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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 >>

Support for civil rights costs a politician his career

Pepper regrets the effects his support for civil rights had on his political career, which seemed to be on the rise until his defeat in 1950. However, he feels strongly that he honored his beliefs and worked to improve the country, so he sacrificed success for principle. He ends his thoughts with a brief description of the 1950 campaign he lost, a campaign marred by dirty politics by his opponent.

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

How do you feel about it now, looking back on your voting record and what it cost you compared with other southern liberals who compromised on civil rights and compromised on other liberal positions, liberals who later ended up being conservatives? Would you rather have gone that route, looking back on it, or . . . .
Well, as I look back on it, I don't know . . . the question mark always arises in one's mind if he has had an unhappy experience as to whether he could have avoided it or not. I could not have avoided what I did and been the man I was and the man I hope I am. A man having some regard for principle and for the black polity. Now, it has many tragical personal aspects. I would have become chairman of the foreign relations committee in the Senate within about two years of the time I was defeated, if I had been returned to the Senate. And would have served longer in that position than any man in the history of the country. Fulbright now has, but I would still have been chairman if I had remained in the Senate. And if I had trimmed my sails, way back there, I don't know how far back I would have had trimmed them, nor how much. At least Hill and Sparkman survived, as I said, because they never voted for civil rights, they always participated in the filibuster. They never came out for national health insurance. I did. They never came out for minimum wage, I did. I've got a cartoon out there on my wall showing the sprinkling of Pepper over the transom door of the rules committee in 1938 and the minimum wage bill coming out of the door below. Because I made an issue and I've got a picture here, they have it framed, my picture is on the front of Time Magazine with my little red unknown and underneath the picture it says, "A Florida fighting cock will be a White House weathervane." And that meant here was a southerner making an issue of minimum wage, fighting for it and winning. And they said that immediately after my primary victory, which was nationally acclaimed, why they filed a petition to discharge the rules committee that was blocking the consideration of the minimum wage bill, and they flocked up to sign it, which was attributed to the fact that a southern Senator could win on that issue. Although I had a bitter campaign, a former governor ran against me. Mark Wilcox, who was an able Representative, left the House to run against me, and I had two or three other nondescript fellows. Incidentally, Joe Kennedy, who while he was Ambassador to the Court of St. James, at whose embassy we were having dinner one evening, my wife and I in '38, said to me down the table, "Claude, if I had known that your winning your election down there this last spring was going to make that man in the White House go crazy so nobody could tell him anything, I never would have supported you." He had given me a $2500 contribution. So, it apparently heartened President Roosevelt to believe that he could go ahead with his program. Now, I could have been somebody else, I wouldn't have been Claude Pepper as I am now, as I have generally been known. Everyday, I see somebody from all around over the country that says, "My father remembers you. I remember you . . . I was always a booster of Claude Pepper." Well, it was because people thought that I fought for things that I thought were right for the country. So, you always have the problem as to whether you ever fight for anything. You know, if you are ever going to have a battle, you've got to have somebody that's got to be up in front. Now, they may not last through the battle, but somebody has to be a part of the advance. And, I reckon that I just had to pay the price of losing what could have been a long Senate career, because I did have some convictions and principles. Maybe I was foolish enough to try and stand by them, I don't know. But taking it all in all, I will let the record stand as it is. And I suspect that if I had it all to do over again, I would do exactly what I did before. I would hope that the vicious forces that defeated me and many others of liberal disposition might succeed again as they did then. And I can see now that I could have run a better campaign, but the trouble was that I didn't have much money. I had $200,000 and Smathers had two million. That actually put me at a great disadvantage. And then I waited too late. Frankly, they caught me by surprise with the blitzkrieg that they put on. It was like the German blitzkrieg in World War II. It was a massive effort where they coordinated the Republicans, the reactionaries, the anti-labor people, the doctors. Then, they stirred up a lot of emotionalism about the communist issue, all that and then resorted to every devious trick tactic. This Dick Banner that has been involved in giving $100,000 to Bebe Rebozo was Smathers campaign manager against me. A former FBI man and they had two FBI men shadowing me from the first part of the year, right on up through the campaign. It just happened that I found out one day that they had tapped my telephone. All the time. Everytime that I went to a hotel, they would bribe the telephone operator to tell them all about my telephone . . . to let them in on all my telephone conservations, and if I lay down for a nap or something, to tell them that, "He's napping right now, but he left word to call him in twenty minutes or something like that." That sort of thing went on throughout the whole campaign.
You say FBI men, do you mean former FBI . . . .
I mean former FBI men, yeah.