Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Civil rights divide the Democratic Party in the South

LeMaistre remembers how civil rights divided the Democratic Party in the South. Democratic electors in Alabama did not want to support John F. Kennedy's presidential bid in 1960. The issue of whether electors must cast their ballots for their party's candidate had arisen in 1952, when the Alabama Supreme Court upheld an elector's right to choose how to cast his ballot. But in 1960, the Supreme Court reversed this decision, ruling that the state Democratic Party's use of a pledge to enforce loyalty was legitimate in <cite>Ray v. Blair</cite>. The issue was defused in 1952 by Truman's decision not to run for reelection, and in 1960 by Kennedy's win in Illinois, making the state's electoral votes irrelevant.

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:
Yeh. And they were organized before going to Philadelphia, I guess that Nixon and McCarthy all—
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
They were not organized. They were organized in this sense, they were organized to oppose him
ALLEN J. GOING:
But they had no—
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
They were organized to defeat a civil rights plank, and when they failed on both of those, they walked out. They didn't organize till they came to Birmingham and had their convention. That's when they called all the ones who had walked out there plus whatever other eighteen—thirteen minds they could get their hands on to come join 'em and that's where they put together the Dixiecrat group.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But now the Democratic Executive Committee, the state executive committee—my impression was that McCorvey kind of ran the—although he wasn't chairman of it.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
He was chairman.
ALLEN J. GOING:
He was chairman.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
McCorvey was extremely conservative, not a deep thinker politically, was more interested in how you control issues to keep them either from coming flaring up in your face or to go along the way you want to go than he was in what the issue was. I'm—I have to get into some of the press files to find out just how he managed to manipulate things so that the Democratic Party of Alabama did not nominate electors that could vote for Truman.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I know that was—
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
The result was that we didn't have a vote in the election when it came down to a choice between Republicans and Democrats.
ALLEN J. GOING:
And they tried to challenge it in the courts but it was too late, I think that there wasn't time enough or something.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, I took the case to the Supreme Court, asking whether the electors could be bound and we had a resolution through the Democratic Committee requiring anybody elected as a Democrat to at least one time vote for the nominee of the Party, and the Supreme Court struck it down, said that you couldn't follow through.
ALLEN J. GOING:
You couldn't—
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I regret to say, however, I'm familiar with that one. I was the one to take it up there.
ALLEN J. GOING:
And that's been from back the . . .
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
And now that came right after McCorvey. This was when McCorvey had taken the electors away. Then Ben Ray was elected president—
ALLEN J. GOING:
Chairman.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Chairman of the Committee. That's when Clement organized a group to bring Ray in and loyal Democrats into the Committee. And the first thing they did was try to shore up that position by saying anybody else who gets nominated by this party is gonna have the support of the party. And the court held they could not. Well, it hasn't hurt very much. We had one instance where an elector voted for Harry Byrd and one vote for Paul Bryant one time and one or two others like that but none that changed a result in any serious way. In 1960, though, when Illinois was still out [END OF TAPE 3, SIDE B] [TAPE 4, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 4, SIDE A]
ALLEN J. GOING:
So you were talking about the Illinois vote in 1960.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
While they were still counting the vote, as you remember, the Illinois vote was delayed for about a day and a half, and gave rise to the famous wisecrack which Jack Kennedy made that his father didn't have to buy the entire election; all he had to do was to buy Illinois—something of that sort. Well while that vote was out, it had already been determined that some people who had been nominated or named [elected] as electors in Alabama were not going to support the Kennedy ticket, and Governor Luther Hodges of North Carolina, who was a big supporter of the Democrats, called, at the request of John Kennedy, to ask if I would file a law suit to compel the Alabama electors to support the party which elected them or to enjoin them from voting against it, whichever one could work out. I thought about the results of the Ray case back in 1953 and didn't hold out a lot of hope of being able to compel them to vote for the Democratic Party even though they had been elected as Democrats. He called back the next morning early to say it really wasn't necessary any more, to let them vote for anybody they wanted to because Illinois had come in for Jack Kennedy, and so we didn't have to file a follow-up law suit. Sometimes I think it might have been better if we had because there may have been a possibility of reversing that decision in view of the fact that the nominations for electors were made by the Committee which also prescribed the oath which they refused to abide by, and the failure to abide by the oath really should have been tantamount to refusing the nomination.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But was that the same situation in the case you took to the Court in 1953?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
It was not the same because there wasn't any such loyalty oath in the—well, I say there wasn't any; there was one, but it had just already been declared unconstitutional. They still had it on there and the wording of the oath appeared on the ballot, and in the case of the ballot it was not a sworn oath—it simply said that by voting in this primary I pledge to support the nominees of the primary, but the people who were named as party nominees as a result of that vote in qualifying had taken an oath and signed before a notary public that if nominated in the primary they would support the nominees of the party. And they also certified that they had not supported any other party in the immediately previous election.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Now, to clarify the other court case, which occurred the year before, 1952, after the Loyalists had . . . No, no, I meant the one in 1952 that the State-Righters started when they were trying to undo what the Democratic Committee had prescribed as a loyalist oath—that was the one that the Alabama Supreme Court held for the State-Righters—You were not involved in that one directly?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
As I recall it, Truman Hobbs filed that suit . . . along with Gordon Madison and somebody from Birmingham; it may have been Dick Rives; that was before Dick's appointment to the Circuit Court of Appeals.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Before he became judge?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yes, I think he represented the Party in that case.
ALLEN J. GOING:
And then the Supreme Court reversed that in essence—I guess, held that the Committee could handle . . .
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, actually, as I recall the case (and I haven't looked it up for years), but as I recall it, the Supreme Court really decided that that was a political question which they would not decide. They didn't come right out and say yes or no, but when they got to the Ray case in the case of electors after having been elected not voting for the people that elected them for the nominee of that party, then they decided that it was a substantive question that was not a political question, and that in naming an elector the constitution assumed that he would be a man of such integrity that he would not go back on a pledge or whatever and that he had a right to do so if he felt compelled to do it. I suppose that the Supreme Court's idea was that if a man committed murder between the time he was nominated and the time the Electoral College met, that the electors wouldn't have to vote for a murderer for President of the United States. There's not much argument against that logic really. We have a representative form of government where you name somebody to do what you want done, but as your representative, he's not bound by statements made at other times or by, in that case, oaths to the Party.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Right. This controversy between the Loyalists and the State Righters for control of the Committee, as I understand it, took place before it was known that Truman was not going to offer himself again, and after that when Truman withdrew, then it was said, I read, that that took the steam out of the State-Righters.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, it didn't give them a target where before it had the Fair Employment Practices Committee and the Executive Order requiring fair employment practices. Now all they had was the memory of Truman, and he was no longer the candidate and announced he was not going to be. I recall going to the dinner in Washington at which Truman made the statement that he would not be a candidate and introduced Adlai Stevenson, and that action was pretty startling to some of the people there. They really didn't think that Truman was going to take himself out of consideration. But the atmosphere at the time was simply overwhelmingly against Truman. It was just believed that everybody that was hired by the national administration was in some way corrupt, and you remember Harry Vaughan, who was Truman's right-hand man from Kansas City, had been the recipient of some freezers, or something of that sort, deep freezers. It was pretty much like the Goldfine scandal in the Eisenhower administration when Sherman Adams had to "walk the plank." Vicuna coats and rugs. There was quite a lot of talk in the country about what had been described by some of the writers as the "mess in Washington," and Stevenson stepped into a trap at the very beginning of his campaign. Somebody asked him what he would do about the mess in Washington if elected, and instead of replying on the question of whether there actually was mess in Washington, he tried to tell them what he would do as president. And everybody took that to mean he accepted the fact that Washington was corrupt, and that something ought to be done.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But Stevenson did not provoke the bitterness and adverse reaction in the South that Truman had?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
No, Stevenson had been a pretty good governor in Illinois and received a great deal of praise for some of the things he did as governor, and he insisted on pitching his campaign on a very high level; he didn't talk about personalities. He might have been better off if he had talked about Eisenhower's lack of political know-how and Eisenhower's lack of knowledge of political science. But instead he talked about goals for the United States and stayed above a battle in which he was really a part. He should have been fighting his battle instead of using these lofty phrases to describe his campaign.