The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Debate

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day, a federal holiday to be celebrated on June 19th to mark the freeing of the last slaves in Galveston, Texas. The legislation had a fairly easy passage once Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) dropped his objection to the creation of another federal holiday. The Senate passed unanimously and the House followed 415-14. This marks the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the debate on that one was considerably greater.

Martin Luther King Jr. - Wikipedia

The first proposal for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day came right after his assassination, when it was introduced by John Conyers (D-Mich.), but King was a bit too immediate of a figure for there to be a quick consensus around this idea, so support grew during the 1970s and several states enacted their own Martin Luther King Jr. days. In January 1979, President Jimmy Carter announced his support for the new holiday and on November 13th, an MLK Day bill failed by five votes, 252-133, as it was under suspension of the rules, which requires 2/3’s vote for passage.  On December 5th, Congress agreed to a substitute amendment from Robin Beard (R-Tenn.) that made the third Sunday of each year as Martin Luther King Jr. Day on a 207-191 vote, but its sponsors pulled the bill in protest of the change as the day would be unpaid.

In 1983, Rep. Katie Hall (D-Ind.) brought the measure forth again in the House, and the debate began. The list of people who spoke in favor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the House is too great to individually cover all of their views in this post, but I will list who they were:

Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), Katie Hall (D-Ind.), Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Joseph P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.), Sam Stratton (D-N.Y.), Thomas Downey (D-N.Y.), Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), Jerry Patterson (D-Calif.), Sala Burton (D-Calif.), Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.), William Clay (D-Mo.), Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), Delegate Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.), Silvio Conte (R-Mass.), Carroll Hubbard (D-Ky.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), Major Owens (D-N.Y.), Jim Moody (D-Wis.), Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.), Robin Tallon (D-S.C.), Ed Bethune (R-Ark.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), George Crockett (D-Mich.), Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), James Courter (R-N.J.) (although he protested suspension of the rules), Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), William Ford (D-Mich.), Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), Thomas Foglietta (D-Penn.), Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), Hamilton Fish IV (R-N.Y.), George Gekas (R-Penn.), Jim Slattery (D-Kan.), Delegate Ron De Lugo (D-Virgin Islands), Lou Stokes (D-Ohio), Buddy Roemer (D-La.), William Gray (D-Penn.), Jim Wright (D-Tex.), Julian Dixon (D-Calif.), Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), Raymond McGrath (R-N.Y.), Robert Borski (D-Penn.), Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), William Coyne (D-Penn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Tom Luken (D-Ohio), Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), Richard Lehman (D-Calif.), William Ratchford (D-Conn.), Richard Ottinger (D-N.Y.), Bob Matsui (D-Calif.), Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.), George Brown (D-Calif.), Paul Simon (D-Ill.), and Brian Donnelly (D-Mass.).

Gus Savage (D-Ill.) and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) simply stated on the floor of the House their support for the legislation.

Notable King support speeches were delivered by:

Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.) – Brother of NAACP chief lobbyist Clarence Mitchell Jr., talked about his experience as a young man, stating he held older blacks in contempt for being so debased by the Jim Crow system and considered himself a militant who wanted armed warfare. But, he stated that King showed him a better way through nonviolence and the employment of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Mitchell dismissed Rep. William Dannemeyer’s concerns about cost.

Sam Stratton (D-N.Y.) – The original author of the legislation making Martin Luther King Jr. a Monday holiday, commended Rep. Katie Hall (D-Ind.) for her sponsorship.

Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.) – Stated reasons for supporting Martin Luther King Jr. Day as not only his civil rights activism but his activism on behalf of all poor people.

Jerry Patterson (D-Calif.) – Used his speech in support of MLK Day to attack the Reagan Administration for policies he regarded as setbacks to civil rights, which he includes permitting private religious schools to maintain tax-exempt status despite racially discriminatory policies and his policies of cutting taxes and the domestic budget.

William Clay (D-Mo.) – Spoke positively of racial and economic justice that MLK called for and used this speech to condemn the policies of the Reagan Administration, which he called “divisive and oppressive”.

Ed Bethune (R-Ark.) – Former FBI agent, stated his support for MLK Day in response to Larry McDonald’s (D-Ga.) support of the FBI treatment of King, considered this day overdue and that black children, as do children of other racial groups, need public figures to look up to.

Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) – Spoke in support as someone who had changed their mind after voting against the 1979 legislation, regarding the symbolic significance as of greater importance than the cost of an additional public holiday.

Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) – Spoke as someone who had voted against the 1979 legislation, asserted that the American Revolution would stand incomplete without recognition of the civil rights movement.

Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) – Praised King’s civil rights activism as well as his anti-war platform, for which he stated his belief that if King were still alive he would be opposing the heating up of the Cold War and the Reagan Administration’s policies on civil rights.

Lou Stokes (D-Ohio) – Dismissed attacks on King’s character as how people react when they find out a great man has faults, regarded King as our nation’s Gandhi, and regarded the argument over cost as trivial. 

Opposed to MLK Day: Only ten representatives actually took to the floor to speak against the King Holiday, and most opposition was based on support for the Sunday substitute.

William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.) – Dannemeyer led House opposition to MLK Day and cited Germany celebrating the fourth Sunday in October as the birth of King’s adopted namesake, the great theologian Martin Luther. Thus, he thought it appropriate that Martin Luther King Jr. should get the third Sunday in January instead of a paid public holiday.

Carroll Campbell (R-S.C.)  – Spoke out against creating another paid federal holiday. Stated that Washington’s Birthday had been redesignated as President’s Day, which was not technically true, but in the public’s mind it was after the 1968 law on holidays. Campbell protested against the denial of a vote on the proposal to make MLK Day a Sunday.

Daniel B. Crane (R-Ill.) – Called for a day on Sunday in January for recognition instead.

Larry McDonald (D-Ga.) – Chairman of the John Birch Society, cited MLK’s ties with communists Stanley Levinson, Jack O’Dell, and other radicals. He regarded his associations and activities as “questionable”. McDonald defended J. Edgar Hoover’s pursuit of King and wanted his tapes declassified as were FDR’s and JFK’s. He also cited the Virginia Taxpayer’s Association’s opposition to the measure.

Herbert Bateman (R-Va.) – Came out in “reluctant opposition” to the MLK Day, citing cost and supporting the proposed Sunday substitute. Spoke in support of a federal holiday for Thomas Jefferson for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence.

Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) – Spoke in favor of King’s civil rights activities, but against adding another federal holiday, which he cited a $235 million cost to the taxpayer and characterized it as a paid day off for bureaucrats. He thought the creation of a bust or statue of Dr. King in the Capitol, which he voted for in 1981, as a fitting memorial.

Jack Fields (R-Tex.) – Cited a $221 million cost to the taxpayer for the new holiday, wanted a Sunday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Phil Crane (R-Ill.) – Cited common public celebration of “President’s Day” rather than Washington’s birthday, held that states should decide on this matter.

William Nichols (D-Ala.) – Protested suspension of the rules procedure, cited budget deficit as a reason to not adopt the King holiday.

Andy Ireland (R-Fla.) – Opposed the creation of more federal holidays.

On August 2, 1983, MLK Day was passed 338-90 (D 249-13, R 89-77). Notably, House freshman and future presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.) voted against the holiday but didn’t speak on the House floor on the matter. He later expressed regret for his vote against during his 2008 presidential campaign. The bill moved on to the Senate, which at the time had a Republican majority. The key senators pushing the measure were Senators Baker (R-Tenn.), Byrd (D-W.V.), Dole (R-Kan.), Mathias (R-Md.), Thurmond (R-S.C.), and Biden (D-Del.). However, they encountered difficulties in the form of some recalcitrant senators and a reluctant president.  

Senators who spoke for the MLK Day:

Charles Mathias (R-Md.), Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.), James Sasser (D-Tenn.), Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), John Danforth (R-Mo.), Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.), Joe Biden (D-Del.), Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Charles Percy (R-Ill.), Bob Dole (R-Kan.), and Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.).

Notable speeches in favor:

Charles Mathias (R-Md.) – Although he addressed a concern by Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) about growing numbers of public holidays and their cost as valid, he nonetheless regarded King as a worthy recipient of a paid holiday for his importance. Humorously referred to sparing the chamber his rendition of “What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours” and cited the fact that the adoption of the Sunday proposal in 1979 resulted in the killing of the bill.

Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) – Hatfield expressed his preference for a “Civil Rights Day”, citing “Labor Day” as a precedent. However, he stated that if brought to a vote he would vote for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and indeed he did.

Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) – Spoke in favor of King holiday, regarding his movement and his “I Have a Dream” speech as a foremost expression of democracy.

Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) – A cosponsor of the Boren amendment establishing Washington’s and King’s days on their actual birthdays and Columbus Day on the day of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, spoke in favor of adopting the Boren amendment as well as the King holiday. Cited the progress made on racial relations because of King’s work.

Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) – Spoke of Dr. King as teaching that there is no place for hate and that in American institutions existed the capability to right the course on racial discrimination. Shot back at Senators Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and John Porter East (R-N.C.) in the former’s implication that King was a communist and the latter’s implication that he called American soldiers Nazis during the Vietnam War.

Joe Biden (D-Del.) – Held that to characterize King as only a civil rights activist was to miss the larger picture, that he was the social conscience of America. Cited King as holding America true to the words of the Declaration of Independence, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.

Bob Dole (R-Kan.) – Spoke in favor of the holiday as commemorating King’s birthday as holding true to American compassion and nonconformity. Considered Dr. King a national healer, and thus worthy of a holiday.

Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) – Although Denton acknowledged that King was imperfect, he found that King’s greatness and the change he brought to the South made him worthy of a holiday.

Speeches against:

Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) – Spoke in support of a Sunday for the King celebration, cited cost of a public holiday in the face of a budget deficit, and cited hidden costs from the inability of certain business to transact on a Monday. Humphrey also spoke of how Lincoln’s birthday is celebrated without a paid day off.

Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) – Spoke in support of a day for Thomas Jefferson instead, and like Larry McDonald of the House, Helms used this opportunity to knock King’s character and regarded his movement as distorted by “subversive” influences. He held that Congress should declassify materials on MLK before embracing this holiday and offered multiple amendments to try and disrupt the process, including a posthumous pardon for Marcus Garvey. Bemoaned that facts were being dismissed as trash, even though Democrats are vigorous in their investigations of Reagan nominees, and cited former President Harry S. Truman’s and Senator Robert Byrd’s (D-W.V.) unflattering past remarks about King.

Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) – Proposed an alternative “National Heroes Day”, an unpaid holiday on the third Sunday of January that would recognize multiple heroes of American history, determined by a commission that would presumably include King. He also cited an $18 million expense directly and $270 million in lost productivity.

Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) – Argued against based on cost to taxpayers and that it would be, aside from George Washington, the only holiday celebrating an individual. Stated his great hesitation in voting “no”.

Unique dissents:

Jennings Randolph (D-W.V.) insisted that MLK day be celebrated on the day of his birth every year, and for this reason he was one of four Senate Democrats to vote no.

Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) harbored no objections to celebrating MLK, but wanted a day of recognition for American Indians if there was to be an MLK Day. His opposition was in protest for a lack of such day being considered.

Several amendments were offered to this legislation. The most notable were:

Senator Dave Boren’s (D-Okla.) proposal to hold the birthdays of King, Washington, and the landing in the Americas by Columbus to be on their actual dates, failed 45-52. This was the closest vote of the King Holiday debate.

Senator Gordon J. Humphrey’s (R-N.H.) proposal to designate the third Sunday in January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, failed 16-74.

Senator Jesse Helms’s (R-N.C.) proposal to not allow a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. to be enacted unless one is enacted for Thomas Jefferson first, failed 10-82.

Senator Warren Rudman’s (R-N.H.) proposal to designate March 16th as “National Civil Rights Day”, failed 22-68.

Senator Jennings Randolph’s (D-W.V.) proposal for MLK Day to be on his actual date of birth, January 15, failed 23-71.

A proposal to recommit and thus kill the bill for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day failed 12-76.

The MLK Day legislation passed 78-22 (R 37-18, D 41-4) on October 19th. Notably, the only senators of former Confederate states to vote against were John Stennis (D-Miss.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), John Porter East (R-N.C.), and John Tower (R-Tex.).

President Ronald Reagan was reluctant about adopting this day based on cost, and in response to a question from Sam Donaldson as to whether he thought MLK sympathized with communism as did Jesse Helms, he replied flippantly, “Well, we’ll know in about thirty-five years, won’t we?”, a throwaway answer referring to the eventual declassification of FBI documents on him (Williams). Reagan subsequently apologized to Coretta Scott King over the phone. After Senate passage, he signed the bill into law.

The first day MLK Day was celebrated nationally was January 20, 1986. The most significant subsequent conflict that arose regarding the holiday was the election of Evan Mecham as Governor of Arizona that year, in which one of his platforms was a decertifying Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which Governor Bruce Babbitt had instituted by circumventing the state legislature, a legally questionable act. Arizona under Mecham decertified the day but it was reinstated in 1992 by public referendum. 

I would argue that Juneteenth is a more justified day than MLK Day, as it celebrates an event rather than a single person and that event is one that I would hope no one disputes is good. The only argument I can see against it is that it fulfills a certain dreaded “woke” agenda, indeed that seems to be how the fourteen House Republicans saw it. Although I am not “woke”, I see no harm in this holiday by itself and quite frankly it’s the one that should have been adopted back in 1983.

P.S.: A fascinating tidbit from Senator George Mitchell (D-Me.) that indicates how feelings on Columbus Day were quite a bit different thirty-eight years ago than now, “Columbus Day is a tribute, not to Italian Americans, but to the courage of men who sailed into a horizon of which they knew nothing. It is a tribute to the fact that our national origins are diverse, Columbus Day does not denigrate the bravery or seacaptains of English or Italian or any other extraction. It stands for all early voyagers who had the vision and the courage to sail into the unknown, and for what we have achieved as a result of their bravery”. (Congressional Record, 28368)


“Designation of the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., as a Legal Public Holiday.” Congressional Record 129: 16 (August 2, 1983) p. 22208-22243.

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“Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.” Congressional Record 129: 16 (October 19, 1983) p. 28341-28380.

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To Agree to a Substitute to H.R. 5461. Govtrack.

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To Suspend the Rules and Pass H.R. 5461. Govtrack.

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Williams, J. (1983, October 22). Reagan Calls Mrs. King to Explain. Washington Post.

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The First Recall Election

Introductory Note: The recent adoption of the “Juneteenth” Holiday commemorating the end of slavery is something that caught me a bit by surprise and I had already written about this other topic. The next post of mine will thus be about the far more controversial adoption of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday in 1983.

There has been a grand total of three governors who underwent recall votes, and of these two lost their recalls and one survived. California Governor Gavin Newsom will be the fourth to face such a vote largely due to his personal hypocrisy on COVID-19 restrictions, but he is expected to prevail. Given that this year is the 100th anniversary of the first recall election and that there is a recall election happening this year, I thought that it would be a good time to write about it. 

The Progressive Era introduced, among other things to American politics, the following laws to more direct democracy: initiative, referendum, and recall. California notably adopted all three in 1911, and in 1919 North Dakota under Governor Lynn J. Frazier (1874-1947) made recall law, which enabled voters to vote out elected officials during their terms. Little did he know that this law would produce unintended consequences for him. Before we proceed, some further background is necessary.

In 1915, former Socialist Party organizer Arthur C. Townley founded the Non-Partisan League (NPL), which stood for state ownership of certain businesses to free North Dakota farmers from the grasps of major businesses headquartered in Minneapolis and Chicago. Rather than fight as a political party, they acted as the progressive wing of the state’s Republican Party, which was dominant in North Dakota. This strategy proved tremendously successful, with the NPL having some immediate success in 1916 with the election of Lynn J. Frazier as governor with 79% of the vote and in 1917 with the special election of John M. Baer to Congress. Frazier was an appealing figure to many North Dakotans because he didn’t look or talk like a politician: he was balding, pudgy, plain-spoken, and didn’t smoke, drink, or dance. Yet, his agenda in some ways was radical. The Republican old guard was alarmed by such developments and they formed their own group, the Independent Voters Association (IVA) in 1918. That year, Frazier won reelection with just under 60% of the vote and the NPL faction gained control of the state legislature and began passing progressive and even some socialist legislation. The progressive legislation included the adoption of a state income tax and an inheritance tax. The socialist legislation was the establishment of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, the Bank of North Dakota, and a public railroad.

Lynn Joseph Frazier (1874-1947) - Find A Grave Memorial
Lynn J. Frazier

The Recall

In 1920, however, progressivism was on the decline with a depression underway and widespread disillusionment with President Woodrow Wilson. The NPL saw the backlash from this in the form of Frazier winning reelection by only 51% of the vote and Baer losing reelection to the considerably more conservative Republican Olger B. Burtness. Most consequentially for Frazier was that control of the state legislature went to the IVA, which investigated the state-owned companies and uncovered some scandalous material. They discovered shoddy management practices at the Bank of North Dakota, an excessive salary for its head, and that a manager of a small government owned mill had concealed losses through cooking the books. The economy of North Dakota was also hit especially hard by the depression, and Frazier and the NPL were increasingly blamed for continuing economic problems. The state auditor was so critical of Frazier as to call for him to be deported to Russia, “where the anarchists belong” (Wetzel). Accusations also abounded that the public library system was permitting books that promoted free love and downplayed the importance of marriage. One legislator denounced a book that was going through the public library system as “the foulest socialist, anarchistic and free love rot which has ever found a place on a printed page” (Wetzel). That year, the IVA initiated a recall and selected Ragnvald A. Nestos as their nominee and ran on a platform of opposition to the Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill and Elevator. On October 28th, Frazier lost the recall, getting 49% of the vote, losing by about 4,000 votes.

The Winner: Ragnvald A. Nestos

The Aftermath – Success for Nestos, Frazier, and the NPL, Retention of State-Run Businesses

Despite the IVA running a platform against government ownership, the administration of Nestos, instead of ending government ownership, reinvigorated and reformed the operation of these institutions. Nestos was reelected in 1922 with about 57% of the vote.  It was also far from the end for the political career of Lynn J. Frazier, who defeated the more conservative and internationalist incumbent Senator Porter J. McCumber, the only Republican who voted for the Versailles Treaty without amendments, in the 1922 primary and easily won election to the Senate. He would remain in office as a progressive and non-interventionist Republican who supported a national referendum requirement for non-defensive war.

The NPL faction would dominate the state’s Republican Party during the Roosevelt years, with Frazier, Gerald P. Nye, William Langer, William Lemke, and Usher L. Burdick being elected to federal office. In 1940, Frazier would be defeated for renomination by Langer, one of his old rivals in the GOP. In 1956, the NPL, no longer viewing foreign affairs as an irreconcilable difference between them and the Democrats, split from the Republican Party and merged with the Democratic Party. This change was best symbolized with Republican Usher Burdick’s retirement in 1959 and his son, Quentin Burdick, who had led the NPL away from the Republicans, being elected to succeed him as a Democrat. The younger Burdick would have a long career as a senator from 1960 until his death in 1992. To this day, the official name for the Democratic Party in the state is the North Dakota Democratic-Non-Partisan League Party. To this day, despite Republicans holding the governorship since 1992, the North Dakota Mill and Elevator and the Bank of North Dakota remain the only state-run businesses of their kind in the United States. 


Exhibits – North Dakota Governors – Lynn J. Frazier. State Historical Society of North Dakota.

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Frazier, Lynn (1874-1947). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

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Hylton, J.G. Who Was Gov. Lynn Joseph Frazier? Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.

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Wetzel, D. (2003, August 8). North Dakota Recalled Governor 82 Years Ago in 1921, Lynn Frazier’s Popularity Fell with the State’s Economic Fortunes. The Associated Press.

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The Booker T. Washington Veterans Hospital: A Segregation Debate From 70 Years Ago

About seventy years ago, in June 1951, Congress was considering the creation of a $5 million veteran’s hospital in Virginia at Booker T. Washington’s birthplace at Hale’s Ford, Virginia, that would presumably be named after him. This hospital would serve only black patients despite the Veterans Administration prohibiting segregation as a policy for hospitals, and there was only one veterans hospital at the time that was only for black people, down in Tuskegee, Alabama, that had been commissioned for World War I veterans in 1923. This proposal was put forth by none other than John E. Rankin of Mississippi, the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Rankin was notorious as an outspoken racial and anti-Semitic bigot whose bigotry went so far as to be an embarrassment to many Southerners. There’s much more detail about Rankin, but his story is such that it warrants a separate posting.

The Debate

The debate on this measure to construct a segregated hospital despite the Veterans Administration having a non-segregation principle for new hospital construction had more issues than segregation being considered. These included practicality, costs, and the fact that the VA itself opposed the construction of this hospital. The breakdown of support and opposition in the debate is below.

Supported the Hospital:

File:House Veterans' committee leader and ranking republican member. Washington, D.C., Jan. 25. Rep. John E. Rankin, chairman of the House Veterans Committee and Edith Hourse Rogers, LCCN2016874894.jpg
John E. Rankin (D-Miss.) and Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.), pictured in 1939.

Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.) – The ranking Republican on the committee denied it was a matter of segregation. She insisted that black people like their black doctors, but the term she used was “colored”. She stated her lifelong opposition to segregation, but thought the hospital was needed. Rogers was probably the most effective defender of the hospital’s construction given her record of supporting civil rights legislation. 

John E. Rankin (D-Miss.) – Contrasted funding this hospital with funding foreign aid to India under its socialist leader Jawaharal Nehru, defended need for hospital. He held that the measure already passed in the 80th and 81st Congresses and defended hospital distance by talking about the Tuskegee veterans hospital. Rankin also accused the NAACP of being Communist-infested while holding that the Booker T. Washington Foundation, which was calling for this hospital, was not and bristled at criticism of segregation. He declared the desegregation of the Armed Services as Stalin’s greatest victory since Yalta.

Paul W. Shafer (R-Mich.) – Although he stated that a hospital in Michigan had yet to be opened and asked whether black veterans (who he called “colored boys”) could go up there. Ultimately voted against killing the measure.

J. Percy Priest (D-Tenn.) – Although he argued that a hospital would be better near Nashville because of the all-black Meharry Medical College there, he ultimately voted against killing the measure.

James S. Golden (R-Ky.) – He thought that many black veterans in the area wanted the hospital.

Orland K. Armstrong (R-Mo.) – Armstrong voiced that he didn’t support furthering segregation but regarded the hospital as necessary given how many veterans hospitals there were existing that were serving primarily the white population.

John T. Wood (R-Idaho) – Questioned the questioning of distance from medical schools, holding that close proximity was only good for access to medical consultants.

Opposed the Hospital:

Leo Allen (R-Ill.) – Cited cost of the hospital of $5 million as questionable.

James Auchincloss (R-N.J.) – Questioned cost of the hospital.

Edgar Jonas (R-Ill.) – Questioned the distance from medical schools, practicality of the hospital.

Roy Wier (D-Minn.) – Questioned whether this would constitute “pork”.

Abraham Multer (D-N.Y.) – Questioned the segregated nature of the hospital.

H. Carl Andersen (R-Minn.) – Questioned the practicality of having an all-black hospital over 200 miles away from the Meharry Medical College (which taught black medical students) in Nashville, thought that a veterans hospital should be located closer to Nashville.

John Rooney (D-N.Y.) – Stated that Veterans Administration opposed this hospital.

Marguerite Church (R-Ill.) – Voiced opposition because the hospital would serve only blacks and thus further segregation.

Kenneth Keating (R-N.Y.) – Explicitly stated that the adoption of this measure would serve to officially give a federal stamp of approval to segregation.

Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) – Regarded the measure as turning back the clock to segregation.

James Devereux (R-Md.) – Voiced opposition to this legislation as “class legislation”. His objection and those of Adam Clayton Powell and William Dawson seemed to turn the debate decisively against the hospital. 

William L. Dawson (D-Ill.) – One of only two black members of the House, opposed the legislation as “class legislation”, questioned need and practicality of the hospital.

William L. Dawson.jpg
William L. Dawson, D-Ill.

Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) – One of only two black members of the House, opposed the legislation for forwarding segregation, cited the opposition of 27 civil rights organizations, and questioned the practicality of the hospital. Motioned to strike the enacting clause.

Adam Clayton Powell, D-N.Y.

Thomas B. Curtis (R-Mo.) – Agreed with the “class legislation” assessment, cited the NAACP’s opposition, and disputed the practicality and cost of the hospital.

Isidore Dollinger (D-N.Y.) – Referred to segregation as a “disease”.

James Fulton (R-Penn.) – Asked if this hospital would serve to discriminate against whites and not be permitted to admit any in the case of emergency.

Arthur Miller (R-Neb.) – Asked rhetorically if there was any difference between illnesses of blacks and whites.

Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) – Condemned the segregated nature of the hospital, regarded it as cruel that a segregated hospital would bear Washington’s name, and cited Rankin’s personal racism as a reason to oppose.

Hugh Scott (R-Penn.) – Spoke against cost, practicality, and of its segregated nature. Asked rhetorically if hospitals were needed for people of different nationalities and faiths.

Wayne Hays (D-Ohio) – Questioned the practicality of a hospital so far away from black medical colleges.

James Van Zandt (R-Penn.) – Questioned practicality given the fact that there were veterans hospitals closing down.

Ultimately, Powell motioned to strike the enacting clause and this was passed on a 223-117 (D 89-84; R 133-33; I 1-0) vote on June 6th, killing the proposal for the session. The breakdown of the vote went as follows, accompanied with MC-Index scores for the 82nd session of Congress. Republicans are in bold italics, Democrats in plain text.

Note: Congressional Quarterly and Americans for Democratic Action 1951 voting record indicate that Representative Morano (R-Conn.) was opposed to killing the hospital.

Rankin didn’t get an opportunity to reintroduce it in the next Congress as he was defeated for renomination in 1952. Two years later, Brown v. Board of Education, the culmination of a gradual series of Supreme Court rulings chipping away at segregation, found school segregation unconstitutional.


ADA World Congressional Supplement. (October 1951). Americans for Democratic Action.

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“Commemorative Veterans’ Hospital For Negro Veterans.” Congressional Record 97:5 (June 6, 1951) p. 6191-6203.

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Texas Legends #6: Joseph J. Mansfield

Joseph J. Mansfield - Wikipedia

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson pulled off a narrow reelection against Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes, and with this victory Joseph J. Mansfield (1861-1947) was elected as well. Mansfield, like many other Texans in his day, was elected as a Wilsonian progressive. He faced adversity when in 1921 he developed a serious illness which left him bedridden for months and as a consequence was rendered paraplegic, forcing him to use a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. However, he soldiered on and was a frequent foe of the economic policies of the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover Administrations. In 1931, with Democrats elected to a majority in Congress, Mansfield became chair of the Rivers and Harbors Committee.

Congressman Mansfield was one of multiple Texans who found themselves in great positions of power thanks to the seniority system, which as I have written before, benefited no state more than Texas in the 20th century. In this post, he supported increases in funding for river and harbor projects and was a strong supporter of federal flood control legislation, given that Texas has its 862-mile Colorado River. Mansfield was successful in his efforts to dam this river, and this dam is known as the Mansfield Dam. However, he was not exempt from the increasingly rightward drift Texans were undergoing by FDR’s second term. During FDR’s first term, his MC-Index averaged a 4%, second, 28%, and third, 60%. He was a bit more conciliatory to Truman than third-term FDR, but by 1947, Mansfield had lost his committee chairmanship due to the Republicans winning control of Congress in the 1946 midterms, was 86 years old, and his health was in decline. The end came in Bethesda Naval Hospital on July 5th of that year. His lifetime MC-Index score was a 23%.


Flachmeier, W.A. Mansfield, Joseph Jefferson (1861-1947). Texas State Historical Association.

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The Mansfield Family. Nesbitt Memorial Library.

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Miles Poindexter: Washington’s Political Changeling

One subject that has been of great fascination for a long time for me is that of political change. As a new resident of the state of Washington, this state’s politics have come to my attention. One politician on the federal level exhibited the greatest variance in their ideology was Republican Miles Poindexter.

1908 was a good year for the Republican Party. For the third time a Republican had defeated populistic Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president and on the coattails of Taft, Miles Poindexter (1868-1946) won election to the House. Although Poindexter had switched from Democrat to Republican in 1896 over his distaste of populism, he quickly identified with the insurgent wing of the GOP that was fed up with the conservative policies of Congressional leadership as well as President Taft’s acquiescence to them. Poindexter voted to strip Speaker Joe Cannon of much of his powers on March 19, 1910. That year, the Washington state legislature elected him to the Senate. As a senator, he continued his record as a progressive within the GOP and in 1912 he identified with the Bull Moose Progressives and from 1913 to 1915 was a member of the Progressive Party. Poindexter was accommodating to the Wilson Administration, only joining Robert La Follette of Wisconsin among non-Democrats to vote for the Underwood Tariff, was one of seven non-Democrats to vote for the establishment of the Federal Reserve, and voted for Wilson’s anti-trust legislation. He also called for a major public works programs to employ the unemployed, presaging New Deal policies. In 1915, Poindexter voted for a proposal that would exclude all blacks from immigrating to the United States and voted for another one which would exclude all non-whites from immigrating. Poindexter had an upbringing as a Southern Democrat and his father had been a Confederate veteran so it is possible such an upbringing motivated these views. However, Poindexter did not back a proposal to limit women’s suffrage to white women. He was also supportive of women’s suffrage overall and Prohibition.

During World War I, Poindexter was one of the most recognizable and loud of nationalists, calling for deportation of IWW radicals (even though he had sympathized with an IWW strike in 1912) and supporting government crackdowns on people who spoke out against American efforts in World War I. He was hawkish and criticized Wilson for not being strong enough in prosecuting the war effort and was a strong advocate for intervention in Latin American affairs. Poindexter was one of ten Senate Republicans to vote for the Sedition Act of 1918, which was supported by most Democrats and mostly opposed by a combination of conservative and progressive Republicans that restricted free speech. After the 1918 midterms, Poindexter’s overall record went conservative. In the 65th Congress, his MC-Index score was a 24% but in the 66th it was an 88%. He was one of the 15-16 irreconcilables on the Versailles Treaty, not supporting the treaty under any conditions. He gave himself credit for pushing Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to conduct his raids on radicals in 1919 and 1920 (Prabook). In 1920, Poindexter ran for the Republican nomination for president as a staunch conservative, but was never considered a serious candidate.

During the Harding Administration, Poindexter embraced higher tariffs, lower income taxes, and an overall reduced government agenda. In some ways, curiously, he represented the American public’s shifts on reform: enthusiastic about reform during the Progressive Era, and then turning conservative with World War I’s conclusion. The voters of Washington, having reelected him in 1916 with 55% of the vote, were not pleased with his shift, especially with his resistance to using government to aid agriculture, and in the 1922 midterms he lost a three-way race to former Democratic Congressman Clarence Dill. He subsequently served as Ambassador to Peru under Harding and Coolidge. In 1928, Poindexter attempted a rematch, but lost the Republican primary to Chief Justice of the Washington Supreme Court Kenneth Mackintosh, who lost the election. He subsequently retired to his family estate in Virginia, where he died in 1946 of a heart attack in his sleep. Poindexter’s lifetime MC-Index score was a 44%, with a low in the 62nd Congress, in which he scored a 19%, and a high in the 66th Congress.

Miles Poindexter. Prabook.

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Miles Poindexter papers, 1897-1940. Orbis Cascade Alliance.

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Texas Legends #5: Tom Connally

See the source image

Upon the reelection of Woodrow Wilson in 1916, another Texas Legend was elected, Tom Connally (1877-1963), representing a district centered in Waco. He had gotten his start in state politics, in which he was a staunch foe of the trusts. In the House, Connally specialized in foreign policy as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and served as a major supporter of Wilsonian internationalism, including the Versailles Treaty. He also was a staunch critic of Republican foreign policy in the 1920s, particularly with the interventions south of the border, including in Haiti and Nicaragua, intended to protect Americans and their property. In 1928, Connally ran for the Senate on an anti-KKK platform, facing in the Democratic primary incumbent Earle B. Mayfield, who was a Klansman. By that year, the influence of the Klan had fallen substantially with scandals, public ill will generated by their violence, and revelations of moral hypocrisy among their leaders. Connally won the primary, and by default the election as Democrats dominated Texas at the time. He proved a foe of President Herbert Hoover’s policies and in 1932 was enthusiastic about the Roosevelt-Garner ticket.

Upon the election of FDR, Connally was mostly on board with the first New Deal, especially on agricultural aid, but he did notably vote against the National Industrial Recovery Act. He also sponsored the Connally Hot Oil Act, which prohibited interstate shipment of oil that violated new state oil quotas. During this time, Connally suffered a personal tragedy as his wife Louise died right in his office of a sudden heart attack in 1935. He would remarry to a woman he had known for many years, Lucille Sanderson Sheppard, widow of Senator Morris Sheppard, in 1942. In 1937, he differed from the Roosevelt Administration in his opposition to the court packing plan as well as his vote against the Fair Labor Standards Act, which many Southern Democrats voted against as it undermined a cheap labor competitive advantage. That year, Connally led a filibuster against the Gavagan-Wagner Anti-Lynching bill, and it was defeated.
Although Connally was having increasing differences with the Roosevelt Administration on domestic policy, he was his key Senate ally in foreign policy, pushing forward the repeal of the arms embargo in 1939, and as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1941, the Lend-Lease Act. He continued his leading role in defeating civil rights legislation with his filibuster of the bill banning the poll tax for federal elections in 1942. Texas was one of the states that had a poll tax at the time. During the 1940s, his record became even more antagonistic to the Roosevelt Administration on domestic policy, and in the 78th Congress his MC-Index score shot up to 77%. The highest he had scored in the past was a 41%, the session before. Connally was the Senate sponsor of the Smith-Connally Act that session, which permitted the government to seize and operate industries in which strikes provided a threat to the war effort. This law was passed over President Roosevelt’s veto in 1943, but he didn’t hesitate to use it during the Philadelphia transit strike of 1944, when the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Employees Union engaged in a sick-out in protest against the hiring of black motormen as ordered by the Fair Employment Practices Committee.

See the source image

Connally holds a watch to mark the time of the declaration of war against Japan.

In 1945, Connally played a key role in the drafting of the United Nations Charter and was the second American to sign it. He also incorporated in the United Nations bill the “Connally Amendment”, which prevented UN jurisdiction in internal matters in the United States. This helped win it overwhelming ratification in the Senate. Although Connally was easily reelected in 1946, he faced a Republican Congress. He again proved a staunch ally of Truman on foreign policy and was widely seen as his Senate spokesman. Connally worked closely with Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) to pass the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in a Congress that was diametrically opposed to the president on domestic policy. This didn’t mean Connally always agreed with Truman: after he picked General Mark Clark, a man who wasn’t Catholic, for emissary to the Holy See, Connally and others protested and Clark withdrew his nomination. Consistent with his antagonistic record on organized labor, Connally voted for the Taft-Hartley Act, which passed over President Truman’s veto. However, on other significant domestic issues he often sided with Truman, including on unemployment compensation, anti-trust policy, public power, and the excess profits tax.

In 1949, Democrats regained Congress and Connally was once again chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lyndon B. Johnson joined him in the Senate that year as well but he ran afoul of him when he was overly ambitious in the committees he wanted. However, it wouldn’t be long for Johnson to supersede Connally in influence: the latter’s greater loyalty to Truman than for third term Roosevelt proved politically damaging in Texas, as he had become deeply unpopular in the state as well as in the nation. The Korean War had dragged out into a stalemate, extensive corruption had been revealed in his administration, and Texas voters had some special beefs with President Truman. These included his policy of pushing federal title to the tidelands and his proposed civil rights program. Texas Attorney General Price Daniel, who had directly battled the Truman Administration on tidelands policy in court, had announced his candidacy. Although Connally too supported state title over the tidelands and opposed civil rights legislation, he saw the writing on the wall and chose to retire in 1952 rather than face a tough primary or even defeat. That year Republican Dwight Eisenhower, who had pledged to return tidelands to state title, and Daniel won their elections. Connally died of pneumonia on October 28, 1963. His lifetime MC-Index score was a 27%.


Green, G.N. Connally, Thomas Terry (1877-1963). Texas State Historical Association.

Hill, R. (2012, November 11). Tom Connally of Texas. The Knoxville Focus.

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Tom Connally of Texas

1941-42 MC-Index

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FDR delivers his “Day of Infamy” speech before Congress, after which it votes to declare war on Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack.

This is the Congress that goes to war, with the first half of the session having measures that serve to undermine American neutrality, especially the Lend-Lease Act. It is also the first full Congress in which the legendary Sam Rayburn of Texas serves as House speaker. Work relief proposals, a proposal to end the Civilian Conservation Corps, price controls, and legislation to limit the power of organized labor are counted as well. It was during this session of Congress that both future President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders were born. Yes, they are that old! Conservatives in this time stand against the New Deal, against FDR’s foreign policy, and against price control. Conservatism is growing stronger in the Midwest and South and beginning to wane in New England.

Some stats on this Congress:

Highest Scoring Democrat, House:

Coffee, Neb. – 93%

Highest Scoring Democrat, Senate

Byrd, Va. – 78%

Lowest Scoring Republican, House:

Welch, Calif. – 20%

Lowest Scoring Republicans, Senate:

Tie – Langer, N.D., Gurney, S.D. – 52%



Rockwell (R-Colo.), Paddock (R-Ill.), Johnson (R-Ill.), Arends (R-Ill.), Sumner (R-Ill.), Martin (R-Iowa), Winter (R-Kan.), Hoffman (R-Mich.), Bennett (R-Mo.), Ploeser (R-Mo.), Copeland (R-Neb.), Osmers (R-N.J.), Jones (R-Ohio), Clevenger (R-Ohio), Brown (R-Ohio), Wolfenden (R-Penn.), Miller (R-Penn.), Rutherford (R-Penn.), Rich (R-Penn.), Ditter (R-Penn.)


Johnson (R-Calif.), Willis (R-Ind.)



Izac (D-Calif.), Sabath (D-Ill.), Schaefer (D-Ill.), Norton (D-N.J.), Heffernan (D-N.Y.), Delaney (D-N.Y.), Klein (D-N.Y.), Flannery (D-Penn.), Holland (D-Penn.), Leavy (D-Wash.)


Miller (D-Ark.), Murray (D-Mont.), Sheppard (D-Tex.), Murdock (D-Utah)


Republicans are in bold italics.

Democrats are in plain text.

+ = Vote for the conservative position

+ = Pair or announcement for the conservative position.

– = Vote against the conservative position.

= Pair or announcement against the conservative position.

? = No vote, pair, or announcement.

Ratings of Congress:

Texas Legends #4: Hatton W. Sumners

The Sumners Foundation Legacy

The year 1912 was one of profound success for progressives and for Southern Democrats. Both groups found one of their own in spirit elected to the presidency, and among the adherents to Wilson elected for the first time that year from Texas were Sam Rayburn as well as Hatton William Sumners (1875-1962) of Dallas. An attorney by profession, he was a solid fit for the House Judiciary Committee, which he served on in his long career. Among the freshmen of the 63rd Congress (1913-15) he was the first to get a bill passed, which made Dallas a port of entry for customs.
In 1922, Sumners was the foremost figure in the House to speak out against the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, and he employed both racial and constitutional arguments against it. He invoked the fear of black men violating white women when he proclaimed, “Only a short time ago… their ancestors roamed the jungles of Africa in absolute savagery…[Y]ou do not know where the beast is among them. Somewhere in that black mass of people is the man who would outrage your wife or your child, and every man who lives in the country knows it” (Dray). Although the measure passed solidly in the House, it met defeat in the Senate as the will of its opponents was far stronger than that of its proponents. Sumners saw himself as a defender of states’ rights, but was far from a purist: while he opposed civil rights legislation time and again given such concerns as well as the 1924 Child Labor Amendment, he voted for the Prohibition Amendment, women’s suffrage, and most of the first New Deal. Sumners’ support for Prohibition may have had to do with his home district of Dallas, which was at the heart of Klan activity in Texas, with it having the highest membership of any major city, being the most brazen, and being known for reveling in its vigilante activity.

Sumners was, like Sam Rayburn, committed to work in his life. While Rayburn was married for less than three months, Sumners never married. With the Democrats taking over the House in 1930, he became chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and in this capacity he played a significant role in the passage of New Deal legislation as well as impeachments of several federal judges, but voted against Social Security. He would later serve as an even greater annoyance to President Roosevelt when he played a key role in defeating a prized initiative. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented his “court packing” plan and Sumners was having none of it. He reportedly said to his colleagues, “Boys, here’s where I cash my chips” (Monroe). On July 13th, he announced that he would keep the plan bottled in the committee. This plus the death of Senate Majority Leader Robinson the following day doomed the plan. Sumners’ record would increasingly move to the right.

After the 1938 midterms, Sumners’ record grew considerably more conservative as his Dallas district grew more so as well. Before 1939, Sumners’ MC-Index score averaged a 20%, but for his final four terms it averaged 63%, indicating a clear turn away from FDR’s policies. Although Sumners had soured on FDR expanding executive power in peacetime, in 1941, he sponsored the War Powers Act, granting FDR further executive powers to fight World War II. In his later years in Congress, Sumners seemed more distinctly concerned about racial violence, including lynchings. On multiple occasions he spoke out against the lax reactions of local sheriffs and states to lynchings. He regarded the failure of the sheriff of Madison, Florida to protect Jesse James Payne, a black prisoner in his custody from a lynching in 1945, as an admission of unfitness for duty. He wrote to Governor Millard Caldwell, “If these facts are true, or approximately true, this sheriff is not only guilty of a violation of official duty, of a cowardly act, but he is guilty of a direct assault upon the sovereignty of the state” (Dallas Historical Society). Sumners was both motivated out of a sense of justice as well as concerns over federal intervention in the South should racially motivated lynchings persist. Sumners opted to retire in 1946, but not before securing the passage of the Administrative Procedure Act, which governed how new federal regulations would be adopted. His successor would be the more conservative Democrat Joseph F. Wilson, and Wilson’s successor would be arch-conservative Republican Bruce Alger, one of the most vocal antagonists of President John F. Kennedy.


Dray, P. (2007, December 18). At the hands of persons unknown: The lynching of black America. London, UK: Random House Publishing Group.

Hatton Sumners papers, Inclusive: 1883-1963, undated, Bulk: 1911-1963. (2017, June 16). Baylor University.

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Monroe, M.C. Sumners, Hatton William (1875-1962). Texas State Historical Association.

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Personal letter to then Florida Governor Millard Caldwell. (1945, October 17). Dallas Historical Society, HWS Collection, D-116.

Texas Legends #3: Sam Rayburn

In 1912, Congressman Choice B. Randell chose to run for the Democratic nomination for the Senate rather than for reelection. 30-year old Sam Rayburn (1882-1961), Speaker of the Texas House, ran for the seat instead. His platform was that of a Jeffersonian Democrat and in his speeches supported “free trade, representative government, special privilege for none, an income tax, state rights, a federal inheritance tax, the direct election of senators, the right of labor to organized, and the abolition of the electoral college” (Shanks, 64). Rayburn’s career was already promising given that he had chosen to use the vast powers of the position of speaker rather than abdicate his authority to party bosses, and used said powers to pass progressive legislation, including restrictions on working hours for women and child labor laws. Upon his victory, Majority Whip John Nance Garner saw Rayburn’s potential and used his influence to get him placed on the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, where he was involved in the passage of anti-trust legislation.

Rayburn’s Rise to Leadership

Congressman Rayburn strongly supported the Underwood Tariff, which both lowered the average tariff rate and imposed an income tax and in 1914 he sponsored the Railway Stock and Bond Bill, a key part of President Wilson’s anti-trust agenda. His measure got a strong vote for in the House, being passed 325-12 on June 5, 1914. Rayburn asserted that the Democratic Party was not opposed to business or capital, stating, “We know that there must be large aggregations of capital to carry on the great and growing business of the country; hence we would be more foolish to do anything that would hinder or retard the growth of the country. We intend to do simple justice, and on the other hand, we are determined that business shall deal justly with the people” (Shanks, 67). However, Rayburn didn’t always agree with the Wilson Administration. Despite being a supporter of child labor laws on the state level, he voted against the Keating-Owen child labor bill on state’s rights grounds. He also went against the progressives in his support for ending emergency government control of the railroads after the end of World War I, stating, “I want to see all of these war powers repealed and the Government get out of these expensive and socialistic businesses. I want to get back to normal” (Shanks, 72). He was also a firm backer of Wilson’s internationalist outlook and this would inform his stances on foreign affairs during the Roosevelt and Truman years. Interestingly enough, Rayburn overtime would grow more progressive. Unlike his mentor Garner, he voted for the Prohibition Amendment, but eventually came to support its repeal. In 1927, Rayburn was briefly married to Metze Jones but it fell apart after less than three months over disagreements on his whiskey drinking and poker playing as well as the Washington lifestyle he lived. After the 1930 election, Rayburn became chair of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee and in 1932 he managed the campaign of John Nance Garner for president and negotiated FDR’s pick of Garner as vice president. He was a key actor in the passage of the New Deal and supported most of FDR’s proposals. In 1935, Rayburn sponsored the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, which ultimately served to abolish holding companies. His efforts were recognized by fellow Democrats and in 1937 he was elected majority leader. Rayburn stuck with the New Deal by and large despite many of his Southern colleagues beginning to turn away from it, including his mentor and Vice President John Nance Garner.

The Speakership

On September 15, 1940, Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead of Alabama died of a stomach hemorrhage after years of declining health, and the Democrats elected Rayburn to succeed him the next day. Rayburn would serve, with only two interruptions, as House speaker until his death, a record length of time. He had as his deputy John W. McCormack of Massachusetts and they worked in tandem to appeal to both the increasingly different Southern and Northern wings of the Democratic Party. Both men were committed to preserving the New Deal while keeping the advance of civil rights slow. Although Rayburn’s and McCormack’s records were opposite on the question, neither spoke out on such issues. As speaker and before he was the epitome of legislative ethics. As historian Robert A. Caro wrote of him, “Lobbyists could not buy him so much as a meal. Not even the taxpayer could buy him a meal. Spurning the conventional congressional junket, Rayburn would during his 48 years in Congress take exactly one overseas trip . . . and on that trip he insisted on paying his own way. He refused not only fees but travel expenses for out-of-town speeches; hosts who . . . attempted to press checks upon him quickly realized they had made a mistake. . . . Rayburn would say, ‘I’m not for sale’ – and then he would walk away without a backward glance” (Eddington). His honesty was such that once he was asked “How do you remember all the things you promised people?”, he responded, “If you always tell the truth, you don’t need memos to remember what you said” (Caro). Rayburn adeptly handled the committee chairmen system as indeed many of the chairmen were fellow Southern Democrats who held only the highest respect for “Mr. Sam”, as he was known by colleagues. He used humor and persuasion as his tools but was not afraid to use power to keep order if need be. Rayburn was also a mentor for future President Lyndon B. Johnson, who would act as the son he never had and treat the lonely bachelor as family. In 1947, Rayburn became Minority Leader as the Republicans had won back control of Congress, but he still played a critical role in the passage of the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, which won bipartisan support. Unlike many of his Southern colleagues, he resisted efforts to roll back the power of organized labor and voted against the Taft-Hartley Act, which ultimately became law over President Truman’s veto. Upon becoming speaker again after the 1948 election, Rayburn committed himself to backing most aspects of Truman’s Fair Deal, but the Conservative Coalition was too powerful for most of them to pass. However, he stopped on a few junctures, including when Texas interests were directly involved: like all other Texas politicians, he supported the Tidelands Bill, eventually signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, that granted title of continental shelf resources to the states.

During the Eisenhower Administration, both Rayburn and Lyndon B. Johnson played interesting roles in framing themselves as “saving” Eisenhower’s agenda from the conservative wing of the Republican Party. This included the passage of extensive foreign aid packages and support for expanded government in some areas. The two Texans also brokered compromises with the Eisenhower Administration and Republican leaders. In 1956 and 1960, Rayburn backed Johnson’s efforts to secure the Democratic nomination for president.

Mr. Sam and Civil Rights

Rayburn’s record on civil rights was a complicated one marked by a distinct change from backing crudely racist stances to active support for an incremental approach. He played a key role in the admitting of Alaska and Hawaii as states, which added four pro-civil rights senators and also softened from his previously segregationist record, helping shepherd the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 through the House. Earlier on his career, however, Rayburn had voted to criminalize interracial relations in Washington D.C., repeatedly against women’s suffrage, to prohibit blacks from immigrating to the U.S., and repeatedly against anti-lynching legislation. However, by 1954 he privately thought the Brown v. Board of Education decision was the right thing to do and in 1956 he didn’t sign the Southern Manifesto.

Rayburn’s Final Battle: The Rules Committee

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated the 35th president of the United States, and although the Democrats had convincing majorities in the House and Senate, the Democratic Party was different sixty years ago than today, as a significant conservative wing existed among the Southern Democrats. Sam Rayburn had gotten his start all the way back in 1913, when Southern Democrats adhered to a Wilsonian progressivism, and this spirit had never left Rayburn, in truth he had gotten more progressive with age. The most troublesome figure for the liberal Democrats among the Southerners was Rules Committee chair Howard W. Smith of Virginia, who was one of the earliest Southern Democrats to oppose New Deal programs. He had used his perch as chair since 1955 to collaborate with Republicans to obstruct many of the planks of the Democratic Party. Rayburn was determined to give President Kennedy’s New Frontier programs a chance against the Conservative Coalition, so he proposed to expand the Rules Committee by three members, two Democrats and one Republican. Chairman Smith and Minority Leader Charles Halleck (R-Ind.) staunchly opposed this move, and Southern Democrats were divided on whether to side with Rayburn or Smith, both men for who they had tremendous respect. Rayburn got the public support of President Kennedy for this move and also got support from another Bay Stater he had a friendship with: former Speaker of the House Joe Martin. Despite having opposed previous measures to liberalize the Rules Committee to help Truman’s legislative proposals pass, Martin was of the belief that his fellow Bay Stater’s programs should be given a chance, and lent support to Rayburn’s move to expand, which won 22 Republican votes for the proposal, which passed narrowly 217-212 on January 31st. Most Texans had sided with Rayburn while all but one Virginia Democrat sided with Smith. This Rules Committee change helped some New Frontier legislation pass. Throughout the year, however, Rayburn seemed to slow down, with his friends observing that he was tired, ill, losing weight rapidly given a loss of appetite, and on two occasions in the summer he collapsed while presiding over the House (Martinez). He dismissed this as his lumbago acting up, but on September 27, 1961, Rayburn was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that by this point had spread all over his body. He was dead in less than two months at 79 years old. Rayburn had by the time of his death beat the record for length of service and that of continuous service among his other achievements. His penchant for integrity was again revealed by the state of his finances after his death – he didn’t profit from his service at all as he had only $35,000 in the bank and owed $18,000. Rayburn’s lifetime MC-Index score was a 20%, with his progressivism being stronger in New Deal years than during the Wilson years.


Caro, R. Books: LBJ Had a Bright Side and a Dark Side. History News Network.

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Champagne, A. & Ewing, F.F. Rayburn, Samuel Taliaferro (1882-1961). Texas State Historical Association.

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Eddington, M. (2006, February 25). Bennett backs off on ethics remarks. The Salt Lake Tribune.

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Hill, R. (2014, November 16). ‘Mr. Speaker:’ Sam Rayburn of Texas. Knoxville Focus.

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Rayburn Is Dead; Served 17 Years As House Speaker. (1961, November 17). The New York Times.

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Shanks, A.G. (1968, March). Sam Rayburn in the Wilson Administrations, 1913-1921. East Texas Historical Journal, 6(1).

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Simkin, J. (1997). Sam Rayburn. Spartacus Educational.

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Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas. U.S. House of Representatives.

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Incumbency Rates: A Correlation

I remember from long ago that Michael Moore offered up a critique of the American political system, with him criticizing the rate of retention of legislators. Thinking back to that, I was curious to see what incumbency rates were, and indeed overwhelmingly incumbents are renominated or reelected. I examined the House elections from 1918 to 2020 as these are the years easily available on the Wikipedia pages on these elections. It must be noted that these do not account for instances in which legislators were compelled to retire due to scandal, known unpopularity, or unfavorable redistricting. After viewing these pages and adding up loss of renomination and loss of reelection, I found that from 1918 to 1970, an average of 51 House incumbents lost renomination or reelection. From 1972 to present an average of 24 House incumbents have lost in an election year. Why have I made a distinction between 1918 to 1970 and 1972 to present? 1972 was the first election year the Federal Election Campaign Act was effective, the first modern law regulating campaign finance. The last law of any significance passed on this subject was the 1910 Federal Corrupt Practices Act, which was amended in 1911 and 1925. However, it was a weak law and the 1970 law replaced it.
Critics of campaign finance laws, including conservatives, libertarians, and most notably Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hold that not only do campaign finance laws run afoul of free speech but also serve to protect incumbents. Indeed, incumbency comes with numerous advantages on the Congressional level, including the franking privilege (sending free mail to constituents) and most of the time higher name recognition to start.

YearLost ElectionLost PrimaryTotal Losses

This data certainly provides strong correlative backing to this claim. Additionally, if we look at the aftermath of the decision Citizens United, the rate of incumbents who lost rose from an average of 22 from 1972 to 2008 to an average of 30 from 2010 to 2020. While others may offer up explanations as to why some of these years were more turbulent than others (The Great Depression, for instance), the fact stands that even with the huge outlier of 1932 removed from the pre-1972 calculations, the total average is still quite high at 48. Also, in the comparatively calmer post-1970 election years, after the often vilified Citizens United decision incumbents lost an average of 36% higher. The question thus stands to the reader, what do you think makes for better government, one in which more or less incumbents are sent packing?