I confess, I have never understood why so many people have been so eager to credit Charles Murray as a quantitative social scientist rather than as a latter-day James J. Kilpatrick or Murray Rothbard. Nor have I understood why Jason DeParle was so eager to... sweeten the beat... in his 1994 profile of Murray, rather than to ask even one follow-up question about the KKK and the civil rights movement in Iowa in 1960.

Here Phil Cohen pushes back: Philip N. Cohen: Charles Murray: A White Man’s Cross Burning: "There are powerful individuals representing institutional interests, such as Charles Murray, who spent decades on the dole of non-profit organizations funded by the foundations of the rich.... He and his defenders have always impugned those who assign racist motives to his work.... A biological racial hierarchy in genetic intelligence.... A coalition that includes Murray, defends itself from that charge by claiming it’s not racist if it’s true, and it has fallen to human geneticists to debunk their claims.... Shawn Fremstad reminded me that Murray and his friends burned a cross in 1960.... Here is the very cursory story, in a 1994 New York Times profile [by Jason de Parle] for the release of his book The Bell Curve...

While there is much to admire about the industry and inquisitiveness of Murray’s teen-age years, there is at least one adventure that he understandably deletes from the story—the night he helped his friends burn a cross. They had formed a kind of good guys’ gang, “the Mallows,” whose very name, from marshmallows, was a play on their own softness. In the fall of 1960, during their senior year, they nailed some scrap wood into a cross, adorned it with fireworks and set it ablaze on a hill beside the police station, with marshmallows scattered as a calling card. [Denny] Rutledge recalls his astonishment the next day when the talk turned to racial persecution in a town with two black families. “There wouldn’t have been a racist thought in our simple-minded minds,” he says. “That’s how unaware we were.” A long pause follows when Murray is reminded of the event. “Incredibly, incredibly dumb,” he says. “But it never crossed our minds that this had any larger significance. And I look back on that and say, ‘How on earth could we be so oblivious?’ I guess it says something about that day and age that it didn’t cross our minds”...

This is a very incomplete story... doesn’t even tell us who first told the tale of the cross burning, or what reason that person gave for it, or how they picked the location.... My sociological question is, if they had no idea of the “larger significance” of cross burning, in 1960, why do it? There were lots of dumb things to do.... Investigate the context....

The fall of 1960, the beginning of Murray’s senior year of high school, was when he would have been applying to Harvard, which he went off to in 1961 (he was a history major). It was also a time when cross burning was in the news a lot, including in Iowa.... 15,000 people in the idyllic cross-burning town of Newton, where Murray’s father was a Maytag executive. And there were only 22 Black people recorded in Jasper county (where Newton is the principal city). Does this mean race was not an issue in the minds of Murray’s gang? I’m very doubtful.... Des Moines, just 30 miles from Newton... The 1950s were the biggest decade for Black migration to Iowa.... The city had 209,000 people, of which 10,700 (5%) were nonwhite (mostly Black) by 1960. So, do you think a 1960 White executive’s family would have heard anything about the nonwhite population of the nearest city nearly doubling in the previous decade? Did aw-shucks Murray and his pool hall buddies know about all that big city stuff?...

Murray traveled around the state, and even the country, in his high school years. He was on Newton High School’s “Crack Debate Team” that won several statewide tournaments, including one at the University of Iowa in Iowa City in April 1960. And that summer the debate team roadtripped to California, courtesy of the Chamber of Commerce, for a national tournament. (What did they debate, anyway?)

Debate team dmt 6 15 60

So in 1960 Murray was the son of an executive, and a debate team champion, traveling the state and country, and applying to Harvard, while living in the next county over from a city with a booming Black population. Oh, and it was 1960: the year civil rights protesters staged sit-ins in dozens of cities across the south.... 55 articles in the Des Moines Register/Tribune archives mentioning cross burning during his high school years, 1955 to 1960. In fact, there were a number of stories about an Iowa City incident, where in April 1960 (yes, that April 1960), eight Beta Theta Pi frat brothers burned a cross on the lawn of the assistant director of student affairs, whose office was “instrumental in the effort to remove race restrictions from the constitutions of several fraternities at the university.” After briefly suspending the men, the university declared it a “prank” and reinstated them on probation:

Ic cross burning 1960

Maybe it was a pure coincidence having nothing to do with race that the eight frat brothers burned a cross in their “prank.” But why a cross? Also, it was a few weeks after students picketed stores right there in Iowa City to support the sit-ins.

Cross burning protest 1960 1

I see a possible parallel between the frat boys and the cross burning by Murray’s marshmallow gang. The story is they had no idea it was about race; decades later, this is the story they recite. Some key White adults helped keep the narrative from getting out of hand. I’d bet the incident didn’t make it into Murray’s Harvard admissions packet, either in his personal essay or in the form of a criminal record. Even though there was “talk” in town the next day. And they went on about their lives. Murray isn’t an elected office holder, and may be retired. Maybe it’s water under the racist.

Incidentally, I noticed that one of the University of Iowa cross-burning frat boys, Joel E. Swanson, seems to have gone on to become a state district court judge. (I don’t know what happened to their disorderly conduct charge.) He was a freshman in 1960, got his law degree at the University in 1967, while serving in the National Guard, and worked as a lawyer in his home town of Lake City, eventually became a judge and then retiring in 2012. Also, they have recipes.

Swanson 1

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