington which, since the Civil War, had become a revered burial place for veterans. She chose a hilltop location overlooking the city that the president had actually visited and declared a fine spot to be placed at rest.

From a popular play addressing the legend of King Arthur, she coined the name Camelot – that mystical place of missed opportunity, to describe her husband’s thousand-day presidency. Kennedy’s brother Robert also moved quickly. He ordered files to be removed from the White House and Oval Office and Cabinet Room tape recordings were taken and squirreled away. The myth could only grow properly if the legacy was carefully sculpted.

The myth grew quickly. Kennedy transcended politics and entered popular culture. A movie based on his Second World War military exploits had already been made. In March 1960, Senator Kennedy had met the former British intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond adventure novels. A year later, Life Magazine listed Fleming’s From Russia with Love as among the president’s favourite books. The endorsement led Fleming’s American publisher to push the previously underperforming titles and to Sean Connery taking the British rogue to the big screen. The favour was returned when a character in The Spy Who Loved Me said, “We need some more Jack Kennedy…They ought to hand the world over to young people who haven’t got the idea of war stuck in their subconscious.”

Kennedy had created the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. In the summer of 1963, DC Comics had written a story based on Kennedy asking for Superman’s help to urge Americans to take better care of themselves through diet and exercise. The project was shelved after the assassination but Kennedy’s successor, President Johnson, leant his support and so the comic book was published in July 1964. Its cover showed a ghostly JFK towering over the Capitol Building and Superman in mid-flight, glancing sadly back, one mythical hero in awe of another.

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The Beatles second album was released on the day Kennedy died. Three months later, they arrived for their first American tour and 50,000 kids screamed their welcome at the newly named JFK airport. While Elvis had offered sex and daring, the Beatles offered love and fun. On a subsequent tour, in September, they toured Dallas. They smiled nervously and waved from an open limousine as they passed through Dealey Plaza, the very spot where Kennedy had been killed. Many of those trying to understand the band’s unprecedented popularity claimed that their songs and wit personified the same youthful enthusiasm as the Kennedy promise. They renewed that promise while providing a welcome tonic to America’s grief. The Beatles, it was argued, allowed the black bunting to be removed and the country to smile again.

John F. Kennedy was an imperfect man and an imperfect president but the perfect stuff of myth. His assassination tore time. For millions of people, the assassination was an irreparable rending that forever split before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. For in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and policies, but himself. His most important contribution was the courageous, audacious determination that idealism is not naïve, hope is not foolish, hardship and challenge is incentive, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, city, or even country. His violent death, like Lincoln’s, challenged those ideas and asked if they were worth preserving, celebrating, and fighting for.

So let’s ask the question. Are those ideas of clear-eyed idealism, unifying confidence, hope, and ambition, and the notion of a broader, deeper community, worth the fight? If so, let us embrace the myths, whether they be people like Kennedy or, in Canada, the myth of the rich, giving, but untameable land, and ask what they say about those ideas and about us. Then, let’s pick our fight. In these foreboding days of Trump, Brexit, and racist, intolerant notions disguised as political programs among leadership aspirants in France and Canada, the fight has never been more urgent. And so, more than 50 years after his death, perhaps we need John F. Kennedy more than ever. 

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. There is more on JFK and his relationship with Canada in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available  in bookstores and online through Amazon and Chapters https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/cold-fire-kennedys-northern-front/9780345808936-item.html

 

Embers: Warnings Offered by Our Anti-Semitic Past

On a cool April 16, 1933, ball players warmed up at Toronto’s Willowdale Park. Like nearly everything else in the city, the teams were ethnically segregated and so a Jewish team faced an Anglo-Saxon opponent. A Nazi flag was unfurled and anti-Semitic abuse was screamed. The chanting young men left, pausing only to paint a swastika on a park building. Two nights later the Jewish team was back and so were the angry young men. As the flag returned and taunts began, a scuffle ensued. Cars filled with supporters of both sides screamed to the scene. Pipes and bats were swung. Bones and teeth were smashed. Blood flowed as an hours-long riot spilled into the streets.

Newspapers suggested that the Jewish community was to blame for what they dubbed the Christie Pitts Riot. Editorials insisted it was an aberration and that anti-Semitism did not exist. City council promised to address Toronto’s many Swastika Clubs. But nothing was done. To deny a cancer is to allow its growth or a lanced tumour to return.

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Canadian anti-Semitism is a long, sad tale. It began with Esther Brandeau. She had disguised herself as a man to secure passage on a ship but her identity was revealed in 1738 upon her arrival in Quebec. The deception was fine but her Jewishness was not. According to the French and Quebec law, she was banished. The British Conquest changed the laws but not mindsets. A Jewish man named Ezekiel Hart was elected to represent Trois-Rivières in Lower Canada’s legislative assembly. He was ejected with a resolution stating, “Anyone professing the Jewish religion cannot take a seat nor sit nor vote in the House.”

Canada’s prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, perhaps believing he was being liberal in his attitude rather than perpetuating a stereotype, said, “A sprinkling of Jews in the North-West would be good. They would at once go in for peddling and politiciking, and he is of as much use in the new country as cheap jacks and chapman.” Goldwin Smith, the influential public intellectual who was among the founders of Canadian liberalism, wrote a number of anti-Semitic articles advocating the deportation of Jews. He wrote, “Few greater calamities perhaps have ever befallen mankind than the transportation of the negro and the dispersion of the Jew.” Clifford Douglas advocated a Jewish-free Canada in Social Credit, the book that led to the creation of the Social Credit Party that formed Alberta’s government. Henri Bourassa, the father of Quebec nationalism, stated, “The Jews are the most undesirable class of people a country can have…they are vampires on a community instead of being contributors to the general welfare of the people.” While he later renounced racism, Quebec’s powerful Abbé Lionel Adolphe Groulx never did. The widely-read periodicals he edited and sermons he influenced were virulently anti-Semitic and bathed a generation of Quebec Catholics in a racist cauldron.

With the sanctioning of Canada’s elites, it is hardly surprising that anti-Semitism weaved itself into society’s fabric. Many universities restricted Jewish enrollment or banned Jewish entry into certain programs. A Quebec program called achat chez nous promoted the boycotting of Jewish businesses. Golf and other private clubs banned Jewish membership. Signs proclaiming “No Jews Allowed” were seen at many beaches, hotels, parks, and restaurants across Canada.

In July 1939, 917 German Jews aboard St. Louis sought refuge in Canada after being denied sanctuary elsewhere. In cabinet and House debates, it was explained that if turned away they would end up back at Hitler’s mercy. They were turned away. Deputy Minister of Immigration Frederick Blair was asked how many Jewish people Canada should accept. He replied, “None is too many.” The ship left. Over two hundred people that we could have saved perished in the gas chambers. Hitler’s Holocaust was the shrinking of the sentence: You cannot live among us as Jews. You cannot live among us. You cannot live. We were participants in the shrinking sentence and withering humanity.

Canadians should feel proud of promoting not just tolerance but the acceptance and celebration of differences. But we need vigilance. Those who fan hatred’s embers are among us now, speaking of immigration restrictions and Canadian values tests. They are speaking in code at the moment but as Mr. Trump has demonstrated, it is a short step from code to clarity and far too easy to spark racist embers to flames.

Let us beware of the future by being aware of the past. Let it serve as warning and invitation to reject those who promote a return to a dark version of ourselves that deserves to remain in the past and never, ever return.

If you found this column of value, please share it with others. I tell a fuller story of Canadian anti-Semitism in Last Step to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism, available online through Chapters-Indigo and Amazon. https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html?ikwid=john+boyko&ikwsec=Books&ikwidx=5

An Election Really Rigged – Part Two

American presidents have ways of getting rid of governments they don’t like. Ask Iran (1953), GuatemalaAmerican presidents have ways of getting rid of foreign governments they don’t like. (1954), Congo (1960), Dominican Republic (1961), South Vietnam (1963), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973). Or, as explained in my November 7th blog, part one of this story, ask Canada (1963). President John F. Kennedy played a direct role in helping to topple the teetering government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

Now for part two. Kennedy’s efforts would be wasted if Lester Pearson’s Liberals, his preference to form Canada’s government, did not win the ensuing election. Kennedy set out to put Pearson in power.

The Pollster:

Pearson’s team had all read Theodore White’s brilliant The Making of the President 1960. It outlined factors that determined Kennedy’s success, including the use of frequent and targeted polling. Kennedy had hired former marketing executive Lou Harris. For the first time in electoral politics, a pollster worked exclusively for a campaign and employed daily random sampling to correlate and analyse massive amounts of data then suggest changes that shaped the candidate and message.

The Liberals had asked Harris for help in the 1962 election. He had previously been asked to assist the British Labour Party but the president wanted the Conservatives re-elected and so asked him to decline the job. After the call from the Canadian Liberals, Harris again asked Kennedy’s permission. He was soon on a plane to Ottawa. Now, a year later, he heading north again.

Like before, the Liberals sought to hide Kennedy’s man so Harris again assumed his wife’s maiden name and used the phony passport forged by the State Department. He avoided Parliament Hill where he might be recognized and attended weekly meetings at Pearson’s home. Harris hired 500 women who made daily calls across the country. The polling determined, for example, how Pearson would dress – in a straight and not bow tie – which cities he would visit, the policies he would emphasize, phrases he would use, and that the campaign would sell the team and not the leader.

Harris later said that Kennedy was, “…all but shouting from the sidelines. He hated Diefenbaker…He obviously couldn’t say anything publicly. But every day or two he would want to know how the election was going.”

The Reporter:

One of Kennedy’s closest friends was Newsweek magazine’s Washington bureau chief Benjamin Bradlee. Several times the two had discussed the need to get rid of Diefenbaker. In the campaign’s first week, Newsweek arrived in mailboxes and on newsstands across Canada with an arresting cover showing a disturbingly close-up and alarmingly unpleasant photograph of Diefenbaker over the title: Canada’s Diefenbaker: Decline and Fall. The accompanying article embarrassed even the prime minister’s staunchest critics: “It would be too flattering to dismiss him just as a superficial fellow – he’s really much dimmer than that.” The article claimed that that Diefenbaker lacked leadership skills, was unable to make decisions, and had been bad for Canada, NATO, America, and the world.

At a news conference the morning after the magazine’s release, Diefenbaker was greeted by reporters holding its cover up over their smiles. He laughed but burned inside. The Newsweek issue allowed him to openly add Kennedy to those he said were out to unseat him.

The Editorialist:

Among the newspapers clearly against Diefenbaker was the widely read Toronto Star. It published over a dozen articles by Sam Lubell that were crammed with quotes gathered from Canadians. None supported Diefenbaker. Typical were these from an April 2 article: “He’s so irresponsible he makes me ashamed I am a Canadian.” “I can’t stand to look at him on TV.” “He’s out on a limb sawing off our relations with the United States.”

Lubell was an American journalist, pollster, and political strategist. Among his closest friends was Kennedy’s national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. After the election, Lubell left for Europe carrying a letter of introduction from Bundy that stated, “He has been very helpful to the Government on more than one occasion, and he is a very able and disinterested reporter.”

The Ambassador:

The American ambassador to Canada was an old friend of the Kennedy family, Walter Butterworth. As all ambassadors do, Butterworth sent home regular reports that summarized the editorial stands of a host of Canadian newspapers. He went further, though, and held regular, secret briefings with a select group of Canadian journalists who were known to be critical of Diefenbaker. Throughout the campaign, he fed them information to augment their pro-Pearson, anti-Diefenbaker articles and editorials. In communications to Washington he boasted of the degree to which he was shaping Canadian public opinion.

The Direction:

The Kennedy administration’s interference became so blatant that Pearson was forced to deny that he and the president were in direct contact. He was repeatedly heckled as an American stooge. As he approached the podium to address a large Vancouver rally, an American flag was unfurled before the stage and burned. Hecklers shouted “American Slave” and “Yankee Lover” as a group of young men in the balcony loaded long straws and pelted him with frozen peas. He shouted his speech while his wife, Maryon, sat stoically on the platform with tears streaming down her cheeks.

A couple of days later, Pearson was about to speak in Edmonton when he was told that he and Kennedy’s mutual friend,Washington-based Canadian journalist Max Freedman, was on the phone from the White House press room. Pearson was rushed to a janitor’s room to take the call. He was told that Freedman and Kennedy had been having dinner and discussing the election and that the president wanted to speak with him. A tired and frustrated Pearson explained how Kennedy’s actions were backfiring and finally shouted, “For God’s sake, tell the president not to say anything. I don’t want any help from him. This would be awful.”

Lou Harris reported to Kennedy that all the American interference in the Canadian campaign was actually hurting Pearson and pleaded with the president to “call off his dogs”. “And for God’s sake,” he said, “keep quiet about Pearson no matter what you’re thinking.” The chastened president directed Bundy to order staff not to necessarily stop interfering in the election, just stop getting caught. A memo read: “The President wishes to avoid any appearance of interference, even by responding to what may appear to be untruthful, distorted, or unethical statements or actions. Will you, therefore, please ensure that no one in your Departments, in Washington or in the field, says anything publicly about Canada until after the election without first clearing with the White House.”

Memo:

When Kennedy had visited Ottawa in 1961, he had mistakenly dropped a briefing memo written by his deputy national security assistant Walt Rostow. It was given to Diefenbaker who was incensed that it listed policies Kennedy would “push” Canada to adopt. Near the end of the 1963 campaign, Canadian journalists learned of the memo and wrote of the degree to which Kennedy was indeed “pushing” Canada.

The next morning, Kennedy saw an AP news story about the Rostow memo and immediately called Assistant Secretary of State Tyler. Kennedy read him excerpts and noted parts that he said were false. “Now it seems to me,” he said, “that he may have leaked this – Diefenbaker. It makes him look good and us look lousy…he’s a liar.” Kennedy asked Tyler to see what reaction the story was sparking in Canada and said, “If it is helping Diefenbaker we ought to knock it down. The question is how.”

A new Montreal Gazette article suggested that the memo contained a margin note, scribbled by the president, in which he referred to Diefenbaker using a “derogatory term” that was quickly purported to be “SOB”. Kennedy and Bundy discussed how they could handle the latest bad press without lending credibility to Diefenbaker’s claim that they were involved in the campaign. They decided that Kennedy’s press secretary would call the Gazette reporter and deny the SOB rumour. Minutes later, Time magazine’s Hugh Sidey was ushered into the White House for a previously arranged meeting. Still upset, Kennedy declared, “Now I want you to get this damn thing about Diefenbaker correct. I’ve been in this damn business long enough to know better than that. There are a lot of stupid mistakes I make but that isn’t one of them.” He added with a smile, “Besides, at the time I didn’t know what kind of guy Diefenbaker was.” Ben Bradlee later reported that Kennedy confided with him that he did not think Diefenbaker was a son of a bitch, he thought he was a prick.

Kennedy’s press secretary privately briefed selected reporters on the Rostow memo. From that meeting came an article by New York Times syndicated columnist James “Scotty” Reston, a mutual friend of Kennedy and Pearson. It appeared in the Montreal Star on the morning of April 8 – Election Day. It blamed Diefenbaker for the whole kerfuffle saying he had been wrong to have kept the memo, probably leaked news of its existence, had lied about it, and was wrong in using it for political advantage. As Canadians went to the polls, they pondered whether their prime minister was a liar or political rapscallion, and perhaps whether the president they admired so much thought he was a son of a bitch.

Voting Day:

Canadians did as Kennedy had hoped and elected a Liberals government. Lester Pearson became Canada’s prime minister. What had just happened was not secret. Washington Daily News columnist Richard Starnes noted, “It is an irony of history that President Kennedy’s Administration while properly charged with failures in Cuba, Laos and Europe is prevented by the rules of the game from claiming credit for a skilfully executed triumph elsewhere. The victory occurred in Canada where adroit statecraft by the American State Department brought down the bumbling crypto anti-Yankee government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and replaced it with a regime which promises to be faithful to the concept of Canadian-American interdependence…the Kennedy Administration must congratulate itself in private for its coup.” The Starnes column was passed around the State Department and White House with readers adding smug handwritten notes to its cover page. Assistant Secretary of State Tyler wrote to McGeorge Bundy: “Mac, You see how smart we, I mean you, are!”

Canadians knew too. In a column that appeared in papers across Canada, syndicated columnist Charles Lynch  wrote, “Diefenbaker was defeated by Kennedy.” His observation was echoed even in France where the Paris-Presse headline was succinct: “Canada has voted American.”

This question that comes first to mind is how this could have happened. The second, and more important given the Donald Trump victory, is could it happen again.

John F. Kennedy,  Lester Pearson Photo Toronto Star

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking part one of this story at https://johnboyko.com/2016/11/07/an-election-really-rigged-part-one/.

To learn more about Kennedy and Canada please consider Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available online and in sensible bookstores in Canada and the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Election Really Rigged – Part One

We Canadians are a smug lot. For the last while, we’ve pressed our noses to the window on our southern border and been shocked and chagrined by the gong show masquerading as a presidential election. We’ve been stunned by, among other things, all the talk of rigged elections and secret shenanigans. Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s consider a Canadian election that was truly rigged. First, let’s see how the Americans helped topple the Canadian government.

President John F. Kennedy hated Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Their political difference would have put them at odds even if they had gotten along famously. The final straw in the feisty fight was Kennedy’s rage over Diefenbaker’s failure to offer enthusiastic and unreserved support during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy needed the Canadian government changed. He usually got what he wanted.

Raffi final

Photo:Toronto Star

Strike One: Two and a half months after the Cuban crisis ended and the world returned to the gritted-teeth peace, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Norstad ended his career with a tour of alliance capitals. On January 3, 1963, he arrived in Ottawa. Resplendent in his medal-bedecked uniform, Norstad made a brief statement and then, in response to reporters’ questions, suggested that Canada’s prime minister was a liar. He had been lying, the general said, about a number of things including the need for Canadian troops in Europe to have American nuclear weapons.

Many newspapers and people had already turned on Diefenbaker but Norstad’s stunning declaration turned more. A few days after igniting the firestorm, Kennedy welcomed Norstad to the White House, pinned a Distinguished Service Medal on his chest, and praised him for displaying “great skill” and “sensitivity” in his diplomacy and especially for having, “…in a unique way held the confidence of our allies in Europe and, of course, our partner to the north, Canada.”

Strike Two: Amid withering attacks from all sides, Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons to explain and defend his government’s nuclear policy. He concluded that his government’s policies would always reflect Canadian interests and not those of “people from outside the country” who cared only for their own national interests.

The speech was a grand performance but confused more than clarified. It intensified questions about Diefenbaker’s leadership in the media and among his cabinet and caucus. The Americans then poured oil on the gathering flames. The American ambassador sped a message to the State Department in which he took specific exception to nearly every point Diefenbaker had made. The letter was reworked by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and then Secretary of State Dean Rusk took it to the president. Kennedy agreed to the letter’s release saying, “We can’t let these fellows get away with this.”

Late in the afternoon of January 30, the State Department press release was given to Canadian reporters in Washington. It was astonishing. Point by point, it explained how Diefenbaker had misrepresented a range of issues and facts. Only three weeks after General Norstad had told the Canadian people that Diefenbaker was being disingenuous regarding nuclear weapons, Kennedy’s State Department, even more bluntly, had called their prime minister a liar.

In the House of Commons Diefenbaker thundered: “[Canada] will not be pushed around or accept external domination or interference in the making of its decisions. Canada is determined to remain a firm ally, but that does not mean she should be a satellite.” The fury of indignation led by media on both sides of the border forced Secretary of State Rusk to respond. Far from apologizing, he said that after hearing Diefenbaker’s speech the Kennedy administration was justified in laying out the facts. News of Rusk’s statement appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was reprinted in papers across Canada. Yet another high-ranking American, the third in three weeks, had called the Canadian prime minister a liar.

Kennedy called his special advisor George Ball twice that night to say that he understood the effects of his government’s action in Canada but that Diefenbaker deserved it. Ball confirmed that as a result of their interventions the Diefenbaker government could fall. Kennedy doubled down saying, “We should feed some…up there that Diefenbaker’s in trouble. We knew that he has always been running against us so that it’s very important.”

 Strike Three:  The growing tension brought all that had been tearing the Diefenbaker cabinet asunder to the fore. In an unprecedented shouting match meeting at the prime minister’s residence, the cabinet split and the defense minister resigned. Shortly afterward, Rusk appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Canadian Affairs that had been called to investigate the State Department’s intervention into Canadian domestic political. Revealing that he obviously had an Ottawa mole, Rusk said that six or seven Canadian cabinet ministers were splitting from the prime minister. He then bluntly reiterated everything the State Department memo had said. For those keeping score, it was the fourth time a senior Kennedy administration official had publicly called Diefenbaker a liar.

Ottawa fell into chaos. There were bizarre late night meetings, hushed hallway conversations, private deal making, and public back stabbings. On the evening of Tuesday, February 5, for only the second time in Canadian history, a government was defeated on a vote on non-confidence. Diefenbaker visited the Governor General and the election was set for April 8.

The news sparked laughter and celebration at the White House. The American ambassador telegrammed the State Department to gloat about America’s role in having brought down Diefenbaker: “In effect, we have now forced the issue and the outcome depends on [the] basic common sense of Canadian electorate… we see grounds for optimism that over the long run this exercise will prove to have been highly beneficial and will substantially advance our interests.” Kennedy said nothing publicly about his administration’s role in the Canadian government’s fall. However, McGeorge Bundy later admitted to President Johnson, “I might add that I myself have been sensitive to the need for being extra polite to the Canadians ever since George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker Government by one incautious press release.”

Let us not be naive. Politics is tough. Politicians will do things to advance their careers, political appointees will do things to support their bosses, and political leaders will do things to advance their agendas. Occasionally that leads one government to overthrow another with a violent revolution or coup. Sometimes, such as in Canada in 1963, it leads to a nudge through shaping perceptions and changing course.

Kennedy’s efforts in helping to overthrow the Canadian government would not have been worth it, of course, unless Lester Pearson and his Liberals won the ensuing election. The president would not leave that to chance. But that is for part two.

I have been away from my Monday blog for a while to complete my next book but I’m back. Part two of this story will appear next week with more in the weeks that follow. For more on Kennedy and Canada you could check out Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front which is available online and at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Laughter Matters

It was Red Skelton’s fault. From ‘30s vaudeville then radio, movies, and on to television, Skelton’s gentle humour always induced howls of laughter. In 1950, broadcast engineer Charles Rolland Douglass taped Skelton audiences. He then played snippets during a Hank McCune TV show. It worked. Folks at home were prompted to laugh along with the supposed studio audience. When it was reported that people found shows with laugh tracks funnier than those without, the “Laugh Box” was soon employed by all comedies. Without knowing it, generations of people perched before radios and televisions were laughing along with Skelton audiences. We laughed. And that’s no laughing matter because laughter matters.

Public speakers know. Regardless of the weightiness of the address, every good speech begins with levity. An audience becomes connected with each other and the speaker and so more willing to consider messages that come through the simple act of a shared laugh. Teachers know. Any educator who fails to see the link between entertainment and teaching knows nothing of either. Humour makes even the most mundane material more accessible and so learning, rather than just teaching becomes more likely. Preachers know. Witness the erasing of the wafer thin line between laughter and tears at every funeral when funny stories are told about the deceased. Permission to laugh offers permission to grieve.

All laughter is not good. Too many YouTube videos and cheap Comedy Channel programs rest upon enjoying the misfortunes of others. Leave it to the Germans to have named that sad brand of humour. They called it schadenfrude. A Leiden University study confirmed that we are embarrassed when laughing at others tripping, failing, or being humiliated. While we know it’s wrong, though, we just can’t help ourselves. The study also showed that narcissists, and folks with low self-esteem or mean streaks find schadenfrude particularly pleasurable. Picture Hitler laughing.

The Navajo people understand laughter’s mystical value. Their rich and complex culture portends that when a baby is born it is of two worlds – the spiritual and the earth. Adults await the child’s first chuckle. The first belly laugh, that bursting of pleasure that all parents treasure, signals that the child has completed the birth process and fully joined the family and community. The first laugh brings the A’wee Chi’deedloh or Baby Laughed ceremony. People gather and pass by the baby with plates brimming with food and exchange gifts of salt. The symbols of health and rejuvenation not only welcome the child fully to earth but also imbue the notion that a good life is one of generosity. Whoever induces the first laugh pays for the party so it is not uncommon for Navajo people to ask nervously when presented with a newborn, “Has this child laughed?”

Human beings are not alone in laughter. Chimpanzees, gorillas, apes, and rats also laugh. Chimps love magic tricks and literally roll with laughter when surprised. Rats laugh when tickled and will move toward a hand or feather to enjoy it again. Koko the sign language expert gorilla surrenders to schadenfrude as she laughs when her handlers perform pratfalls. Humans are unique, though, in spending so much time and money, the equivalent of animals surrendering food, just to laugh.

Laughter Matters

(Photo: http://www.sciencenews.org)

So wait for it. Wait for it at the coffee shop or office. No matter how heavy the baggage lugged along, wait for it at family gatherings. The bursts of laughter are the shattering of barriers and linking of hearts. If only for that moment we become one. For that moment, we make gentle the harshness of the world and remember that we are here not to soil our souls with ambition or the gathering of stuff but simply to be happy; to be happy simply.

A young John Lennon once angered a teacher for when his class was asked to compose something on what they wanted to be in life he wrote, “Be happy.” The teacher said, “You did not understand the assignment.” Lennon replied, “You don’t understand life.” Red Skelton would have laughed.

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Don’t Be Smug: Canada’s Racist Legacy

The recent gunshots in Dallas and echoing on many other American streets have reignited debates about state power and racism. It’s a 350-year-old argument with no sign of resolution. Canadians can learn a good deal from America’s twisting itself through its pain and search for solutions and redemption but should not feel smug. No one is clean. The history of systemic Canadian racism is too complex, long, and sad to consider here but let’s look briefly at one example to illustrate a point. Let’s look at Africville.

The bulldozers came in the morning. For days they roared like monsters demolishing houses and streets and even the church. They tore down what remained of Canada’s moral authority to say anything about race other than, “We were wrong.”

Africville was created in 1842 with land grants to African American families escaping slavery and discrimination with little more than the dream of better lives. The original sixteen single-acre lots overlooked the Bedford Basin and were separated from Halifax, Nova Scotia by a thick woods and impassable road. The community was called Campbell Road. As other Black families left the racism of Halifax and elsewhere seeking solace among friends it was dubbed ‘Africville’. The name stuck.

Links between Halifax and Africville grew over the years as kids were bussed to school and most of their parents worked in the city. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, a number of famous people visited, including retired boxing champion Joe Louis and Duke Ellington, who married an Africville woman named Mildred Dixon. Folks were thrilled with the celebrities but understood that their hospitality was essential because while Louis and Ellington were feted in Halifax during the day they were unable to find lodging in the segregated city at night.

In that way, Halifax was no different than most other Canadian cities and towns. The Queen may have been Canada’s head of state but Jim Crow was boss. African Canadians grew used to restaurants where they could not eat, churches in which they could not pray, houses they could not buy, business licenses for which they could not apply, and schools their children could not attend.

Africvillephoto: Halifax.com

By the 1950s, Halifax had grown to nearly encircle Africville. City council embarked on a determined campaign to rid itself of the Black community that had become part of their city. Despite the fact that Africville’s people were Halifax citizens and paid municipal taxes, the road to and through the community was unpaved and in the winter it seldom saw a plow. There were no streetlights. There were no sewers. Families drew water from a central well that the city had dug as a “temporary measure” in 1852.

Police seldom patrolled and ignored most calls. In 1947, seven houses had been destroyed by fire because, although the fire department had been alerted, like usual, it had not responded. Insurance companies refused to sell home and property policies, so banks issued neither mortgages or home improvement loans.

Africville churchphoto: Halifax.com

Everything distasteful and dirty went to Africville. With no consultation with Africville’s citizens, and in defiance of petitions and presentations, Halifax council located in or adjacent to the community a pungent slaughterhouse, an oil refinery, and tar factory, a deafeningly loud stone crushing plant, and a hospital for infectious diseases. A railway company was allowed to build a line through the community and landowners were only partially compensated for expropriated land. The city dump was relocated 350 yards from west end Africville homes and then a smoke-belching incinerator was constructed nearby.

The disgraceful treatment of the community and the racism faced by those working in Halifax took its toll. Africville got tough. The “Mainline” portion of town was home to middle-class people who worked hard and did their best. The “Big Town” area, however, knew every crime and vice imaginable. The only white people who saw Africville came to Big Town for dirty old times after Halifax bars closed.

University of Toronto’s Gordon Stephenson wrote a report reflecting 1950s urban renewal practices. He recommended relocating Africville’s people and razing their homes. A 1962 Halifax Development Department report stated that the majority of Africville’s people did not want to leave; they just wanted the services that other Halifax citizens – White Halifax citizens – had enjoyed for decades. The report concluded, however, that the people should be ignored and the professor obeyed.

Concerned Africville citizens met at the heart of their community, the Seaview Church. Over a hundred people vowed to save their homes. Peter Edwards made an impassioned plea to city council on October 24, 1962. He spoke of Africville’s history and spirit. He spoke of the racist policies and treatment endured over the years and in the current process. “If they were a majority group,” he said, “you would have heard their impressions first.”

City council responded by hiring University of Toronto’s Albert Rose to again study the situation. No one was fooled. Rose had written Regent Park: A Study for Slum Clearance. They knew what he would say. In no time at all he said it. Africville was doomed.

Residents received an average of $500 for their homes. It was later discovered that additional assistance had been available but only 30% of the people were told about it and then only 15% of applicants were approved. People who had been self-sufficient homeowners were forced into a subsidized housing project and then forced to move again when told that even before they had been crammed into the ramshackle apartments, the complex had been scheduled for demolition.

By 1969, Africville was gone. The city had said it needed the land for industrial expansion but it never happened. It said it needed the land to construct a bridge but ended up using a sliver of the property.

In 1985, a monument was erected to the people of Africville in what had become the Seaview Memorial Park. The names of the original families were engraved in a stone. Family reunions began finding their way home with grandchildren being told the old stories. A former resident recalls, “Out home, we didn’t have a lot of money but we had each other. After the relocation, we didn’t have a lot of money – but we didn’t have each other.”

Africville lives. It lives as a symbol of the more than three hundred years of systemic racism that African Canadians endured and against which they struggled. In 2010, the Halifax City Council apologized to the people of Africville for all they did and did not do for the community. It apologized for Africville’s destruction.

A hectare of land was set aside and money allocated to rebuild the Seaview United Baptist Church. It will serve as a historical interpretive centre in a park renamed Africville. There, stories will be told of a time when racism coursed through Canadian veins and of a hope that someday, racism will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Someday.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others even buying my book entitled Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism, that addresses the h. (Find it at Amazon or here at Chapters online: http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/contributor/author/john-boyko/