John Tower’s Long Hot Summer of 1967
April 16, 2018
April 16, 2018
My favorite material to work with in our Tower papers are the correspondence files. Texans and other Americans wrote to senator John Tower every year, about every issue on the spectrum of their concern. In the boxes containing letters from the second half of 1967, one of the most common topics are the riots that spread through the country that summer. The riots, which erupted in cities plagued by civil rights issues and police violence against black Americans, exacerbated and exposed issues of racial tension. The letters Tower received reflect that, as do his responses. Tower’s voting record on civil rights was not good; he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, among other pieces of anti-discriminatory legislation. However, in the summer of 1967, something else happened to disrupt his racial politics. The appointment and confirmation of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, which Tower voted in favor of, spanned from June to August of that year. Tower’s letters from constituents often address civil rights, Marshall, and the riots as inseperable. Their opinions on all three span the national spectrum, from favorable to radically opposed.
A Houston resident complained that “civil disobedience is the seed for rioting,” in a letter attached to a Tulsa Daily World editorial. The article claimed that “civil rightists” became “untouchable” which is why they felt entitled to riot. A constituent from San Antonio asked Tower in July whether the riots might be part of “a master plot or timetable” on the part of Black Power. Several letters refer to black Americans as “lawless negro groups” or “the colored race.” Others used poverty as a proxy for race, either referring to poor and black Americans as one group. One letter from Taylor, Texas suggested, “If these people were working all day… they probably would not feel like staying up and rioting all night… Fight poverty the American way - go to work.” Another, from Plainview, accused Black Power groups of demanding “free money” and claimed, “we all know that these people usually live in slum areas because they have chosen to spend their money to satisfy their own personal momentary desires of the flesh and have made no plans for food for the table the next week.” This is actually the opposite of the truth; the Black Panthers regularly provided free food to impoverished black neighborhoods. These intensely racist letters were met with no response from the senator that we have on record. However, there were other letters that he did respond to, indicating something else.
He responded to two letters towards the end of the summer in which constituents respectfully suggest methods of dealing with the riots. One is a new quota employment scheme, and the other is a forwarded Newsweek article on “emergency measures.” Both are short and simple letters, and the replies are too. Two other positive letters don’t have replies, but they are much longer. One is the most radically left letters sent to Tower that I have read, coming from a UT student. He says he understands exactly why black Americans are rioting, and that they won’t stop until the history of racist mistreatment is corrected with “money and education and a lot of brotherly love.” The other advocates for making black Americans “first class citizens.” These letters aren’t suggesting anything specific or concrete, which may be a reason they didn’t get a response. However, Tower’s pattern of more extreme opinions on racialized issues is hard to ignore. He might have been, like many other powerful white men of his time, toeing the line as best he could in a time rife with tension. In 1968, the civil rights movement was not successful, nor was it failing. In the moment, it would be very difficult for a politician to stay on the right side of history, if that was all he was concerned about. Tower was visibly not concerned with the rights and issues of black Americans, but he also surely didn’t want to lose their votes. As the first republican senator from Texas since Reconstruction, he was dealing with a complicated racial legacy. This careful nonaction marks a summer in his career that was otherwise remembered for its violence and strife. One exception stands out, though.
On August 30th, 1968, Tower voted in favor of nominating Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. His hearings had been going on all summer, as the riots raged out in the rest of the country. Tower received letters encouraging and disparaging his decision over the course of the summer, including several of the “Opinion Ballot” on Marshall, published by the National “Write Your Congressman” Club. These were form letters containing the arguments of each side, with a space for the sender to write their own opinions. Most of the letters opposing his appointment cited his race as a problem, although they often claimed it was not meant to be prejudiced. One claimed that he would not be able to avoid sympathizing with black issues because he was black, as if that is not also a problem for white politicians.
Racially charged issues in the late 1960s divided the United States. Despite the polarized groups of racists and civil rights activists, most Americans occupied a more neutral space. Based on his correspondence and his voting record, John Tower was one of those. He voted against the civil rights act, but was confident in his endorsement of a black man as a Supreme Court Justice. There might have been more going on behind the scenes for Tower; as he writes in his 1991 memoir, he had a very complicated relationship with much of Washington. The letters he received give us a valuable look at the typical Texan’s view of the civil rights movement, varied as that may be.
– Bel Mandelbaum