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John Kennedy and the Color Bar in Washington

John Simkin

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I am currently reading Raymond Gram Swing's autobiography Good Evening! (1964). He tells an interesting story of how he, along with John Kennedy and Kenneth Galbraith, he broke the color bar of the two main social clubs in Washington, the Metropolitan and the Cosmos. Galbraith nominated Kennedy for membership of the Metropolitan. Kennedy then withdrew his application when the club refused to serve lunch to a black diplomat. Galbraith now nominated Kennedy to the Cosmos Club. Swing also nominated Carl Rowan, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs for the membership to the club. Rowan, who had been active in the civil rights campaign, nomination was rejected, Swing and Gailbraith now resigned from the the club and Kennedy withdrew his own nomination. This caused so much bad publicity that both the Cosmos and the Metropolitan were forced to change their policy and began to allow black people to be members. However, the clubs still refused to accept Rowan as a member. In 1963 Kennedy showed his disapproval of this by appointing Rowan as his Ambassador to Finland.

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A row greeted with much cynicism at the time:

The Washington Daily News, 15 January 1962, p.21

Political Hams Confuse Row at Cosmos

By Richard Starnes

The Cosmos Club, where the well-bred murmur of occluding arteries is generally the loudest noise you’ll hear, is in the midst of a controversy because its admissions committee has excluded a Negro candidate from membership.

Tonight’s annual general meeting is expected to be the biggest ever held, and loud speakers have been set up, I am told, and maybe even the whole clubhouse at 2121 Massachusetts-av nw won’t be big enough to contain it.

Some members, with expressions of public piety usually reserved to congressmen voting for conscription, have resigned in great indignation. President Kennedy in effect withdrew his own application for membership, thus relieving club officials of the burden of deciding whether they would admit this particular Chief Executive.

It is difficult to write about this matter because if one cocks a critical eyebrow, one immediately becomes suspect of all manner of dark and benighted prejudices.

Nevertheless, the Cosmos Club badly needs honest investigation because it has been made a public issue by certain professedly aggrieved members of it, despite the fact that this is a private club.

I am not defending at this point the Cosmos Club’s membership criteria. I am simply stating the patent truth (which clamorous “right-thinkers” have uniformly ignored) that the membership committee was only doing what it was appointed to do. As all such gimlet-eyed groups do, it has rejected candidates for all manner of reasons. Intellectual attainment is the principal qualification for Cosmos Club membership, but does this mean the Cosmos Club should admit a brainy wife-beater, or a brilliant bankrupt, or a savant who chews with his mouth open? My point is that certain other standards are implicit in any worthwhile social club, and whether they are reasonable or capricious, it is the membership committee’s job to enforce them.

It is stated that Carl T. Rowan, the would-be member whose rejection precipitated the quarrel, is a certified intellectual, and a journalist of great circumstance. Could be. His defenders insist the only reason he was denied membership is that he is a Negro.

This also could very well be true, but no one knows for sure, and no one could say that it was the only reason for the decision without being privy to the files of the membership committee, if then. I haven’t access to them, and neither have Mr. Rowan’s sponsors. The vote was secret and anonymous as is usual in all such clubs.

Therefore, one must ask the noisy champions of rectitude who say they are quitting the Cosmos Club over this dispute, if it is possible they did not know when they became members that they were joining a club which had no Negro communicants? Is it possible that such perceptive people as John Kenneth Galbraith, Bruce Gatton, James Warburg, and Harland Cleveland, ordained intellectuals to a man, were not aware that no Negro had ever held membership in the Cosmos Club?

I belong to two clubs which I believe will make this point clear. One has no Negro members, and the other does have Negro members. In each case I knew the nature of the operating prejudices before I joined. It would be blatant hypocrisy for me now to quit Club A because it refused to admit a Negro, just as it would for me to leave Club B because it continued to admit Negroes.

Some of my best friends are cynics and each would be justified in suspecting that my latter-day convictions were the product of some base motive, such as running for public office or getting my name in the papers in order to help sell my wares, whether they were newspaper pieces, historical novels on the Civil War or paid speeches on the social scene.

One does not propose a President, or anyone else, for membership in a club without first obtaining the candidate’s permission. If President Kennedy felt it was an indecency for the Cosmos Club to exclude Negroes, why did he not say so when Mr. Galbraith proposed him for membership?

If I were a Negro, I would be sick and resentful over the morally bankrupt political corn-shucking that is being done over the Rowan case.

Race prejudice has many faces, and none of them is pretty. But among the most unlovely is the one that finds self-serving politicians exploiting agonizingly difficult private problems in race relations for squalid political gain.

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