50 Years Later, Former Congressman Describes Context Of March on Washington

By on August 26th, 2013
Only Claude Pepper voted to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a piece of legislation that passed nearly a year after the 1963 March on Washington.

Ashley Crane / WUFT News

Only Claude Pepper voted to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a piece of legislation that passed nearly a year after the 1963 March on Washington.

During the summer of 1963 and into 1964, Don Fuqua didn’t really see a choice.

A freshman congressman whose 9th District then comprised the eastern half of the Panhandle, he had faced in the 1962 election (and was likely to again face in 1964) a segregationist challenger, Wilfred Varn.

With a civil rights bill stalled on Capitol Hill, President John F. Kennedy, and later Lyndon B. Johnson, pressured Democratic colleagues to support the legislation.

Knowing his solidly Southern district, Fuqua said he had to “quietly vote no.”

Fuqua, 80, is the only living member of Florida’s congressional delegation from that era. A North Florida native, he now resides in Gainesville and spoke with WUFT News last week in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 1963.

Fuqua recalls being in congressional session as people gathered by the hundreds of thousands along the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963.

“I think there was a lot of apprehension that there may be some sort of violence, but to Dr. King’s credit, it was non-violent,” Fuqua said.

The capital offices were quiet that day, and Fuqua said he did not witness the speech as it happened, though he later heard and watched Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech.

“It was one of the most impressive speeches I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said.

Fuqua voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Neither of Florida’s senators, George Smathers and Spessard Holland, opted to support the bill. Samples from Smathers’ correspondence archive at the University of Florida illustrate the split sentiment he heard leading up to the march and legislation votes.

Lincoln Rockwell, commander of the American Nazi Party until his assassination four years later, wrote Smathers (and many, if not all, other congressmen) on Aug. 17, 1963:

I can assure you from talking with the great masses of White people that the people are WITH US. A louse-up for Martin Luther Coon and his red gang of race-mixers on August 28 will mean the collapse of the whole Communist race-mixing machine which is tearing up our race, our nation and our Constitution. This they admit themselves. (Source: George A. Smathers Papers)

J.B. Spence, a Florida lawyer, wrote from a perspective more to the left, recognizing Smathers’ wavering and urging him toward a different vote:

I would appreciate very much if you would reconsider your position on the civil rights legislation. I believe so intensely and sincerely that we, the white race, have given the colored race the short end of the stick for so long. Won’t you please vote yes for the President’s civil rights legislation? (Source: George A. Smathers Papers)

Paul Ortiz, the University of Florida Director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, described why the march was a major turning point for the civil rights movement and subsequent vote.

“The march gave people a sense of possibility,” Ortiz said.“They brought back to their communities a sense of excitement.”

Sharon Austin, director of the University of Florida African American Studies Program, explained the impact the march had on the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

“It resulted in the integration of a lot of public accommodations, and it even resulted in a large part in the types of educational opportunities that we have today,” she said.

Fuqua said the decision to vote against the bills was not one he was proud of, but in the years after, he tried to take advantage of other opportunities to advance civil rights causes for his constituents.

Ethan Magoc contributed reporting.

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