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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 >>

Pepper grows more liberal as time passes

Pepper describes the development of his interest in politics from an early age and his early history as a politician. He pursued some liberal causes when he joined the Senate in the 1930s, but also participated in a filibuster against anti-lynching legislation. His liberal tendencies caught the eye of Franklin Roosevelt, and defying the usual trend, he became more liberal as he grew older. He hints at a definition of liberalism that involves the United States government as a ready source of aid for the needy.

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

Well, did your own liberal instincts come out of populist tradition in that area?
Well, I just don't know why my philosophy developed. I think that it . . . I didn't have any near relatives in politics, except that my father ran for deputy sheriff one time, and chief of police, a farmer and a merchant, all of that, but he never did succeed very much in politics. I didn't have any other near relatives, except an uncle who was supertindent of public instruction in a south Alabama county. But I, from early days, had an aptitude toward politics. When I was in grammar school, I was president of the Heflin Literary Society and then later on, I was editor-in-chief of the Camp Hill Radiator, the little magazine that we put out. Then, I went to Dothan, Alabama and taught school for a year when I was seventeen years old, that would have been in the early days of the war. And then I took an interest in BYPU and was president the following year and my first year in college, I was president of the Alabama BYPU. Then at college, the University of Alabama, I was a member of the executive committee from the freshman class, my first year. Later on, I represented the University on the debating team and at the Southern Oratorical Contest at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I ran for president of the student body in my last year. My third year, I took the course in three years and one summer. And fortunately lost. And then I went to Harvard Law School and I was president of the Beal Law Club, one of the law clubs at the law school. Then, I went to the University of Arkansas and taught law for a year and then moved to Florida, to Perry, Florida, down below Tallahassee. And I hadn't been there quite three years when I was elected to the Florida legislature, the house of representatives. And then I was named to the state Democratic executive committee. Then I was defeated for re-election there in 1930 and moved to Tallahassee and in '34, I ran for the U.S. Senate against an incumbent Senator, lost by 4,050 votes. They stole it from me, but I didn't complain about it. Two years later, both Senators died, in '36. I first announced against the one that I had previously opposed and when the other one died, I switched over, I made an effort for his seat, and no one ran against me in the primary or general election. So, I was nominated and elected when I had just become 36 years old, to the United States Senate. So, when I came here, I had taken a liberal position in my first campaign for the Senate in '34. My first plank in my platform was for federal aid to education. And my people were relatively poor people and I had a deep sympathy for the problems of the South, I knew something about those problems. I worked in a steel mill one summer at Ensley, Alabama and I did some summer work on the farm and all that. But I still, in '38, participated in a filibuster here against an anti-lynching bill in the Senate. Because I thought that a Senator from the South had to do that. But instead of talking about pot-likker and reading the Bible and so-and-so as a filibuster, I talked about the economic conditions of the South. And I said, "If you people from the North would help us to improve our economic position in the South, we wouldn't have so much of this problem that you are trying to deal with in this way now." But from then on, that was in '38, from then on, I never again participated in a filibuster. I voted for every resolution of cloture. I voted everytime to include the rules to prevent a filibuster. I voted for every civil rights bill that came up. So, I guess that I came probably under the spell of Roosevelt more than anything else. I was groping for . . . well, my first speech in the Senate, June 17, 1937, they had up an appropriation bill for the relief administration. And I got up late one afternoon and made my speech and it was a liberal speech. One of the things that I pointed out was that in every period of the past, whenever there were problems to be met, there was somebody raising the red flag of danger and saying, "you can't afford to do that." Or, "we musn't do that." And I said, "But the progress of humanity has been achieved by those who have said, ‘let's go ahead." And so on. And so, Bob Wagner came to me the next day, Senator Wagner from New York, and said, "Pepper, I was down to see President Roosevelt this morning and he said, ‘What sort of fellow is young Pepper who made that speech yesterday afternoon in the Senate?' " And he said, "Well . . . (inaudible) and he said, "Well, I knew that he was here, but . . . tell him to come down and see me, I would like to talk to him." And that had caught his eye, the idea that a new Senator from the South would get up and make that kind of a speech. And I got into a colloquy with Bailey from North Carolina. And I got the laugh on him a time or two, for which he never forgave me. But anyway, I have grown generally, I grew more liberal as I grew older. Whereas, it is just the opposite here in most instances. Men like Pat Harrison came here as a great liberal and wound up as a great conservative. A noble man and my dear friend, but that's what happens. And that's what generally happens here. But I happen to have gone in the other direction, I don't know just why, except that I just saw what the colossal problems and needs of the people were in so many areas, education, health and job training and housing and all the things that have to do with the amenities of life. And I didn't know any area where was this potential aid equivalent to the federal government. This was a great country and if we could get the federal government behind it . . . you see that statue right on my desk, that's a Samothrace, the Winged Victory, given me by the Lasky Foundation with a ten thousand dollar honorarium for being the author of five bills for setting up institutes in the national institute of health, like heart and different ones, heart and a whole lot of others. So, I saw all those needs and here was a great government that had a power to help and it seemed to me that there was a place to turn if you wanted to do anything. As I often said, I didn't have any money, I couldn't be a Rockefeller or a Ford, but if I could get the United States Government behind it, I could do things even more than they could do. And so my ideas, the best thing that I could do to explain it is that just by having a conscience that was concerned, about the problems, turned to what seemed to me to be a ready source of aid. Now, if you want to call that liberalism, that's what it was.