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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

White southern politicians avoid, rather than push back against, civil rights

LeMaistre argues that rather than exploiting racism to garner votes, most white politicians in Alabama after World War II tried to avoid the issue altogether, whether by not talking about it in the 1940s and early 1950s, or "talking it to death" in the late 1950s and 1960s. LeMaistre adds to this interpretation of race in southern politics with brief discussions of the Scottsboro case, lynching, and white southerners' conviction that they could "handle" African Americans.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. 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

ALLEN J. GOING:
Now if we can kind of shift gears and take a running start toward the politics of race, I think it's pretty well agreed that by 1950, in most southern states including Alabama, race began to be the predominant element, I guess you could say, in politics, but—
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
It probably was the most effective element in influencing votes. To say it was predominant would probably indicate that it received the most attention, and that isn't true. The people in office would do almost anything to avoid having to take a position on a racial matter, and —
ALLEN J. GOING:
Particularly after World War II, that's when it became—
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
And particularly after 1948 when the civil rights—well '47 I guess the civil rights commission reported and then Hubert Humphrey made his stirring speech to the Democratic party which provoked the walkout and began the Dixiecrats rise. For the next three or four years it was a matter of not so much race as party loyalty—how you get these people to straighten up and be Democrats regardless of what happens to the race question.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Yeh
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
And then after the 1954 school decision, then it became more and more open discussion, then when the civil rights act—what was the date of that?
ALLEN J. GOING:
That was '64, but you mean the big civil rights act. There was a civil rights act in '57.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
'57 was the first one.
ALLEN J. GOING:
And then one in '60
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
They were the first ones that really carried the label "civil rights act" except way back in Civil War times . . . but after they went on the books you could get a few more people saying, "Why don't you take a stand on civil rights?—Where do you stand on this (or that)?" And the best that we could get from most of the successful politicians was that whatever was being proposed was so completely unfair to the whites that they could oppose it on that ground rather than because it did something for people that they agreed needed to be helped. If you remember, the discussions in those days always referred—at least the discussions by an incumbent—would almost always include the mention of the "so-called" civil rights act, the implication being that while they labeled it civil rights, it really wasn't civil rights, it was taking something away from one and giving it to another, and they stuck with that position, I guess, for four or five years. That doesn't mean that they took that position on principle that they were against the civil rights bill because it was not a fair bill or anything like that, they just found some way to talk it to death. Some of the most interesting parts of the Congressional Record are some filibusters that were mounted one after another by southern senators in discussing the civil rights act or various civil rights acts—of '51, '60, '64, and they never did get around to convincing any of those sitting senators that it would be politically expedient for them to come out and say "I think we've been wrong, I think we need to rethink our positions, I think these people are entitled to what they're asking for, and I think it's time we gave it to them because they're Americans." You never heard that. The only one you've heard say that is George Wallace. He's recently said that. Whether he means it, I don't know. But it is now possible for a man in office to make such a statement. It wasn't in those days, he would never have stayed in office.
ALLEN J. GOING:
And back, if we keep backing up, we were talking about, for instance, the Scottsboro case, now about the only thing that was discussed widely in the 1930's as far as race was concerned was the question of violence and lynchings, and that was the concern more than any mention of civil rights as it came to be understood later.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
The real problem in the Scottsboro case was not that a mob was about to take those seven people out and lynch 'em, the real problem was that the jury did the dirty work for them. When the case was tried, Judge Horton did almost everything a judge could do to say to the jury, "They haven't proven these people to be guilty." And yet it didn't take them any time to come back with a guilty verdict. And yet, I suppose that one of the real reasons that competent lawyers felt that they had to take part in the Scottsboro appeals was that this was really subverting the judicial system—you were using the system to do what the mobs had done before and I would think that Judge Horton, who really suffered considerably because of his rather liberal charges to the jury, his rulings in the case, should have been regarded as something of a hero. But he wasn't. He had a great deal of difficulty with the Ku Klux and White citizens and people of that stripe for the rest of his life.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But there was a great deal of sentiment in support of measures to curb lynching—that goes way back—back into the World War I period and in the twenties and the thirties. But, again, there was this resentment that was mounted against outside interference that was why Southerners generally opposed federal anti-lynching legislation
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yes, and I think you have to face the fact that some of it was based on the thought that prevailed in the Old West—we'll give you a fair trial and then hang you. And that was better than letting a mob take him out of jail and hang him, but the guy was just as dead one way as he was the other. And it really didn't do much for the cause of justice. But one of the most difficult problems, I suppose, with the trial of those cases was to get adequate representation for defendants of that kind in the South. Almost invariably the court had to appoint the lawyers to defend them and almost invariably something like the International Labor Defense, or whatever that group was called, would send somebody down here who was recognized or charged immediately with being a known radical with Marxist leanings and all that kind of stuff. The fact that some of them later became very fine judges doesn't seem [laugh] to have made any difference. But the trial of people in Alabama, and I'm sure it was true in Mississippi and other parts of the South, by Southern trained lawyers before Southern juries and Southern judges was almost impossible to bring about, because most of the time the people that were appointed to defend such defendants were inexperienced and it was almost giving up the defense of the case if you didn't send experienced counsel down to help out.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But now there was a very small group in the South trying to actively work for better racial relations like the Commission on Interracial Cooperation dated from right after World War I. It was active during the twenties and thirties.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
And this group that was based in Atlanta. Can't think of the name right now but they did a . . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
I think Commission in Interracial Relations was based in Atlanta, and then that becomes Southern Regional Council?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I think so. And they worked hard at it and there were some dedicated lawyers—Morris Ernst, for instance, his wasn't so much on race as it was religion, remember the Frank case.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Yes, Leo Frank.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yes. He was lynched simply because he was a Jew.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But you don't have any real—none of that was really actively working in this part of the country, was it?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I really don't recall any campaign in the thirties or forties in which race became a factor except when Tom Heflin was running or—well maybe one or two others.
ALLEN J. GOING:
The other issues overrode all that— issues of the . . .
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
But underneath all the other big issues, there was always a feeling, "Well, he knows how to handle race relations." Frank Boykin goes up to Washington and gets involved in a shooting scrape with a black man —all that kind of stuff, you know, yet the people never made him come out and say in his campaigns, "Just leave the blacks to me, I can handle them." He never had to take that position. He could talk about other things like building up the Port of Mobile—that sort of stuff—and they just spread the word and old Frank will take care of whatever else we need.