• U.S.

Civil Rights: The Continuing Confrontation

6 minute read

Chomping on a long black cigar in an amber holder, stubby, silver-haired Leander Perez, segregationist boss of Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, gave the Senate Judiciary Committee the lowdown on what Negroes are really like. “They are of immoral character,” drawled the Democratic politician. Their only interest is “to get welfare checks,” he said. “They are a low type of citizenship.”

Give them the vote? Poppycock, puffed Perez. Why, in a neighboring parish there were 800 registered Negroes, “and every damn election they’ve got to bribe them.” What is more, he added, they had to be bribed according to class. “There are $2 voters, $5 voters and $10 voters,” he declared. “And they know each other too. The $10 voters would not ride to the polls with a $2 voter—it’s beneath their dignity.”

For hours the Senators permitted Perez to prattle on. Finally their patience wore thin. When Perez declared that “there is a Communist plan” behind the bill, Illinois Republican Everett M. Dirksen, one of its chief architects, made him eat his words. “That,” snapped Senator Dirksen, “is about as stupid a statement as has ever been uttered in this committee room.” Cowed, Perez asked that his comment be stricken from the record.

The confrontation between segregationist and Senate minority leader was only one of a cavalcade of scenes in the continuing drama of the civil rights movement last week. Elsewhere:

> In the House Un-American Activities Committee, five Southerners joined the other four members in unanimously approving a full-scale investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. According to Chairman Edwin E. Willis, a Louisiana Democrat, a preliminary study showed that “shocking crimes are carried out by highly secret action groups within the Klans.” And despite the committee’s disrepute in some quarters for its blunt and into-every-corner antiCommunism, there were signs that it might prove the sharpest ax on Capitol Hill for cutting the Klan down to size. “Klanism is incompatible with Americanism,” said Chairman Willis. “The South and the entire nation will be much better off if all Klan influence is ended, once and for all.”

>In Alabama’s Capitol atop Goat Hill in Montgomery, Governor George C. Wallace spent 80 minutes talking cordially with 16 civil rights leaders who had vainly attempted to see him after the march from Selma to Montgomery two weeks ago. “If he had laid it on just a little bit thicker,” said one of the delegates, “he would have had everyone in that room run out and vote for him.” He did slip once, though, when he told his visitors, all but one of them Negroes, how upset he had been at reports that his highway patrol had recently mistreated a couple of “niggers.” Otherwise Wallace was as smooth and strong as bonded bourbon. He even gave the delegates autographed portraits of himself.

> In Camden, Ala., seat of Wilcox County, demonstrators picked up where they had left off in Selma, 33 miles to the northeast. Negro students, some only nine years old, tried five times to march into the town to demand voting rights for Wilcox Negroes, who outnumber whites 4 to 1, but had been unable to register a single member ot their race until last month. Each time Mayor Reginald Albritton halted them with an augmented force of volunteer cops, county deputies and state troopers. “If you don’t have a parade permit, don’t go past that sign,” barked Albritton, pointing to a town-limits marker. When a Negro youth stepped over the town boundary line, Albritton tossed a smoke bomb at his feet. Two volunteer cops pitched canisters at the fleeing crowd, and though nobody was hurt, the disheartened demonstrators retreated.

> In Birmingham, scene of 23 racial bombings since 1956, a dynamite explosion and two near misses shocked the city. In an alleyway outside the home of prosperous Negro Accountant Toussaint L’Overture Crowell, a bomb made with 15 dynamite sticks demolished two garages, tore a hole three feet deep and ten feet long, luckily caused no graver injuries than a cut requiring five stitches in the hand of Crowell’s 13-year-old son. Another bomb was ticking away on the porch of white Councilwoman Nina Miglionico, a racial moderate, when her 80-year-old father stepped outside for the morning newspaper and noticed a green box. “I thought it was a gift,” he said. But when he saw what was inside, “I took the clock out and threw it out of the yard.” Police immediately rushed to the homes of the other eight city council members and moderate Mayor Albert Boutwell, a precaution that paid off. Outside the mayor’s home was a powerful time bomb containing 50 sticks of dynamite, enough to level the house. When Wallace learned of the bombing, he ordered his plane diverted from Washington to Birmingham and made a beeline for the Croweli place. “This is an infamous and dastardly action,” he said.

The bombs in Birmingham and Camden gave impetus to the latest campaign of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—a threatened economic boycott of the whole state of Alabama as a means of ending “this reign of terror.” King’s reliance on the boycott technique was certainly understandable. It was the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, after all, that propelled him to national fame and won considerable support for the Negro cause.

But the idea drew heavy fire, even from his fans, because of the effect it might have on the Negroes, who make up one-third of Alabama’s population, and on innocent whites as well. Said National Urban League Executive Director Whitney Young: “I have some reservations about a total boycott that makes no distinction between the good guys and the bad guys.” For similar reasons, President Johnson was cool to the idea. “We must be very careful,” said the President at a White House press conference, “to see that we do not punish the innocent while we are trying to protect all of our people.”

With the pressure on, King agreed, during a Baltimore meeting of his Southern Christian Leadership Council, to soften his approach—but only slightly. Instead of a total and immediate boycott, he urged a three-stage “withdrawal of economic support and purchasing power,” beginning with a cutoff of all federal funds and an appeal to such U.S. companies as Dan River Mills, Hammermill Paper, and some two dozen others to cancel plans to build plants in Alabama. The final stage, King said, would be a nationwide boycott of Alabama-made consumer products, though there is a notable scarcity of such items, since the state is mostly a supplier of raw materials. What would he do if President Johnson personally asked him to call off the boycott? “I’m afraid,” said King, “I would have to say no to him.”

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