Monday, April 30, 2007

Flashback: The Idea of a Training Film for Black Campaigners Crests into the Andrew Young Documentary.

[Fifty years of politics, written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

At the outset of 1972 I had the idea…as part of Quaker’s urban affairs program…of the company doing something in a nonpartisan way to develop a training film to educate mainly poor people without much money to learn how to apply grassroots principles to voter registration and get-out-the-vote. It’s my recollection that my boss Bob Thurston took the idea and changed it around to the idea that it should be a documentary of an ongoing campaign…showing either how a minority candidate won or lost. We selected Andrew Young because he had been in Chicago with Dr. King. He had left the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and moved to Atlanta after King’s death. In 1970 he made an unsuccessful attempt to run for Congress in the 5th congressional district of Georgia (I erroneously called it the 2nd district earlier). This was a district that was 57 percent white, consisting of some inner city black areas and a lot of fairly middle class and upper middle class suburban areas.

The fact that Young had lost an earlier race did not fill us with high expectations that our film would show a black man winning—but that was all right. Probably showing a black man losing while his volunteers learned the ropes of grassroots organizing would be just as valuable. Now there were three disadvantages to his possibly winning. First, when Young ran in 1970 against a Republican incumbent (since 1964), Fletcher Thompson, it was a non-presidential year. Now he would run in a presidential year when Georgia was a dead certainty to go Republican for Richard Nixon’s reelection by a huge majority—especially with George McGovern running on the Democratic side.

Second, when Young ran unsuccessfully in 1970, a good number of blacks had been turned off by him believing that he was a “white man’s token black” because he had had a job as a conciliator serving the white mayor. Therefore, Young adopted a more strident tone toward black power than he normally would have been expected to—which played into Republican Thompson’s hands. Third, this time Young would have a major primary contender, a white liberal who would be expected to appeal to the white majority of the district.

Balancing these three disadvantages were three advantages. First, the district had undergone a reapportionment in accordance with a federal court order and more blacks were added but the majority was still white suburban. Second, quite unanticipated, the Republican incumbent, Fletcher Thompson, decided to run for the U. S. Senate so the district would not have an incumbent. Third, since 1970 the district was reapportioned by federal court order to add a slice more of black votes but not significantly: it was still regarded as a non-minority district with a heavy and prosperous white majority.

To do the film, we searched for a black documentary film director but could find none. We hired a black director who had had experience doing commercials and little else. That was my decision and the last vestigial trace of liberalism remaining from my old Commerce days: I should have hired the best documentarian we could find. Nope, I was still in the affirmative action mode which now has long left me. To help the director who had no political experience whatever, I sketched a scenario. Where I once felt we should avoid covering the primary and start at the point where, it would be hoped, Young won the primary, I now felt that, looking at the political situation, the primary should be included since Young would be facing a very popular white liberal Democratic candidate who just might win. Then, if Young were to lose the primary, that would complete the film. If he were to win the primary, the film would go on to cover the general election which would be against a white Republican running in tandem with Nixon in a heavily pro-Nixon state.

Young won both races and the film went on to win an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Washington, D. C. as well asd the Worldfest Virgin Islands International Film Festival Gold Medal in 1975. But before the documentary was completed, we were dissatisfied with the original director as he had determined to make a hagiography of adulation to Young rather than a documentary showing how the victory took place. We took the raw footage from him and handed it to one of the nation’s finest documentarians, Charles Guggenheim who had done documentaries and commercials for a number of prominent Democratic candidates including John and Robert Kennedy. That the film turned out to be superb is due largely to Guggenheim’s masterly sense of dramatics and art.

The project enhanced Quaker’s reputation as a financier of quality films and a socially progressive company. Working on the film as a kind of senior journalist-supervisor of its politics, I went on the trail with Young for weeks much like I had done fifteen years earlier with Hubert Humphrey—but also to travel with Young’s opponents, one Democrat and one Republican. An added benefit was to meet and spend hours with then still living civil rights leaders of the south who were deeply engrossed in the project.

Several points need to be made about Andrew Young’s ability to snatch victory from what had been predicted in some circles as a sure defeat, given he was running in Georgia in 1972 when the hated George McGovern was the Democratic presidential nominee. Andrew Young was the direct beneficiary of many progressive, pro-integration Democrats who had gone before. One was Ivan Allen, the multi-millionaire entrepreneur and venerable liberal mayor of Atlanta under whose leadership the city gained the title of “the town too busy to hate.” Allen fused his own wealth and his reputation as a civic leader and philanthropist into wise stewardship of urban politics in the volatile 1950s and `60s. Allen eliminated restrictions on the duties of black policemen (who were regarded as juniors to white officers), desegregated Atlanta’s parks and swimming pools and convinced fourteen downtown hotels to desegregate despite all the heat he was taking from traditionalists.

Another forerunner was a phenomenally successful and attractive white Democratic congressman who served in the late `50s and early `60s, Charles Weltner. Weltner was regarded as a national Democratic comer and worked in tandem with Allen. But when the bad days came, in the mid-`60s, Georgia’s Democratic party adopted a loyalty oath which bound incumbents to support the entire Democratic ticket. Lester Maddox won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1964. Weltner could not accept Maddox so Weltner resigned as Congressman…paving the way for a Republican, Fletcher Thompson, to get elected that year, the year Barry Goldwater swept Georgia. A third forerunner, though in the distant past, was Ellis Arnall who at the age of 32 in the early 1940s defeated arch-segregationist Gene Talmadge as governor, paving the way for acceptance by the state for good government. However, Arnall (whose top staffer was a young Ivan Allen) leaned too far left, supported the retention of Henry A. Wallace for vice president at the Democratic convention of 1944, vying with FDR’s choice of Harry S. Truman. Finally when the U. S. Supreme Court ruled against Georgia’s all-white Democratic primary, Arnall, unlike any other Georgia politician, decided to obey it. That sealed his doom and Talmadge returned. However the liberal precedence were established.

All this history seemed to weigh slightly in favor of Young as he approached the day of decision on whether or not to run again in 1972. This time he would have strenuous primary opposition. It was that of Wyche Fowler, a bright, attractive young white man who had earned the reputation of “Atlanta’s Night Mayor” while working for Ivan Allen, running the mayor’s office after hours and seeing that potholes were filled, cops were sent out to fight crime and fire trucks were sent on their way. Fowler was a public relations genius who took a menial job, as a staffer who worked for Allen from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. and sold it to the media as a man who never slept, seeing that essential services were performed while Atlanta got a good night’s rest. Fowler went from there to alderman and now was ready to run as the great white hope of liberaldom, to pick up the torch dropped by the liberal martyr Charles Weltner.

As I cruised around the district, I met a good many people who were black activists and enlisted in Young’s campaign: Julian Bond who was far more interested in running for Congress ultimately himself and wanted Young to continue as an angry black man which had caused Young’s defeat in 1970…and Hosea Williams, probably the most interesting man I met in the entire campaign, who understood Young’s need to go “moderate” in order to get the white vote. Of all the civil rights leaders I have ever met, including Whitney Young and Andrew Young (unrelated)…with probably the exception of Martin Luther King, Jr. whom I met only briefly and Jim Farmer with whom I worked in government…Hosea Lorenzo Williams was the most fascinating. He was two years older than I (then 46), wore overalls before they became trendy and known as denims; he was a careless dresser but not with a studied carelessness: he carried around a bandana kerchief into which he blew his nose with a loud asthmatic honk.

He was born in Attaspulgus, Georgia to parents who were both blind and who were teenagers (unmarried), committed to an institution for the blind in Macon. His mother ran away to Atlanta and worked in a local whorehouse, later performed as a porno actress in early scatological films. His father disappeared. He was reared by his mother’s family.

He joined the U. S. army in World War II, served in the famed black unit under General George Patton where he made staff sergeant. When Nazi bombers raided his unit, the entire outfit was killed except for Williams who was critically injured, spending a year in an army hospital. Once out of the service he got a high school diploma at age 23 and then a bachelor’s and master’s in chemistry. He landed a thoroughly acceptable job with the U .S. Department of Agriculture but he was always on the edge of trouble—insisting on drinking from white drinking fountains. Once after doing so he was beaten so severely he was thought of as dead. The record shows that throughout the 1950s he was arrested and jailed no fewer than 125 times.

King begged him to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in order to spare his life and have him surrounded by stronger fellows in the fight for integration. He did so. He met Joseph Lowery and Andrew Young at that time and was given the task of leading the first 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery in behalf of civil rights. In that march, white cop-thugs beat him with clubs until he lost consciousness and suffered a fractured skull and severe concussion. This is a man who before he died, endorsed the candidacy of Ronald Reagan for president because he felt the Democratic party was taking blacks for granted.

I chummed with Hosea Williams much of the time during the making of the film but he spurned being interviewed at that time. How Andrew Young won the Democratic primary over a very tough opponent, Wyche Fowler (ultimately to become a U. S. Senator from Georgia) will be outlined next time.

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