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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Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Strange Career of Claude Pepper

Trivia-wise, strange for having started in the US Senate and gone on to the House.

More seriously, as a marker for the de-solidification of the South, a transitional guy straddling the Jim Crow and desegregated eras.

Various pieces throw some light: a paper by Steve Hach, Tracy Danese’s Claude Pepper and Ed Ball: Politics, Purpose, and Power and the Pepper-Smathers Democratic Primary Election Campaign of 1950, whilst (annoyingly for my purposes) a crit of the book, rather than a direct treatment of the issues, provides useful material not available elsewhere online (that I can find) about that notoriously dirty campaign.

The main attacks on Pepper from the Smathers' campaign seem to been on his supposed weakness on Communism, but he was also assailed on race. His association with Paul Robeson gave them a twofer (p15):
Smathers referred to Robeson as the “big negro communist with the white wife” in the press in order to link Pepper with communism, civil rights, and race mixing. Photos of Paul Robeson with Pepper–and photos of Pepper with ordinary black Floridians– played an important role in the 1950 primary campaign.

Factors making life harder for pols like Pepper included fear of the (in 1950, yet to be enacted) FEPC (my piece on December 31 2004) and of increased Negro voting [1] following the decision (oft discussed here) in Smith v Allwright.

However, Pepper's record on race is mixed, to say the least. The civil rights page on his library site is distinctly skimpy: it mentions a curio from his state legislating days -
In 1929, as a Florida Representative, Claude Pepper voted against a Florida State Legislature resolution condemning First Lady Lou Henry Hoover’s White House invitation for tea to Mrs. DePriest, the wife of the first Black congressman since Reconstruction. This stand contributed to his defeat in the legislature in 1930.

You don't say!

It mentions support for an anti-poll tax bill and FEPC - and says
When Claude Pepper was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1936, he continued to play an active role in civil rights.

There are listed various boxes of papers including a couple headed
Anti-lynching bill. 1937.

The casual reader might assume Pepper supported the bill (the Wagner-Van Nuys bill). Whereas, in fact, he filibustered against it!

The online resource here is, of course, Keith Finley's thesis; he takes several pages (p39ff of Chapter 1) to discuss what Pepper did and why - he had been appointed to his Senate seat and was facing his first election in November 1938: now was no time to desert the Lost Cause!

Finley quotes Pepper blubbing in his 1987 autobiography (he was still in the House at that late date!)
I wish this sorry chapter could be expunged from my record and more importantly from my memory.

Oh, yeah?

This was no one-off cleaving to the old-time religion: for example, as I quoted in a piece on December 8 2002, in 1944, he said [2] in response to Smith v Allwright,
The South will allow nothing to impair white supremacy.

And he crops up in an interesting, though hyperbolically titled, thesis by Tameka Hobbs "Hitler is Here": Lynching in Florida During the Era of World War II, which examines in the detail the facts of four lynchings of the 'new style' (as opposed to the good old church picnic lynchings like Duck Hill, MS in 1937 - several pieces here).

Pepper figures in her chapter on Willie James Howard of Suwanee County: Howard, 15, worked at a five-and-dime, and supposedly gave a love-letter to a white girl of good family working as a cashier at the store. On this pretext [3], he found himself drowned in the Suwanee River on January 2 1944, apparently helped on his way by the girl's father and couple of other whites.

Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP got involved, and wrote to Pepper (on January 28), amongst others, making the connection between Howard's murder and Japanese treatment of American POWs.
This is the type of material that radio Tokio is constantly on the alert for and will use effectively in attempting to offset our very legitimate protest in respect to the handling of American citizens who unfortunately are prisoners of war.

Pepper would have nothing to do with the case:
I have heard nothing of the report of the lynching of a fourteen-year-old-boy in Florida and know nothing of the facts in the case. Consequently, I am unprepared to make any statement concerning it.

The puzzle, of course, is how a fellow so careful to buff his constituency credentials should have lurched towards the FEPC and palling with a liability like Robeson.

One more piece of evidence: according to a 1989 letter to the Washington Post read into the Senate record, Pepper voted in a roll call on an amendment to an appropriations bill which would have cut funding to the (temporary wartime) Fair Employment Practice Committee - a different FEPC from the permanent Fair Employment Practice Commission that failed to get enacted in 1946. Pepper was the only Southerner to vote against the amendment, to general consternation.

The teaser: according to the letter, the vote took place on June 20 1944. But, when was the date of Pepper's primary? Surely before then, otherwise he wouldn't have got the nomination!

Something evidently happened between his blowing off Marshall over Howard and his Pickett's Charge on the FEPC vote to get him to cast caution to the wind...

  1. Smathers, it seems, had a GOTV scheme for Negroes (p17) - which he canned when he became convinced most of them would vote for Pepper!

  2. The Supreme Court decision made on April 3 1944.

  3. It seems incredible to me that Howard - a local boy (unlike Emmett Till, notably) - wouldn't be wised up on race etiquette to have survived as long as he had; and passing love-notes to 'nice' white girls was so very far over the line as to leave no doubt that retribution would likely follow.


See also materials on various lynching bills - a school district site, so it's pretty skimpy. But it includes a poll (PDF) on the sentiments of senators as of March 23 1934 on the Costigan-Wagner antilynching bill. Fascinating: those put in the Uncertain column were, amongst others, Harry Byrd, king of Virginia, and - Henrik Shipstead, Farmer-Labour man from Minnesota!

Why should an insurgent from the state of Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone and Al Franken not have been a sure vote on an anti-lynching bill?


There is a fascinating-looking thesis (a 50MB PDF) from 1963 A Case Study in Southern Justice: the Emmett Till Case by Hugh Stephen Whitaker.

Whitaker, a Mississippian himself, I infer, was able to talk to some of those around in 1955 and had access to documents available then, but not necessarily today. He looks at the reasons for the crime and its consequences.

To find online unpublished material of that vintage - and written so closely after the events considered - is unique in my experience. Only now a question of getting round to reading it...

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