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Bush and the Blacks: An Unknown Story

So Mr. President, tell us how you have worked through the issue of race in your own life,” Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey rose to ask on the Senate floor last July. “Tell us more about how you grappled with the moral imperatives embodied in race relations.” Bradley said he was disturbed by Bush’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act in 1964, his use of the convicted rapist Willie Horton as a campaign symbol in 1988, his opposition, since dropped, to the 1990 and 1991 Civil Rights Restoration Acts, and his nomination of the modestly qualified Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

What does your record mean?” Bradley asked. “What have you stood for?”

Bradley’s questions are central as President Bush prepares to run for reelection in 1992. Bush first established a record on racial issues in Texas in the 1960s. Some of the twists and turns of his public statements might seem to confirm the view that his positions on racial questions are mostly a matter of political expediency. Running for the Senate in 1964, Bush campaigned against the Civil Rights Act, criticizing its provisions for the desegregation of hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations as an unconstitutional intrusion of federal power on “States’ rights.” Six years later, he made much of his support for the “Philadelphia Plan,” the original federal program mandating quotas for hiring blacks. In the 1960s, if not today, George Bush was trying to reconcile the tradition of racial liberalism he grew up with, embodied by his father, Senator Prescott Bush, Jr., and his ambition to build a national political career in the conservative Sun Belt.

1. “The finest concept of States’ rights”

I do not think the Republican Party should be a rallying place for segregationists,” George Bush told the Houston Press in March 1963. “I want to attract Negroes into the Republican Party. I think the Negroes who believe in a limited government can help educate all levels of American society against class and race division.”1

Two weeks earlier, Bush had been elected chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. He was thirty-eight years old, the president and chief executive officer of Zapata Off-Shore, a successful oil-drilling business with operations in Trinidad, Mexico, and Kuwait. He was on record as supporting Barry Goldwater for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination. He was also serious about attracting black voters to the party.

In June 1963, as Harris County chairman, Bush established an organization of black Republicans called the Republican Alliance and opened an office in a black neighborhood. He appeared before black groups. “I’m citing [to them] their almost block voting for Democrats who have been outright racists against Republicans who are far from being in that category,” Bush told the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle reporter concluded, “Bush is walking a tightrope. While appealing to the Negro vote, he cannot afford to alienate ultra conservatives who are swinging more and more to his party.”2 Bush would continue to walk this tightrope for the next seven years.

Bush’s overtures to black voters were in keeping with two of Prescott Bush’s political maxims: that people who have enjoyed the privileges of great wealth and superior education have an obligation to serve others and that government has to serve all the people. As a senior at Yale in 1948, young George Bush led the campus drive for the United Negro College Fund. The elder Bush served as Connecticut chairman for the Fund in 1951.

During his last two years in the Senate Prescott Bush had been a strong supporter of civil rights legislation. In March 1962, a week after announcing that he would retire at the end of his term, Prescott Bush and a bipartisan group of northern senators offered legislation to protect the right of blacks to vote, to hasten school integration, to promote decent housing, to discourage violent resistance to desegregation, and to create a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity. This legislative package was a direct forerunner of the comprehensive civil rights bill that President Kennedy belatedly introduced to Congress in June 1963.3

In August 1963, after Martin Luther King led the March on Washington, the civil rights and labor leaders behind the march used the occasion to mount an extensive lobbying campaign on behalf of Kennedy’s controversial civil rights bill. Two weeks later George Bush announced his candidacy for the US Senate seat held by the liberal-populist Democrat Ralph Yarborough, making opposition to Kennedy’s civil rights bill the centerpiece of his campaign. “I believe in the finest concept of States’ rights—in keeping the government closest to the people,” Bush told a press conference in Austin. He acknowledged that the states’ rights doctrine might be repugnant to blacks and advocates of racial integration, but he insisted that moral persuasion under present laws was the only correct approach to the racial problem. “The question of a person’s heart in the civil rights quest is going to determine the solution,” Bush said.4

According to the San Antonio Express, Bush “emphatically” opposed the provisions in the civil rights bill which would guarantee blacks equal access to restaurants, hotels, restrooms, and other public accommodations. “Texas has done a wonderful job” on civil rights, he said. “We don’t need additional legislation of the public accommodations sort.”5 At the time, legally segregated public accommodations were common in East Texas and not unknown in Houston.

Baine Kerr, a senior partner at the Houston law firm of Baker and Botts who served as legal counsel for Zapata Off-Shore and who was a close friend of the Bush family, suggests that Bush ran for the Senate in order to emulate his father. But when questioned by conservatives about his differences with his father, Bush replied, “I am more oriented toward the separation of powers between the federal government and the states.” It was a revealing answer. Since the term “separation of powers” refers historically to the relationship between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government—not the relationship between the state and national governments—Bush’s euphemism signaled his support for “States’ rights” while muting, at least rhetorically, his differences with his father.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy and the succession of Lyndon Johnson in November 1963 transformed the politics of the civil rights bill. The bill Kennedy sponsored was thought to have only modest prospects for passage. After the assassination LBJ presented it as the legacy of the slain President and put all his considerable parliamentary skills behind it.

Ralph Yarborough, who as a member of the Commerce Committee had voted for the bill in October 1963, said he would vote for the bill on the floor of the Senate too. On March 17, 1964, George Bush warned an audience at the Dallas Country Club of Yarborough’s position on the civil rights bill. “I think most Texans share my opposition to this legislation,” Bush said.6

The same week that Bush spoke a Dallas polling firm hired by labor leaders supporting Yarborough took a confidential survey of opinion in four Texas congressional districts. The poll found widespread opposition to desegregation in public accommodations. In metropolitan Houston, 67 percent of respondents were opposed to a federal law allowing blacks and whites equal access to restaurants and hotels; only 27 percent favored such a law. And the opposition was bipartisan; 64 percent of Democratic voters were opposed.

But the Kennedy-Johnson civil rights bill also included provisions that covered employment and voting rights as well—and these were not unpopular. The same poll found that at least 73 percent of all respondents in each of the four congressional districts favored legislation protecting the right of blacks to vote. No fewer than 62 percent in all four districts favored laws to guarantee equal employment opportunity. Laws to protect employment and voting rights were a minimum of 28 percentage points more popular than the protection of equal access to public accommodations, suggesting that Texans would support civil rights legislation, so long as it didn’t require mixing blacks and whites in social situations.7

Bush’s opposition to the bill put him in the company of segregationists. In the spring of 1964, George Wallace ran with an openly segregationist appeal against LBJ in the Democratic presidential primaries in three northern states and won 34 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, 30 percent in Indiana, and 45 percent in Maryland.8 Bush told The Dallas Morning News that Wallace’s showing “indicates to me that there must be a general concern from many responsible people over the civil rights bill all over the nation.” He interpreted the Wallace vote as a protest vindicating his position against the fair employment practices and public accommodations sections of the bill, which he described as “unconstitutional.”9

In early April 1964, Senator Edward Kennedy charged that those opposing the bill were hate-mongers. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Bush replied in a speech to the Downtown Republican Club in Houston. “We all deplore the hate mongers of this world. The only thing I hate to see is our Constitution trampled in the process of trying to solve civil rights problems.” Bush insisted that the bill would “make further inroads into the rights of individuals and the states, and even provide for the ultimate destruction of our trial by jury system.”10

Three other conservative Republicans had entered the Republican senatorial primary. While Bush had outspent and out-organized them, they played on suspicions among grassroots Texas conservatives about Bush’s East Coast pedigree and the liberalism of his father. In the spring of 1964, a group in Dallas circulated a pamphlet called “Who’s Behind the Bushes.” It revealed that five of Bush’s campaign contributors were members of the Council on Foreign Relations and reminded Republican voters of Prescott Bush’s support for civil rights legislation. In the two weeks before the June 8 Republican primary election, Bush responded to this criticism by reformulating his opposition to the civil rights bill.

Here it is worth recalling that in the spring of 1964, Texas newspaper editors were fascinated by stories of criminal violence by blacks, especially in New York City. A mugging on the New York subway could make the front page in Dallas. When Bush criticized the civil rights bill in June 1964 for denying jury trials in job discrimination cases, he cited New York as an example of “where the case is tried in the street,” adding that New York State had both a fair employment practices commission and a law banning discrimination in public accommodation laws. By raising the specter of black violence against whites, Bush was further distancing himself from the liberal racial politics of the East Coast.

Bush won the Republican primary and set his sights on Yarborough. “I favor keeping government close to the people, States’ rights in the constitutional concept,” Bush was quoted as saying in The Dallas Morning News. “He [Yarborough] favors government by bureau and handout.”11

  1. 1

    Houston Press, March 5, 1963, p. 16.

  2. 2

    Houston Chronicle, May 23, 1963, p. 9.

  3. 3

    The Republican cosponsors were Prescott Bush, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, and Kenneth Keating of New York. The Democratic sponsors were the liberals Philip Hart of Michigan and Paul Douglas of Illinois.

  4. 4

    The Dallas Morning News, September 12, 1963.

  5. 5

    San Antonio Express, September 12, 1963.

  6. 6

    As quoted in the Bush Bulletin, a biweekly newsletter of the Bush campaign, March 20, 1964. I found the Bulletin in materials made available to me by John Knaggs, author of the book Two Party Texas, and the librarians at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. I am grateful for their help.

  7. 7

    A copy of the study, by the consulting firm Louis, Bowles, and Grace of Dallas, is to be found in the Ralph Yarborough papers at the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

  8. 8

    Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, by Thomas Byrne Edsall with Mary D. Edsall (Norton, 1991), p. 49.

  9. 9

    The Dallas Morning News, April 9, 1963.

  10. 10

    The Dallas Morning News, April 11, 1964; Bush Bulletin, April 17, 1964. The original version of the civil rights bill provided for administrative, not judicial, enforcement of discrimination complaints. Critics of the bill saw this provision as a threat to the right to a jury trial. The bill was later amended to provide for jury trials in criminal contempt cases where administrative penalties exceeded $300 in fines or thirty days in jail.

  11. 11

    The Dallas Morning News, June 10, 1964.

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