Charles Weltner: A Man Of Principle
Too often today we hear stories about politicians who run on lofty agendas but quickly sacrifice them to political expediency. I thought it would be nice to have a post about a politician who stuck to his principles even when doing so cost him greatly.
The man was named Charles Weltner from Atlanta, Georgia. He was a successful attorney and in 1962 he decided to run for Congress. In 1962 Georgia was still a one party Democratic state so he entered the Democratic primary to challenge incumbent James C. Davis. Like almost every other Georgia politician of the era, Davis was a conservative segregationist opposed to all civil rights bills.
Privately Weltner was quite progressive on the topic, believing in integration and equal rights for all regardless of race. But he could not run openly as a pro civil rights candidate in 1962 Georgia so he did what many other men like him did and ran on a vaguer “time to move forward” platform that basically argued integration was a foregone conclusion so it was time to accept it.
To his benefit the district he was running in (the 5th) covered the Atlanta area and had (especially for the south) a large black voter base. But he had to maintain this murky sort of platform to win enough white votes to prevail in the primary and runoff. He beat Davis 55-45 and went on to win the general by the same margin (this was actually a pretty close race for the time, the next closest race was 3-1 and most candidates were unopposed).
Once in Washington Weltner could have continued to adopt the somewhat murky platform he had in the campaign but he chose to do otherwise. In 1964 he was the only House or Senate member from the deep South to support the Civil Rights Act and one of only a handful from the overall South. The others who did join him were either Hispanics from Texas or represented liberal districts. He was the only one to go against his constituents general views.
In 1964 he did win re-election by a slightly narrower 54-46 margin so he continued his policy of voting his conscience by supporting the Voting Right Act of 1965 (again largely alone among his Southern colleagues).
But the tide was turning in his favor and by 1966 he was not only favored to win re-election but many pegged him as a statewide candidate in the near future. But then fate intervened.
In 1964 many Georgia Democrats had broken ranks to support the GOP Presidential nominee. This had only minimal impact in other contests but as 1966 dawned party leaders were concerned that the same thing in the 1966 Governor’s race could hurt Democrats down the ballot. The primary that year looked to be divisive and could prompt losers to cross party lines.
So the state party passed a loyalty oath requirement which stated that if you were going to run as a Democrat then you had to support the entire statewide ticket. On the surface this didn’t see too unreasonable, why shouldn’t a candidate be required to support the party supporting him ?
Weltner had no issue with it and in the Spring of 1966 he signed the oath, but then came the primary for Governor and much to the distress of many the winner was a many named Lester Maddox.
For those who don’t know the name Maddox was pretty much a cruder version of George Wallace. He was known for chasing black customers out of his restaurant with baseball bats and ax handles. He shut down his restaurant after the passage of the civil right act because he would not serve blacks and he ran on an openly racist platform.
This put Weltner in a bind due to the loyalty oath, though he did have a way out. The oath didn’t really require hi to openly back Maddox, he just couldn’t support a different candidate. Nobody in the Maddox campaign wanted his support and Weltner’s own supporters would understand he didn’t back a racist.
So he could have just stayed quiet, but he didn’t
Instead he resigned his nomination and left Congress saying that he would not support, even implicitly, a racist like Maddox.
The move won widespread praise but it effectively ended his political career. He never held any elective office again, though he was eventually named to the Georgia Supreme Court.
But what an honorable move he made in 1966