Tag Archive for 'Basil Lee Whitener'

Completion of Duke’s CCC Still Image Digitization, Part 2

Duke University Libraries recently completed still image digitization for their contributions to the Content, Context, and Capacity (CCC) Project. Our last post highlighted the Charles N. Hunter Papers and the Asa and Elna Spaulding Papers. This time we focus on the Basil Lee Whitener Papers and the records of the Women-In-Action for the Prevention of Violence and Its Causes (Durham chapter):

Box 11, Folder 1: Photographs circa 1970s

Box 11, Folder 1: Photographs circa 1970s

  • Women-In-Action for the Prevention of Violence and Its Causes, Inc. Durham Chapter records, 1968-1998:   Founded in 1968 by Elna Spaulding, the Women-in-Action for the Prevention of Violence and Its Causes (WIAPVC) was an inter-racial non-profit organization dedicated to community improvement that would help to prevent violence of all kinds (domestic violence, street crime, etc.).  The organization’s records document the struggles in finding funding in its nascent years.  In fact, researchers will see correspondence with such luminaries as Senator Sam Ervin, First Lady Patricia Nixon, and the producers of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson asking for funds for WIAPVC’s community efforts.  In addition, researchers will discover documentation of the evolution of WIAPVC, organizational writings and workshop contents, selected photographs and clippings, and related material from other community organizations.
  • Basil Lee Whitener Papers, 1889-1968:  Political historians will find this collection of the utmost interest.  As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1957 to 1968 elected from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Whitener was one of a group of Southern Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) to vociferously oppose civil rights legislation.  Whitener’s papers digitized for the CCC project include his correspondence with reform proponents and opponents and his discussions with other congressmen discussing legislative strategies to quash reform.   Researchers will find the proposed amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 introduced by Whitener’s predecessor as well as the argument that civil rights legislation would ultimately undermine federalism itself.  In addition to his involvement with civil rights, Whitener also served on the House Judiciary Committee when that group discussed two prominent issues—the selection of juries in federal trials and the appeal of Jimmy Hoffa’s tax evasion conviction.  The Hoffa transcripts are especially interesting, as researchers will learn the secret happenings in smoke-filled Memphis hotel rooms, including a cameo from Elvis himself.

“A Nation That Forgets God Will Fall”: Debating Engel v. Vitale

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was not “separate but equal” but instead an unconstitutional practice.  This decision infuriated many, especially in the South, who thought that the Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds.  Included among the disgusted was Congressman Basil Lee Whitener, an outspoken “Dixiecrat” (a member of the Democratic Party who supported segregation as well as socially conservative positions).

Members of Congress who opposed integration did not have the political power to pass any sort of Constitutional amendment to counter the Supreme Court’s ruling.  The frustration of Whitener and fellow Dixiecrats only intensified as integration began across the South.

Another ruling in 1962 further infuriated social conservatives throughout the country and led some to seek extraordinary solutions.  In Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled in a six-to-one decision that school-sponsored prayer in public schools was unconstitutional.  Justice Hugo Black, writing the majority opinion, stated his objection to the prayer instituted by the state of New York thus:

We think that, by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York’s program of daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings as prescribed in the Regents’ prayer is a religious activity. It is a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessings of the Almighty.

Justice Black’s constitutional logic may have been sound, but his rationale did not mollify the anger of social conservatives who balked at the Court’s perceived abridgment of the right to pray at any given location.

Petition regarding prayer in school, sent to Congressman Basil Lee Whitener, circa 1962. Basil Lee Whitener Papers, Box 144, Folder 4, blwms03004083.

Congressman Whitener received petitions from his constituents, including the document shown on the left in which several North Carolina residents ask for a constitutional amendment to re-legalize state-sponsored prayer in public schools. In part, the petitioners claimed that, “Our Nation was founded upon God and has prospered more than any nation in the world.  History has proven that a Nation That Forgets God Will Fall” (emphasis in original).  This document found a sympathetic ear in Congressman Whitener.  In fact, Whitener introduced one of many House resolutions that included a constitutional amendment overturning Engel v. Vitale. The proposed amendment that gained the most political traction was one officially introduced in 1964 by Congressman Frank Becker (R-NY).  The Becker Amendment read in part:

Nothing in this Constitution shall be deemed to prohibit the offering, reading from, or listening to prayers or biblical scriptures, if participation therein is on a voluntary basis, in any governmental or public school . . .

Whitener’s constituents gathered their support behind the Becker Amendment. Religious groups such as Project America: International Christian Youth – USA sent a large number of form letters to Whitener’s office asking the congressman to support the Becker Amendment. One such letter is shown below:

Form letter, Cliff Wright to Congressman Basil Lee Whitener, circa 1964. Basil Lee Whitener Papers, Box 147, Folder 4, blwms04004006.

As one might expect, Whitener was a fervent supporter of the Becker Amendment. However, most of Congress did not share that position. A campaign against the amendment, ironically led by the National Council of Churches and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, effectively killed the amendment’s momentum.

Ultimately, it is true that Whitener’s opposition to integration and enthusiasm for prayer in school went against the policy of the nation. Yet both the Brown v. Board of Education and Engel v. Vitale decisions were crucial events in developing a social conservative movement characterized by a hybridization of small-government ideology with religiously influenced policy recommendations.

Furthermore, as part of the CCC Project, it is important to look not only at the successes of those who fought for civil rights. The context of those successes is, in part, the reaction of those who felt betrayed by their government and how that resentment changed American politics.

Encyclopedia of Civil Liberties (Becker Amendment)
The Oyez Project (Engel v. Vitale)
Justia U.S. Supreme Court Center (Engel v. Vitale)

From the Archives: “The complete destruction of the separate states” — looking at the Civil Rights Act of 1956, part II

This post is the 6th in a series from the Triangle Research Libraries Network’s CCC project, digitizing more than 40 archival collections related to the long civil rights movement from four area institutions.  For more on this digitization project, click here.

This is the second of a two-part series discussing materials related to the Civil Rights Act that have been digitized for the CCC grant from the Basil Lee Whitener Papers.  In the first part, I presented a letter to the editor that discussed the mindset that perpetuated Jim Crow. However, the majority of materials relevant to the long civil rights movement in the Whitener Papers speak to the congressional record.

Basil Lee Whitener Papers, Box 1, Folder 1: First Page of Statement from Congressman Woodrow Jones Presented to House Rules Committee in opposition to H.R. 627, 1956 (File ID: blwms0101230)

One example is a 1956 statement, the first page of which is shown here. In the statement, Whitener’s predecessor, Congressman Woodrow Jones, speaks to the House Rules Committee in opposition to H.R. 627, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1956.  Taking a hyperbolic rhetorical position, Jones’s speech claims that federal legislation for guaranteeing or reforming Civil Rights would lead to the “complete destruction of the separate states.”

Jones first equates congressional consideration of a Civil Rights Act to the “congressional dictatorship” that had characterized Reconstruction.  Later in his speech, Jones analyzes the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the Constitution in an attempt to argue that their statutes do not enable congressional action in the civil rights arena. Jones uses an ad hominem attack to claim that H.R. 627 would set an irrevocable precedent. He argues that the Civil Rights Act would eliminate states’ rights and effectively give the federal government unchecked power.  Jones goes on to contend that such a disturbance in the distribution of power would inherently affect his constituents:

When states [sic] rights are finally destroyed, and I pray God this shall not happen, then the citizens must come running to Washington and beg an all-powerful federal government for redress of their grievances.

Ultimately, analysts of Jones’s speeches will have to explore the question of the authenticity of the states’ rights argument.  Was Jones’s opposition truly rooted in the legalistic issue of states’ rights he gaves in his speech, or did his opposition stem from a fear of social change?  It is my hope that the efforts of the CCC project to digitize archival collections such as the Basil Lee Whitener Papers will lead to further examination of many such questions, and to a stronger understanding of the intersection of official opposition efforts to civil rights reforms and the social context that surrounded those efforts.

By Josh Hager, CCC Graduate Research Assistant

From the Archives: When “you can’t write with the ink” — Looking at the Civil Rights Act of 1956, part I

This post is the 5th in a series from the Triangle Research Libraries Network’s CCC project, digitizing more than 40 archival collections related to the long civil rights movement from four area institutions.  For more on this digitization project, click here.

This is the first of a two-part series discussing materials related to the Civil Rights Act that have been digitized for the CCC grant from the Basil Lee Whitener Papers. This post presents a letter to the editor found in the research files of Congressman Basil Lee Whitener from Mecklenburg County, N.C., who served in office from 1957 to 1969.  This letter, written by concerned citizen H.F. Seawell, provides an illuminating yet disturbing portrait of the mindset that perpetuated Jim Crow.

Basil Lee Whitener Papers, Box 1, Folder 1 – "A Treatise on Color, With Examples Cited" (file ID blwms01001098)

In 1956, Congress debated H.R. 627, more commonly known as the Civil Rights Act of 1956.  Authored by Congressman Emanuel Celler (D-NY), this bill intended to outlaw the various measures that states had implemented in order to prevent African Americans from voting, such as poll taxes and reading tests.  In his letter opposing H.R. 627, H.F. Seawell composed a “treatise on color” that included such conclusions as: “This country has produced two Washingtons, George and Booker T.  When you try to mix ’em [sic], it is like putting ink in a glass of water, the water is not fit to drink and you can’t write with the ink.”

Seawell’s central thesis was that mixing races would result in ill effects for all parties:  “I love the colored folks. . . . The surest way to ruin a colored man is to force him over to mingling with white folks.  It ruins his personality, destroys his initiative, and corrupts his ‘payrology [sic].'” (As an aside, I cannot determine what Seawell meant by “payrology.”)  This quote demonstrates that Seawell believed segregation to be altruistic, meaning that racists would conversely advocate integration.  To further his erroneous argument, Seawell lists famous African Americans whom he admires such as W.C. Handy, Al Jolson, Ethel Waters, Satchel Paige, and Jackie Robinson.  Seawell might have actually appreciated the contributions of these individuals to their respective fields, but it is notable that he pigeonholed their contributions into entertainment and athletics.  Politics represents a different issue; Seawell claims that African-Americans helped various white figures achieve success, but he does not list any African American political pioneers.  Of course, by arguing that African Americans enabled white success, Seawell’s thesis on the negativity of racial integration inherently fails.  The cognitive dissonance that we find in Seawell’s letter is thus a microcosm of the convoluted logic of the mindset of Jim Crow.

By Josh Hager, CCC Graduate Research Assistant