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These Days Even LBJ Looks Like a Man of Character

Political Sell-Outs in Black and White

by J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr.

I often say on my radio show that politics is a strange, almost a ridiculous profession. I don’t believe it is a profession because there are no qualifications to be met except the ability to hustle the voters. Preaching is almost as bad. To be a politician or preacher, all you need to do is announce you are one. There are no educational requirements or professional examinations. Hell, even a plumber and an electrician must qualify for a license to practice their calling. Any nut, however, can run for public office, and far too many do.

A disgusted young black mother called the show in total outrage because both the black city council president in Selma and the black superintendent of city schools were holding back on purchasing land and constructing a much-needed high school building for black children and primarily because the white minority opposes it. The mother angrily said, " We must get rid of these ignorant black people in public positions with their personal agendas." She called them "self promoters," and said, "we need leaders who will help protect our babies."

I agree 100%.

A black leader, political or otherwise, in Selma, Alabama who opposes the new school project for whatever manufactured reasons is clearly a sellout. A few days after the angry black mother called, a black educator called and said we must get rid of every black leader who eagerly supports white interests, but concocts reasons to oppose black interests. I said to him that we must first learn how to motivate blacks to go to the polls in such large numbers so there will be no tokens and no "Uncle Tom" sellouts. That is the only way to do it. 17,000 of us didn’t even bother to vote in the last county primary election.

On the other hand, I watched a few politicians who weren’t much when elected to office but who matured in office, but most politicians do not. President Harry S. Truman is a rare exception. President Lyndon B. Johnson is another. Johnson was an outspoken racist until he began to hanker to be president but he always had a deep compassion for poor people, even poor black people. Johnson was dirt poor himself until he was about 30 years old. In 1957, two years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott caught the attention of the world and pushed civil rights to center stage, Johnson, Senate Majority Leader, began changing his image with great cunning and pushed through the senate the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. Later as President, he forced through a reluctant congress both the Public Accommodations Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill of 1965. Johnson won his first full term as President in 1964 by a landslide.

Years before Johnson moved to the White House, he referred to blacks as niggers. Johnson was a complicated man–ambitious, a womanizer, ruthless, racist and a crooked politician who stole at least one statewide election. On the other hand, he appointed the first black person, Thurgood Marshall, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike many politicians, Johnson actually matured in public office.

President Harry S. Truman, a Confederate sympathizer from the border state of Missouri, achieved the impossible in civil rights in the 1940s before Johnson had garnered any real power in Washington. Truman closest associates were white racist Southerners (Dixiecrats) who controlled both houses of congress. These racists used the word "nigger" openly in speeches on the floor of congress and while a law school student in Washington, D.C., I used to sit in the visitor’s gallery in congress and hear my own representative refer to we blacks as "niggers."

Initially, Truman was not elected President and came to that office via the Vice Presidency after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945. Truman was as beholden to the powerful Dixiecrats in Congress as had been Franklin D. Roosevelt, but unlike Roosevelt, Truman refused to bow and place politics over principle. He was outraged over the lynching of black people in the South and ordered both the Justice Department and the FBI to open investigations and prosecute the Ku Kluxers. Later, all white, all male Southern juries acquitted each Kluxer and Truman’s popularity in the Deep white South dipped to a new low.

The acquittals so outraged Truman that he signed and issued three unprecedented executive orders that sent the white South into fits. First, he ordered all federal agencies wherever situated in the country to racially integrate. Second, he ordered racial integration of the armed forces. If that were not enough, he created a new board, named it the Fair Employment Practices Commission and appointed two of the most radical blacks in the country to serve on the commission. After that, hardly anyone, except Truman, thought he had any chance of winning a full term as president in 1948. They were all wrong.

Strom Thurmond ran a 100% racist and outrageous Third Party campaign in 1948 against Truman and only carried Dixie. Republican Tom Dewey, Governor of New York, also ran but Truman won. It is interesting, at least to me, that Thurmond (the hypocrite) could stay out of a certain black woman’s bed long enough to run for anything. Truman matured in office and he also helped the county begin to mature on the important issue of race. He came into office small and went out large, but quite unpopular. It is open to question if his order to drop two atomic bombs on people of color was a correct decision. I believe it was a horrible mistake. Truman is rated now by most historians as one of the great presidents.

The late and last white mayor of Selma, Joe T. Smitherman, like Truman, was only a high school graduate, but ruled local politics for more than three decades by moving without mercy against anyone or any hint of opposition. There was more fear in white Selma of Smitherman than in black Selma. One thing, however, he would never do was to sell out white people. Can you even imagine Smitherman "sucking-up" to black folks by opposing a new school project for white children? I don’t know if Smitherman matured in office, but civil rights laws and court decisions changed him from a loud mouth racist to a practicing integrationist.

White leaders went into hiding when Smitherman and I pushed successfully for a bond issue to pave the muddy streets in black Selma. Little wonder white leaders don’t want a new school building for our children. White leaders were 100% silent during segregation when black voices cried out in great pain, in misery and for justice! Little wonder they don’t want a new school building for black children. White leaders looked the other way when innocent people were humiliated, beaten bloody on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 (known as "Bloody Sunday" in the violently aborted voting rights march to Montgomery when the Alabama State Patrol savagely beat the marchers). These same white leaders and their progeny oppose a new school building for the grandchildren of the bloody victims who suffered on the bridge.

LORD, please help us!

J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of "Black in Selma" with Julia Cass (1989 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and writes a weekly column called the "Hard Cold Truth". He can be reached at tmarshall@csspca.com.