Tourist in England doesn't expect to see a...

AN AMERICAN

September 21, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

AN AMERICAN tourist in England doesn't expect to see a friend's face on the obituary page of the Times of London, but I had that sad experience this month.

Over an old photograph, a lengthy obit began: "Charles Longstreet Weltner, Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, who sacrificed a promising political career in the 1960s because he believed in civil rights, died of cancer at his home in Atlanta August 31 aged 64."

The obit mentioned two aspects of Weltner's career. In 1964, he voted for the Civil Right Act in the House of Representatives, the only member from the Deep South to do so. He was re-elected and headed to another victory in 1966 when he quit the race rather than sign a party loyalty oath promising to support the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Lester Maddox, an ax-handle-wielding segregationist.

The London paper, like the many U.S. papers that carried obituaries, noted that Weltner voted against the Civil Rights Act the first time it came up in the House, then supported it when a slightly modified version came back from the Senate. One thing not mentioned in these accounts is something important happened between the two votes.

I was covering Congress then for the Atlanta Constitution. What I am about to recall may sound cynical, but I mean it as a tribute to democracy and to Charlie. (Personal note: He is the only

politician I ever considered a close friend. I think that's because we got to know each other before I was a political reporter and before he was a politician.)

On Feb. 10, 1964, when the House voted the first time, Weltner represented a district that included Atlanta and its county, an adjacent suburban county and the next county out, small and rural. Most of the black vote in the district was in Atlanta. So was most of the liberal white vote. It was a huge district of over 800,000 population, at a time when the ideal average district population was 400,000.

On Feb. 17, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such population disparity was unconstitutional. The Georgia legislature redrew its congressional district lines. On July 2, 1964, when the House voted again on the Civil Rights Act, Weltner was running for re-election in a district of about 400,000 population, almost of it all in Atlanta. He had a larger black constituency than before and a larger liberal white constituency.

The first vote represented survival. The second vote representehis true beliefs. The second vote still took courage. Even in Atlanta in 1964, segregation was strongly supported. Openly racist candidates for office won elections there that year. Most white voters voted against Weltner in his new district.

But he won, and by demonstrating that you could support civil rights laws and get elected, he pointed the Southern political parade into the new direction that it marches today: Southern Democrats in Congress routinely vote for civil rights bills.

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