Conference 2013

'1963 – Fifty Years On'

The Cambridge History Forum conference took place on 9th March at Selwyn College. The conference looked at '1963 – Fifty Years On' focussing on Martin Luther King, JFK after the Cuban Missile Crisis and The Profumo Affair in Britain. The format was different this year with three shorter lectures followed by a forum discussion with all the speakers taking part. Professor Tony Badger, Master of Clare College and Paul Mellon Professor of American History at the university, opened the conference with his lecture: ‘Martin Luther King – Who Needs Him?' Professor Badger divided his lecture, which examined Martin Luther King’s leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, into two parts looking at “the indictment” and “the defence”. He said that contemporaries and historians have focussed on King’s personal failings and they have argued that the iconic status that King achieved masked his caution, lack of vision and his poor tactics. The argument for the indictment suggests that King put far too much reliance on the northern whites to employ his tactics and he put too much faith in the vote, non-violent tactics and in integration within a white community that did not want to associate with blacks. These historians argue that the view of Martin Luther King which is still celebrated today has no relevance for the secular, black, urban underclass. Professor Badger argued for the defence addressing the personal failings of King and arguing that the issues raised about King’s personal life were not talked about in the press at the time. He went on to argue that the Civil Rights Movement was necessary in ensuring that change took place and that federal intervention was essential, but that federal intervention would not have occurred without direct action protest campaigns. Money to fund these campaigns would not have been raised had it not been for King and it was his campaigns at Birmingham and Selma that forced the federal government to intervene. Professor Badger further argued that King fully understood the limits of civil rights, that he had been successful in raising the consciousness of black southerners, that non-violence was the right way to proceed and that King was the only civil rights leader who retained links with the young radicals. Professor Badger concluded by saying that Martin Luther King was the most important figure in bringing about change at this time and he was the essential factor in ensuring that the federal government became involved to bring about change. King had demanded a reordering of economic priorities, but it was also important to note that a culture war had also ensued and many in the United States were not supporters of King by the time he died in 1968.

Dr. Mike Sewell of Selwyn College gave the second lecture on ‘JFK in the Post-Cuban Crisis Movement'. Dr. Sewell began by looking at the different interpretations of JFK that existed in 1963: how far was he exhibiting a post Cuban Missile Crisis confidence? How far was he positioning himself for the next Presidential election? Or was he just the same old Kennedy? He went on to look at the different perceptions of the public versus the private Kennedy who was well aware of the narrow margin with which he won the 1960 Presidential election. In June 1963 JFK is seen differently in foreign policy terms from the JFK dealing with the Civil Rights movement and in August 1963 JFK was dithering over Vietnam. Dr. Sewell went on to examine JFK’s image against the reality. JFK’s speeches in 1963 demonstrated a new self-confidence as the Cold War “makes” him. However, there were occasions when JFK was moved by embarrassment, he was a ‘latecomer’ to particular causes like civil rights (having been influenced by others) and, like all politicians, he was worried about votes. Dr. Sewell also argued that there was a JFK that didn’t change and his Catholic roots are very evident in the way he approached the issue of Vietnam. Dr. Sewell concluded by saying although the great myth of JFK should be avoided, equally we should not move to the opposite extreme, because it is a very complex JFK that we are left with and his assassination in November 1963 leaves so many ‘What if?’ questions to be answered.

The final lecture was given by Dr. Richard Davenport-Hines, the historian and biographer, on ‘The Profumo Affair – the English Modernisation Crisis of 1963’. The lecture looked at the impact that the affair between Jack Profumo, Minister of War in the Conservative government, and Christine Keeler, who was alleged to have links to a Soviet spy, had on British society. When Profumo was originally accused of having the affair, he denied it in the House of Commons and, although no one believed him, the issue went quiet until the Home Secretary, Henry Brook, asked the Metropolitan Police to investigate Stephen Ward. 150 people were interviewed as part of this investigation. Under The Sexual Practices Act (1956) it was illegal for any man to introduce a girl aged between 16 and 21 to another man; this was the crime of which Ward was accused and which exposed the affair between Profumo and Keeler to the public. Dr. Davenport-Hines went on to argue that this highlighted the tension at the heart of British society in the 1960s which was divided between those conformists who wished to return to the pre Second World War world and those who wished to see traditional barriers being broken down. This was the perfect scandal to change British society: it struck at the heart of the Establishment, the Conservative Party and changed the way journalists reported events and how the British people responded to them. The world, in the grip of the Cold War, was changing and British society along with it: the British, Dr. Davenport-Hines argued, cast off respectability in the 1960s and fell in love with scandal.

The last part of the conference was dedicated to all three speakers answering questions covering the range of topics from the morning and examining the impact of individuals and events on the changes that took place in the 1960s.

The conference was, as always, very interesting and stimulating. The new style buffet lunch which followed the conference and was hosted by Selwyn College, led to more A level students staying on than in previous years and conversations about the lectures continued over lunch. After lunch, in another new innovation, Dr. David Smith took some of the A level students and teachers on a tour of Selwyn College and the Cambridge University History Faculty and, along with a current undergraduate, answered questions about the Cambridge admissions process and life at Cambridge University.