The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, April 11, 2004

Queer Congress - and other lacunae filled

A visit to Geitner Simmons is always rewarded by some nugget or other from the annals of American history. And, right now, he has several Plawg readers will appreciate.

Simmons explains the role of Kenneth Wherry, Republican Senator from Nebraska, in a change in the early 1950s in the regime [1] enabling Federal employees to be purged on the grounds - real or spurious - of homosexual tendencies [2].

The cast includes some stellar names (ie, names I have heard of), such as Sumner Welles [3]:
Welles had first come under quiet attack in 1941 after Republican leaders threatened to publicize reports of his drunken propositions to Negro taxi drivers and train porters...

Wherry's associate in his witch-hunt was Jim Crow liberal Lister Hill of Alabama, who, as Senator, survived the passage of various civil rights acts and the Summer of Love.

There's also the real story that inspired Allen Drury's door-stop, Advise and Consent.

That very far from exhausts the good stuff: we get a Byrd I'd never heard of - not Virginia's Harry or West Virginia's (and, once, the KKK's) Robert, but Texas' Colonel D Harold Byrd - supporter of Lyndon Johnson and owner of the Texas School Book Depository building in Dallas.

And he notes Michael Klarman [4] arguing the counterfactual on Brown: wouldn't it have been better if old Fred Vinson had still been there to render a minimalist decision, instead of Earl Warren's reverse Dred Scott?

It's a thought which attracts me considerably - though an insufficiency of actual knowledge prevents me from taking a view on the matter. Klarman would labour under no such difficulty.

The Vinson element of the counterfactual I mentioned on December 7 2002 - as a suggestion from Samuel Lubell, made in the first (1952) edition of his The Future of American Politics - when Vinson was still Chief Justice and what became Brown v Board of Education had yet to reach the Supremes for final decision.

  1. Note that these were not new rules but 'strict' enforcement of existing rules. I suspect that those rules were not recently introduced: Executive Order 9835 does not mention homosexuality. Eisenhower's EO 10450 (text not online? is here) of 1953 made explict reference to sexual perversion, apparently.

  2. From memory, in Britain also, the 1950s were a decade when the climate toward homosexuality got more repressive - despite (or perhaps, in reaction to) a general opening up of intellectual and social life following the end of post-war austerity. The Wolfenden Report in 1957, which called for decriminalising homosexual conduct, came in the year following that of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger - and the Suez débâcle.

    This timeline on post-war homosexuality looks useful.

    Much as the fear of desegregation hardened Southerners' views on race relations (or, at least, the manner in which they were expressed) - the infamous stewed nigger election of Willis Smith in 1950 I've mentioned here several times, the last on December 14 2003.

  3. The comic cuts of the Negro porters in Mr Smith Goes To Washington take on a whole new tinge!

    Reminiscent of the outrageous behaviour of Labour MP Tom Driberg - he apparently propositioned Mick Jagger amongst many others. In one and the same decade - the 1950s - the police were struggling to cover up Driberg's nocturnal activities, and striving to put behind bars his less influential confreres.

  4. Author of an excellent article (PDF) on Smith v Allwright, the 1944 white primaries case, which I've cited several times here. It's key background for the period of the run-up to the schools cases.

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