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CHAPTER 14 “A Voteless People Is a Hopeless People” Before my first year in Congress was at an end, it was obvious that the US Senate had fundamentally changed, especially on the politically explosive issue of civil rights. The southern conservatives who had run the Senate for decades were gradually losing their power. In their place, a new generation of young, progressive, reform-minded senators was rising.1 “About 20 first-term and second-term Democrats, most of them youthful by Senate standards, were drawn together by mutual interests and a liberal political philosophy,” the New York Times noted late in 1965. “They constituted a major voting bloc on some issues.”2 The shift on civil rights had actually started much earlier, in 1948, when Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia urging adoption of the first civil rights plank in the party platform. It was time, he said, to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright 1. The phrase used as the title of this chapter is attributed to S. W. (Samuel) Boynton, an early civil rights activist in Selma, Alabama. Gary May, Bending toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 13. 2. JFK’s youngest brother, Teddy, had been elected to the Senate in 1962 at the age of thirty-one. Also elected that year were Birch Bayh, thirty-seven, of Indiana, and George McGovern, thirty-eight, of South Dakota. I was elected two years later, at thirty-six, as was Bobby Kennedy, age thirty-nine. The House of Representatives underwent a similar transformation . The year I won, voters sent other young progressives to the House: John Tunney, thirty, of California, who was the son of heavyweight champ Gene Tunney; John Culver, thirty-two, of Iowa; and W. R. Anderson, forty-three, of Tennessee. Anderson, the former skipper of the first American nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, turned out to be far more liberal than his conservative constituents expected. “Young men, many still in their 30s and early 40s, are taking over much of the work of the staid old United States Senate. One of these days, they may become its masters.” Quoted in Robert C. Albright, “A Young Crew Usurping Senate,” Washington Post, August 1, 1965, E-1. “Session Marked by Shift in Power,” New York Times, October 25, 1965, 41. 211 “A VOTELESS PEOPLE IS A HOPELESS PEOPLE” sunshine of human rights.”3 When that effort succeeded, the entire Mississippi delegation and most of the Alabama delegation walked out of the convention and formed their own states’ rights party, known as the Dixiecrats, and nominated their own candidate for president, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who at the time was a Democrat. It took another dozen years before John F. Kennedy pressed for stronger civil rights protections for African Americans during his 1960 campaign for president. This was politically risky in that era of segregation because Kennedy needed to carry the conservative and historically Democratic states of the so-called “solid South.” A pivotal point came that October, when Senator Kennedy and his brother Bobby rejected the advice of senior Democratic Party leaders and decided to intervene on behalf of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader had been arrested in Georgia, and there were serious concerns about his safety—worries that a mob could try to break into the jail and lynch him. Senator Kennedy directed Bobby to telephone the Georgia judge and plead with him to release King, which the judge finally agreed to do. JFK also called King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, to express his support for her husband and his leadership for civil rights.4 African Americans had been skeptical of Kennedy when the 1960 campaign began, but when word of his support for King began to circulate , their support shifted strongly in his favor. Although African Americans were still denied the right to vote in most southern states in 1960, in the end as much as 70 percent of the black vote nationwide went to Kennedy—enough to tip the outcome in his favor in at least eleven states, including four southern states: South Carolina,Texas, North Carolina , and Maryland.5 Once Kennedy was elected and his brother installed as attorney general, the federal government began to step up intervention on civil rights issues, slowly at first, but with increasing urgency. 3...


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