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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Claude Pepper, February 1, 1974. Interview A-0056. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Race as a political tool

Pepper remembers the power race exerted over politics—he recalls his discomfort as he posed for a picture with Paul Robeson, an African American Communist. He says that his political opponents sent African Americans to appear in photographs with Pepper so they could use those photos to turn white voters against Pepper.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Claude Pepper, February 1, 1974. Interview A-0056. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK BASS:
Was civil rights the biggest issue insofar as being used against you as an issue with the voters?
CLAUDE PEPPER:
Well, I had voted the year liberally on . . . I had introduced the first poll tax bill and then there was an error that I should have caught in the Congressional Record. These reports are not nearly perfect. Where it said that I introduced the first SEPT bill, that's what it said in the record and I just checked it and didn't change it. I had introduced the first civil rights bill, which was the anti-poll tax, that I introduced and fought for in the Senate. But I did not introduce the SEPT bill, however, I did vote for whatever liberal bills that came along. And then one of the things that was just ready made for them, in 1946, at Madison Square Garden, when Henry Wallace and I were speaking before the Committee for the Independent Arts, Sciences and Professions headed by Joe Dickinson, the sculpture . . . they held a meeting, and I was requested to go there by the Democratic Committee. Well, nevertheless, Wallace spoke, he was at that time still Secretary of Commerce under Truman. But he and I were sitting outside the hall talking and the photographer came up and said that he would like to take a picture. There was the wife of one of the actors that was one of the supporters of that meeting, anyway, several of us who were on the program were asked to stand together to have a photograph. Well, Paul Robeson was on the program, too. It was really, to say . . . he might have said something, because, you know, he was a pronounced liberal. In those days, and later on the came to be definitely associated with communism. So, they called Paul Robeson and told him to come over and join in the picture. Well, as luck would have it, they put him right by me. Well, I could have kept out of the picture, I knew right away that that would be used against me very heavily in my campaign. But I just didn't quite have the stomach to walk out of a picture just because a black man was in the picture, so I didn't do it. They took the picture. Later on, Paul Robeson became much better known as an associate of communism, he had been to Russia and so on. By the time that my ‘50 campaign came along, here was a ready made picture with, not only a "nigger," which would have been bad enough in North Florida, but with a "nigger communist." At a time when Smathers was using the McCarthy type of smear campaign against me, with being a communist anyhow. And they put this whole entire picture of me standing beside . . . they cut all the rest of the people out, they just had me standing right there beside Paul Robeson. And then, in the campaign, they had it arranged . . . I didn't have but two daily papers in the state supporting me, the St. Petersburg Times and the Daytona Beach News-Journal, all the papers, like the Orlando Sentinel, which was one of the most vicious against me . . . when I would speak, they would try to get a Negro to come up and shake hands with me. Or when I would go through the line of people, I'd get down off the platform and shake hands with them, as soon as I shook the hand of a Negro, why (claps hands) there would be a flashlight bulb burst. The picture in the paper the next day would be of me shaking hands with a Negro. One night at Leesburg, Florida, I spoke, they built a platform out in the public park for me, and that night the National Guard happened to be drilling, but they finished the drill and were standing around with a lot of other people hearing me speak. Well, as soon as the speaking was over, shortly after the speaking was over, why some of my friends told me that a black man walked up just while I was still speaking and took the position right near the bottom of the steps leading up to the platform. Well, there was gracious space there and every body wondered why was this black man walking up there next to the steps leading up to the platform? While I was still speaking. So, it turned out that what had happened was, that a man in a sports red car with the top down, as he described it, had come to this man who was a janitor in a theater right down the street and told him, "I'll give you $25 if you will go up there to where Pepper speaks tonight, get up near the steps leading to the platform before he finishes and just as soon as he finishes, you rush right up on the platform and shake hands with him. And you hold his hands until the flash bulb burst and then you turn around and come on back down here and we'll be watching, we'll give you $25." Well, he never got to carry it out because some of my friends suspected something and they walked up to him and said, "What are you doing here?" Well, pretty soon, he caved in and told us exactly what had been proposed. I had an affidavit made by a local circuit judge before whom they brought this black man and he made a statement under oath that that was what they had attempted to do. That was the typical kind of thing that they used against me in the campaign. And my voting record, generally favorable to civil rights, of course, and my picture with Robeson and all these other black people's pictures, it was just said that "he's a friend of the niggers," that's it.