New Books Point Up the Power of Democracy

In his second inaugural address President Bush delivered an impassioned paean to the virtues of liberty and democracy. He declared that all peoples everywhere long for the right to be free and to choose their own leaders. It was a terrific speech. If only it were true.

It is clear that many of the world's peoples are more worried about prosperity and security than freedom and liberty. Just look at China and Russia, where autocracy has been accepted so long as it brings economic reward. Africa and South America have long histories of centralized rule, and democracy has never taken root in the Middle East. Democracy seems to be solidly entrenched now in Europe, but it took Nazism and World War II to bring the message home.

The core concept of liberty and democracy—belief in individual rights and equality safeguarded by the rule of law—is really burned into the DNA of only the English-speaking countries: Great Britain and its former colonies. That is a narrow slice of humankind. The message is potent, in part because freedom can be a source of strength, but it's hardly a dominant ideology, much less the "end of history."

I thought of the fragility of what should be a bedrock principle for all peoples recently as I read two new books: "The Day Freedom Died" by Charles Lane and "Some of It Was Fun" by Nicholas Katzenbach. Lane, a Washington Post reporter who has covered the Supreme Court, has written a truly horrifying (and gripping) account of the collapse of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War. His book is built around the massacre of 60 black men in Colfax, La., by a white mob on Easter Sunday 1873. The rule of law failed that day; the federal government was unable to bring the killers to justice, and the message went out to the Ku Klux Klan and more civilized folk that blacks could be bullied and murdered and denied their equal rights.

And so it went for much of the next century. Not until the U.S. Justice Department under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy stood up to bullies like Alabama Gov. George Wallace did blacks come to enjoy equality under the law and freedom from oppression. Katzenbach was one of RFK's "band of brothers" who was sent into trying and sometimes dangerous situations in the South to end Jim Crow. There is a wonderful photograph on the cover of "Some of It Was Fun" of Katzenbach unhappily mopping his brow. He is standing in the sun, sweating not just from the summer heat but also from anxiety. It was June 1963 and the Kennedy Justice Department official was about to confront Wallace, who had showily positioned himself "in the schoolhouse door" to block the integration of the University of Alabama by several black students. Relying on the law and the Constitution, Katzenbach patiently waited for Wallace to have his little show—and then proceeded to make sure the first black students were enrolled. That night President John F. Kennedy went on national television to propose a Civil Right Act to sweep away legal segregation in the South. The principle of freedom and equality is as "old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution," President Kennedy said. But his own country needed reminding (and prodding by brave law enforcement officials like Katzenbach). And the rest of the world is only just beginning to appreciate that human dignity can be truly safeguarded only by a government of "laws and not men."

Join the Discussion