- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Every senator is given a seat on some committee or other, and Bilbo—one of the least respected members—was put on the one considered least consequential: the District of Columbia Committee. There, it was thought, he could do no harm. But no one had counted on the effects of seniority, particularly in a committee that most senators left as soon as they could. In 1943, Bilbo became chairman of the District Committee, a job carrying the unofficial title “Mayor of Washington,” since the city then had no elected government of its own and depended on Congress for its budget. It would have been hard to imagine a more alarming choice for the job of “mayor” of what was being called the “capital of the free world,” because there was no one more likely to reveal to the world Washington’s most shameful secrets.
Most white Washingtonians rarely saw black people, except when they had black servants in their homes or black service workers at their offices. But nearly a third of the city was black, one of the highest percentages of any city outside the former Confederacy, and the number was rising. Every day, more black migrants streamed across the Fourteenth Street Bridge from Virginia: young men alone, with their possessions tied up in bundles carried on sticks on their shoulders; families, with small children in tow, sometimes bringing a few farm animals with them; refugees escaping the poverty of the tobacco lands of rural Virginia and North Carolina or the cotton communities of the Deep South. They were hoping for something better than long days in the field for low pay and large debts, but in Washington they seldom found it.
Few of the newcomers had access to the jealously guarded world of the black middle class ensconced on one side of Capitol Hill and in parts of Georgetown. So they did what generations of newly arrived African Americans had done before them. They moved to “the alleys,” rows of tiny, shabby dwellings crammed behind row houses in the residential areas next to Capitol Hill. For a while after the Civil War, new Irish immigrants competed with freed slaves for space in the alleys. But after a time, the Irish moved on. The African Americans remained.
They lived in a squalor that some whites might have found more alarming had it not all been so conveniently out of sight. Alley dwellings often had no plumbing. One water faucet on a pipe rising up from the ground was used by several houses. Open-ended barrels set down over holes in the ground served as privies—the city health department counted fifteen thousand of them—and were used by as many as thirty people each. The alley shacks themselves were crumbling, unpainted, unheated, and filthy.
Wherever they lived—on “the Hill” or in the alleys or in the crumbling Georgetown houses that were now being snatched up by New Dealers and converted into expensive housing—they looked out on a city that was rigidly and thoroughly segregated. Throughout the city, hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, libraries, and taxicabs refused to serve blacks. Retail stores, even those in black neighborhoods dealing with black customers, refused to hire black sales clerks. Dress shops allowed black women to buy clothes but wouldn’t let them try them on. White residential neighborhoods were governed by strict covenants forbidding homeowners to sell their houses to blacks (or, in many neighborhoods, to Jews).
For years, the federal government had hired virtually no blacks—a few dozen janitors and messengers, but not many others. And while things had gotten a little better under the New Deal—blacks occupied enough significant offices that they were able to form an informal “black cabinet” to try to advance their goals—most of the federal bureaucracy remained under the control of whites from Central High School and the like.
This was the city Bilbo encountered when he became its un- official “mayor,” the place he promised to turn into “the model city of the world.” He would not, he said, let the Washington establishment continue its passive, genteel ways. He would, he promised, shake things up. Washington soon learned that Bilbo wasn’t joking. Every move he made was somehow related to his hatred of the city’s black population and his efforts to subordinate them, or to send them away. In less than a month, the newspapers and church and civic organizations were crying for his scalp. The uproar started when the “mayor” of the nation’s eleventh largest city made the following pronouncements:
• All the 20,000 persons living in the capital’s alley dwellings, 90 percent of them African Americans, must move out within one year, thus clearing up the city’s worst slums in one grand swoop. This ill-housed, low-income group had to find homes elsewhere—on their own. Those who couldn’t had to go back to the farm, wherever that might have been.
• Washingtonians, barred by law from voting, should not be granted suffrage, according to Bilbo, even though they had been asking for it continually since Congress took it away in 1878. “If suffrage should be granted,” he said, “the Negroes would soon have control of the city and the alleys would be outvoting the avenues.” Much of his language on the subject of Washington’s black population was a great deal more shocking than that.
The Washington Post immediately labeled Bilbo’s new administration “An Adventure in Bigotry” and asked for his removal. The Southeast Council of Churches, calling him “anti-Christian and unpatriotic,” asked for another District Committee chairman. The Negro Tribune called him “the Bilbonic plague,” the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said he was “unfit to preside,” and the Washington Daily News said, “Throw him out.” Hostesses in white Washington society made Bilbo a pariah, a crude and embarrassing figure never to be admitted into a respectable home.
Undeterred, Bilbo demanded a stiffer penal code for Washington, a city that at the time was almost completely free of organized or big-scale crime, and advocated taking back from the state of Virginia a thirty-square-mile strip of land that had once been a part of the District. The land had been given back to Virginia in 1846. “That,” said Bilbo, reviving an issue a century dead, “was a mistake.”
Washington was accustomed by sad experience to being governed by out-of-towners who knew nothing of its local problems. Residents had no voice in their own government. For decades, an act of Congress was required to change the hours for turning on streetlights or the days when shad could be sold in fish markets. Most residents had to some degree accepted their votelessness and political invalidism as a price they paid for front-row seats at the drama that is the national government. But in 1943, some of them began to think that Bilbo was setting the price too high.
What really started the organized campaign against him was a speech Bilbo made before the Mississippi legislature after his first month as District Committee chairman. It shocked most of Washington, official and otherwise, white and black. His remark that blacks “would soon have control of the city” if suffrage were granted in the District of Columbia was the starting point. He was horrified that some white and black government employees used the same cafeterias. He complained about white and black soldiers patronizing the same canteens, and wound up his tirade with a demand to “ostracize all who cross the color line.” That kind of language might not have been unusual in Mississippi, or even in Washington, a decade or two earlier. But in the 1940s, with the nation at war, government officials were under pressure to behave themselves before the world. Bilbo ignored the pressure.
His Senate colleagues, reluctant to enter into the tangle Bilbo had woven around himself, said little about his Mississippi speech beyond that it was “unfortunate.” Elsewhere the reaction was less restrained. Demands for his removal from the District Committee chairmanship were loud. Bilbo refused to resign.
Campaigning for re-election in 1946, Bilbo said that “the way to keep the nigger from the polls is to see him the night before.” But ironically, the most unvarnished racist in the Congress was under attack from his opponents in Mississippi that year for being—of all things—soft on white supremacy. Earlier in his career, Bilbo had campaigned against the poll tax in Mississippi—not because he had wanted blacks to vote, but because he knew that the tax also kept from the polls many of his poor white supporters in the hill country. Now his opponents used this against him. With the war over and black soldiers returning determined to claim the rights they had been told they had been fighting for, white supremacists everywhere were ratcheting up their rhetoric. Bilbo had to struggle to keep up. “In this fight for white supremacy in the South,” his opponents said, “we must have men in Washington who believe in the poll tax.” Never mind that Bilbo had filibustered against poll-tax repeal. Never mind that he had called for U.S. blacks to emigrate to West Africa. Never mind that he had once recommended making Eleanor Roosevelt “First Lady of Liberia.”
Bilbo won the election despite their efforts, but he lost his “mayoralty” in the process. Republicans now controlled the Senate, and the chairmanship of the District Committee went to one of them. Bilbo had other worries by that point: stopping the now very serious effort to bar him from the Senate. Glen Taylor, a liberal Democrat from Idaho, called for the Senate to investigate his colleague’s behavior because it “reflects seriously on the integrity of this body.” Republicans expressed horror at Bilbo’s call for barring blacks from voting in Mississippi in 1946. “Never to the knowledge of the undersigned,” a group of Republican senators said in a committee report, “has such vile, contemptible, inflammatory, and dangerous language been uttered in a campaign for the purpose of procuring nomination and election by an incumbent and member of the United States Senate, sworn to uphold the Constitution.” Those senators had obviously not spent much time in the South.
Once the new Congress convened, other senators began investigating Bilbo’s relations with war contractors. There were charges, probably true, that he had used his Senate position to win war contracts for friends and had received generous payoffs in return. It seemed almost certain that the Senate would vote to deny him his seat. But Bilbo was now nearing seventy, and while he was still able to raise a ruckus, he was sick. In the middle of the battle to unseat him, he suddenly disappeared from Washington. A few days later, word came that he was back in Poplarville, dying. The campaign to bar him from the Senate fizzled. And a few months later Bilbo was indeed dead.
For years after, Bilbo (and “Bilboism”) became a symbol for a kind of unvarnished, unreconstructed racism that most white people in Washington liked to think was beneath them. The city was, of course, still segregated. Black families continued to live in alley dwellings. Nothing very much had changed. But now that they had “gotten rid of” Bilbo, it was possible for white Washingtonians to return to their comfortable, genteel ways, unreminded of the racial problems around them. Herman Talmadge came to the Senate in the mid-1950s as a senator from Georgia, after serving as governor and proving himself just as determined a segregationist and white supremacist as Bilbo, but Washington hostesses lionized him because he was so polite and courteous and “refined,” because he wasn’t anything like that crude, terrible, foulmouthed man from Mississippi who wasn’t fit to enter their drawing rooms. Bilbo had become, in the memories of white Washingtonians and of most members of Congress, something like a bad hurricane—an awful event that had blown through town, shaken things up, and then was gone, leaving the city free to settle back into its old ways, its old habits, its old prejudices, for just a little while longer.
From the Hardcover edition.
|J. Edgar Hoover||28|
|Normandy, 1944 and 1994||91|
|Two Cities on the Edge of the Cold War||124|
|A State Visit||174|
|The Kennedy Assassination||186|
|A Reflection on a Life in Broadcast News||201|