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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Quitting a Quorum

Did you see the item about the radical Republican lawmakers in Oregon who left the state so that the legislature would not have a quorum?  This is the tactic of little boys who take their marbles and run rather than finish a game they are going to lose.  The Oregon guys probably were surprised when the Democratic governor – the state's third woman in that office -- sent law enforcement to round them up to do their lawful duty.  This is outrageous behavior on the part of elected officials who have taken an oath of office, but it has happened before. 


When the 19th Amendment that granted full voting rights to women in every state was up for ratification during the long, hot summer of 1920, Tennessee clearly was on the verge of becoming the last necessary state.  Conservative businessmen, especially liquor lobbyists, played every trick in the playbook to keep that from happening -- including wiretapping phones in the Nashville hotel where feminist leaders were staying.  When that proved futile, a handful of their puppets in the legislature holed up for more than a week in Decatur, Alabama, intending to prevent a quorum back in Tennessee. 


It backfired:  the governor and other legislators took matters into their own hands, got one crucial young Republican to switch his vote, and sent the amendment off to Washington.  That's how we got our rights, sisters, and you can expect more details on this as we head to the centennial on August 26th next year.  People already are talking about this, so I plan to remind you regularly of important steps along the way.  I'll begin by catching up with June, motivated by Debbie Katt, the Democratic legislative candidate for Valrico last year.  She asked me to clarify what she was hearing on the news about the significance of June 4th.  Here goes:


Being the First


Women's right to vote was a major issue in the 1918 mid-term elections, and Senate President Henry Cabot Lodge did everything he could to slow momentum.  The equivalent of a stubborn Mitch McConnell, Lodge finally let the 19th Amendment out of Congress to go to the states for ratification on June 4, 1919.  A Republican from Massachusetts, he knew it would pass the Senate by the constitutionally required 2/3 majority, so he held it up until most legislatures adjourned their spring terms, hoping to hamper ratifications. 


Florida Governor Sidney Catts learned about the Senate passage from the Associated Press, not from official channels, and he asked the legislature to ratify before its scheduled adjournment the next day.  Our feminist leaders, however, did not trust the legislators, and fearing a nationally publicized loss immediately out of the starting gate, they did not press for a vote.  Like schoolboys let out on vacation, Florida legislators went home. 


That was a Friday, and on the following Tuesday, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin all ratified.  Indeed, advocates were on the phone about what was happening in the other states, as each wanted to be first.  Michigan, where women won the vote in a 1918 referendum, was unanimous in both chambers.  In the four chambers of the two other states, just six men voted negatively.  


Three more states – Kansas, New York, and Ohio -- voted the next week.  Kansas had held the nation's first referendum on the issue back in 1867, and its women had full rights since 1912.  Ratification was unanimous, and the resolution was introduced by a female legislator.  New York women had won the vote in 1917, but one state senator nonetheless spoke against ratification of the federal amendment.  Ohio was unanimous, but some Ohio men filed Hawk vs. Smith (1920), a lawsuit intended to make constitutional ratifications more difficult.


Despite the efforts of conservative forces, the 19th Amendment was on a roll.  During the rest of June, in chronological order, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Texas ratified.  Texas women had won the vote for the Democratic primary – the only election that mattered there – in 1917, but the two Northern states never had enfranchised women.  Nor were these states as unified as the earlier ratifications.  In seemingly liberal Massachusetts, 47 of the 185 men in the House voted against women's right to vote.


So that's it for June.  Then as now, most legislatures take the summer off, and I'll speak to this again in September.


Moral Courage…


Southern Illinois University Press sent me a copy of "Harry Truman and Civil Rights:  Moral Courage and Political Risks" by Michael R. Gardner.  I think the book is indicative of growing recognition that much progress on civil rights was promoted by presidents from the South.  Although that is not Gardner's thesis, it is true that Truman of Missouri, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, and Bill Clinton of Arkansas did more than other presidents to make us truly a nation with liberty and justice for all.  All Democrats, these white men had in common relatively poor upbringings that made them understand the under-privileged.


Harry Truman was born to farmers who once had been wealthy enough to own slaves, but he spent his youth following mules who pulled a plow.  Then he enlisted in World War I, where he witnessed mistreatment of black soldiers.  That continued after World War II, when he was president, and black veterans routinely met with discrimination and worse.  Both wars were followed by reactionary growth of right-wing groups, and Truman's decision to put civil rights at the top of his presidential agenda was motivated in part by two Georgia incidents during the summer of 1946.  The only African American who dared to vote in his rural area was killed in his front yard by four white men; and after lynching a black man, racists shot and killed three black people who happened to be nearby, including two women.  


That sort of thing was not uncommon, and Truman assigned Attorney General Tom Clark, a Texan, to investigate possible race-based murders in other states.  In 1947, Truman became the first president to address the NAACP.  His speech was unequivocal:  "It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in our country's efforts to guarantee freedom and equality… When I say all Americans, I mean all Americans."  He did not back away from that, even after a Gallup poll showed that 82% of the public disagreed with his civil rights plan.


…and Political Risks


The 1948 election was the first time that Harry Truman faced the nation's voters; he had been vice-president and became president with the 1945 death of Franklin Roosevelt.  Truman's defeat was widely predicted, as pundits were positive that he would lose to Thomas Dewey, the 1944 Republican nominee and governor of New York.  A sophisticate with an Ivy League law degree, Dewey was a real contrast to Truman, who had only a year at a Missouri business college.  A poll of fifty leading news publishers in October 1948 showed that none believed Truman would win.  When told that, he responded:  "Don't worry.  I know every one of those fifty fellows, and not one of them has sense enough to pound sand into a rathole."


Yet Democratic leaders did worry, and many urged him to back off of his civil rights commitment.  They feared the power of ostensible Democrats, the white Southerners who proudly called themselves "Dixiecrats."  When the Democratic National Convention met in July 1948, these conservatives introduced "the Moody plank," which declared "that civil rights was a state issue, not a federal concern."  This "states' rights" argument also was used to repeatedly kill a federal law that would ban lynching – as well as, of course, limiting women's rights to the state in which they lived. 


The convention included just 17 blacks among its 1,234 delegates, but Truman stood strong.  As he expected, Southerners walked out, and in the end just 13 delegates from the South voted for the incumbent president, while 263 cast their ballots for Senator Richard Russell of Georgia.  Nonetheless, just days after the convention nominated him, Truman signed Executive Orders 9980 and 9981 -- the most important civil rights achievement since the Civil War.  Author Gardner wrote: "With a stroke of his presidential pen, Harry Truman unilaterally mandated an integrated federal workforce and simultaneously integrated the vast US armed forces."


As the election neared, Truman did not back off.  While he courted working-class whites during his famous "whistle stop tours" on trains, he also visibly displayed his promise to blacks.  He spoke to an integrated audience at the University of Texas, with about a third of it being black people, and blacks packed Harlem streets when he spoke there just four days before the election.  "Mincing no words," says Gardner, "Truman's empathy resounded throughout the speech.  He bluntly acknowledged... the common occurrence where black Americans voted without having their votes counted." 


In addition to Republican Dewey, two other candidates ran as minor party candidates.  Henry Wallace, who had been Roosevelt's vice president in his second term, was to the left of Truman, while South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond was a segregationist and far to Truman's right.  Thurmond carried his own state plus Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, while Dewey carried his New York. The two others did not win any states, but each piled up more than a million votes.  To the incredulity of the experts, Truman returned to the White House with an Electoral College tally of 303 to 189.  The message I see:  Keep on keeping on.



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