• U.S.

The Administration: Squeeze in the South

4 minute read

About as welcome as the Yankee militia, Attorney General Robert Kennedy last week invaded the Deep South. Ignoring race-baiting pickets, he conferred with Alabama’s Segregationist Governor George Wallace (a draw), spoke to law students at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, talked to Justice Department lawyers in the field about ways to speed up Negro voting registration in the South.*

The Attorney General fielded the students’ spirited questions amiably and frankly, and was rewarded with rousing applause. Later, addressing a contingent from the American Association of University Professors, Kennedy said: “The Negroes in this country cannot be expected indefinitely to tolerate the injustices which flow from official and private racial discrimination. As years pass, resentment increases. The only cure for resentment is progress. I am obligated by my oath of office to uphold and enforce the law. If you were in my position, you could do no less than I.”

Kennedy’s remarks, coupled with his other activities in the South, underscored not only the Administration’s drive to ease the lot of the Southern Negro, but the recognition that the Negro vote is vital to a major New Frontier drive to remake the South’s Democratic Party.

Not Born Yesterday. The Republican surge in the South is a recognized fact of U.S. political life. Less widely understood is the ferment within the Southern Democratic Party. Last March, Charles D. Roche, 35, No. 2 man on the Democratic National Committee, canvassed the South, reported that Negro, labor, educational and religious leaders are ready for revolt against the party’s entrenched, old-style officeholders. From Roche’s trip came rumors that the Administration meant to “purge” hostile Democratic Southern Congressmen in 1964.

That is not quite right. Administration leaders, among them Bobby Kennedy, realize fully that a public purge might boomerang, bringing cries of Government interference and ensuring the re-election of Congressmen opposed to the New Frontier. Says Bobby of the purge possibility: “I was not born yesterday.” But what the Administration does intend to do is squeeze its Southern critics—and squeeze them hard.

The Democratic National Committee keeps careful files on congressional voting records. Southern insurgents, no matter how friendly they may be to the New Frontier, will be discouraged from running in Democratic primaries against incumbent Congressmen who have been reasonably cooperative with the Administration. But opponents of unfriendly Congressmen will receive covert Administration support, plus open political and financial aid from labor and Negro leaders.

The Payoff. There is, of course, a chance that the hostile Congressman might win the primary anyway—and then, his party split, go on to lose to a Republican in November. This prospect does not bother the Administration one bit. To get rid of a Southern Congressman who, by reason of seniority, has stood as a formidable roadblock to Kennedy programs, the Administration is willing to risk a Republican taking over—at least for a couple of years, after which the Administration would hope to win the place back with a Democrat more in its own image.

The Kennedy strategy plainly requires as broad a Southern voting franchise as possible. The National Committee, at “the request of local districts,” is cooperating in registration drives throughout the South. Both the Administration and the National Committee are urging state legislatures to adopt the anti-poll tax amendment to the Constitution. Attorney General Kennedy’s trip was part of the overall effort. By knocking down the barriers against Negro voting, the Administration can not only help strengthen Negro rights, but—if the attempt pays off—make the South’s Democratic Party more to the New Frontier’s liking.

-As if to emphasize the travails of the South, an integrationist postman named William Moore, walking from Chattanooga, Tenn. to Jackson, Miss, to protest segregation, was shot and killed on a lonely Alabama highway. President Kennedy called the slaying an ”outrageous crime,” and Alabama’s Wallace offered a $1,000 reward for the murderer’s capture.

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