Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Uncivil Rights

For the shortest month of the year, February has some important days in it. February starts with Groundhog Day which is shortly followed by Ash Wednesday. The day of love, Valentine’s Day, is in February. It has both Abraham Lincoln’s and George Washington’s birthdays and the day we celebrate them on, President’s Day. Oddly enough, February is also the month Frederick Douglass was born. In fact, Douglass and Lincoln have birthdays in the same week, which was why Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard scholar, created Negro History Week in 1926. Probably unforseen by Dr. Carter, Negro History Week developed into Black History Month. Another special February day for black history, which seems to never get mentioned, occurs in just a few days.

On February 26, the House of Representatives bill of 1964 arrived in the Senate. The story of this bill is remarkable in many ways and deserves some reflection. The original House version was passed by a vote of 291 in favor and 130 against. The record shows that Republicans supported the measure in greater numbers than Democrats, and in opposition Democrats numbered almost twice as many Republicans. Senator James Oliver Eastland, a Democrat from Mississippi, was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a die-hard opponent of civil rights who had spoken often against such legislation. Somehow the House version was placed directly into the Senate calendar, thus by-passing Eastland’s committee where it was expected to be quashed. This bill would become a major battle in the Senate which was to be expected, considering the long, hard road it had traveled to get there.

The road began, if the movement can be tied to any one locus, with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which was written by the first Republican President Abraham Lincoln and hotly criticized by Democrats on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Racism would keep blacks disenfranchised for still another hundred years, but in 1927 the Supreme Court decided Nixon v Herndon, making it illegal to hold “white primaries” and defining as unconstitutional state laws barring blacks from running in Democratic primaries. As a point of history, there were quite a few blacks already in Congress, but all of them were Republicans until 1935. Following the 1927 decision, the Democratic Party executive committees enacted rules that barred minorities, and those rules were struck down by the Supreme Court in Nixon v Condon in 1932. As a private group open to the public, the Democratic Party passed rules at the state level barring minorities and the Supreme Court banned those in Grovey v Townsend. The “Jaybird system” was created next by Democrats, organizing private clubs where slates of candidates could be selected by white-only voting and then transferred by sleight-of-hand to the party ballot, thus effectively barring minorities. The Supreme Court outlawed that in Terry v Adams. Stymied once again, the Democratic Party instituted literacy tests and other provisions that cumulatively became known as “Jim Crow” laws.

An interesting side note is that two founders of the NAACP, Ida Wells and Mary Terrell, were both Republicans. Surprising as it may seem today, it would have made sense then. The 1924 Democratic National Convention was held in New York City and hosted the “Independence Day Klanbake,” a KKK celebration culminating in the obligatory cross-burning. A minority of delegates proposed a condemnation of the KKK, but were not given time to speak. Not surprisingly, Democratic President FDR appointed two segregationists to the Supreme Court, Jimmy Byrnes and Senator Hugo Black (D-AL). Black was a proud KKK member. The New York Times reported on March 17, 1960 that South Carolina Governor Ernest Hollings “warned today that South Carolina would not permit ‘explosive’ manifestations in connection with Negro demands for lunch-counter services” and that Republican “President Eisenhower’s contention that minorities had the right to engage in certain types of demonstrations [was] confused [and had done] great damage to peace and good order.” On July 23, 1961, the New York Times told of a Democratic meeting including (hero of Bill Clinton) Governor Orval Faubus (AK), Ross Barnett (MS), Governor Ernest Hollings and other state governors. The meeting was held to organize the opposition to civil rights and the White Citizens Council was tapped to help at the grass roots. Between 1933 and 1964, Congress held no less than 26 major votes on civil rights issues which were supported 96% by Republicans and opposed 80% by Democrats. One such vote was on the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which was filibustered by the Democrats. Republican Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois broke the Democratic obstruction and the law was signed by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Democrat Senator Richard Bevard Russell, Jr of Georgia was in the vanguard of the opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Alongside Russell were Senators Eastland, Strom Thrumond of South Carolina, J. William Fulbright of Arkansas (another hero of Bill Clinton), Albert Gore, Sr. of Tennessee, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and 15 others. They obstructed the bill on the Senate floor and Senator Byrd gained notoriety for long-windedness by filibustering for 14 hours. Again, it was Republican Senator Dirksen who broke the filibuster. According to the Chicago Tribune of May 31, 1964, “Without Dirksen’s efforts, this happy conclusion could not be anticipated, everyone agrees. If the Senate can be rescued from the morass in which it has floundered for nearly three months, the minority leader will rightly be given a major portion of the credit. The Democratic majority, huge as it is, would have been helpless without him.” For himself, Dirksen had this to say, “the time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied.”

The final tally of the votes in the Senate was 73 in favor and 27 against. There were 46 Democrats in favor, or 69%. There were 27 Republicans supporting the bill, or 82%. Of Democrats, 38% stood in opposition while only 20% of Republicans did. It is odd, in retrospect, how the Republican Party has come to be cast as the party against civil rights. South Carolina Governor Ernest Hollings became a U.S. Senator despite raising the Confederate flag atop his state Capitol. He has retained his Senate seat despite blaming a 1984 Presidential loss on “wetbacks from California,” calling blacks “darkies” and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition the “Blackbow Coalition,” and deriding Senator Metzenbaum as “the Senator from B’nai B’rith.” In 1993, Hollings described the African Delegation to the Geneva GATT conference as “potentates from down in Africa, you know, rather than eating each other, they’d just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva.”

Strom Thrumond was a racist who accepted campaign funding from the KKK and ran for President as a segregationist in 1948. In honor of his 100th birthday, Republican Senator Trent Lott paid him homage, “when Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.” Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd observed that “if a Democrat leader had made [such] statements, we would have to call for his stepping aside, without any question, whatsoever.” The hounding Lott received resulted in just that, he stepped down. As an homage to Senator Robert Byrd’s 17,000th vote, Senator Dodd said, “Robert C. Byrd....would have been right at any time...he would have been right at the founding of this country...he would have been right during the great conflict of civil war in this nation. I cannot think of a single moment in this nation’s 220-plus year history where he would not have been a valuable asset to this country.” Robert Byrd was a recruiter for the KKK and both he and Christopher Dodd are still Senators to this day. Whatever happened to the “credit” that the Chicago Tribune thought should go to the Republican Senator?

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