December 27, 1963
Hon. Sam J. Ervin, Jr.
United States Senate
Dear Judge Ervin:
I have your letter from December 19. I greatly regret that with the holiday rush I was unable to respond immediately because I wanted you to know that I am deeply appreciative of your anxiety and the trouble you take for me to have an accurate knowledge of your record and attitude in respect to constitutional rights.
I can understand how you were disturbed by the report in the newspapers. I was too, for while we are in disagreement, our disagreement is hardly what you have been led to believe. The account of my remarks was erroneous in certain respects and misleading in its emphasis. That you may know exactly what I did say, I am enclosing a verbatim copy.
You will note that I spoke specifically of the “race problem,” and not of “civil rights” as the newspaper reported. The news man was obviously under the delusion which is widely shared, that the terms, “race problem” and “civil rights,” are interchangeable. You have inveighed against the notion that civil rights are for only one group of our people. I have too. Indeed, I did so in my remarks at North Carolina College to the extent that I drew a vehement protest from one of the professors. Had I been talking about civil rights generally, I certainly would not have mentioned only your work in respect to Indians. I have known of and applauded your contribution and that of your subcommittee in all the areas you speak of not connected with race. And of course I did not say, as the newspapers have it, that you represented the State of North Carolina in the school segregation case.
To come to what I did say, I did make a general assertion that our state’s record in race problems on the national level was “one largely of negation.” Of course, this is an interpretive remark and therefore a matter of opinion. But surely you would agree that I have some factual basis for the opinion. We did not give the Supreme Court any suggestion as to the appropriate decree in the Brown case although we had a year to ponder the matter. We contented ourselves with telling the Court once again that it was wrong. So far as I can recall, there was not a North Carolina vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 or 1960. Nor can I recall even an acknowledgement on the national level that there are problems in respect to discrimination in employment and public accommodations. Indeed, I take it from your insistence that present remedies are adequate to bar discrimination at the polls, that we have no problem in respect to voting, at least not a legislative one.
Now, if this is not a record of negation (in respect to problems growing out of race), I am at a loss to understand why it is not. This is not to say that I have not welcomed and been continually grateful for your role in securing trial by jury when serious punishment was to be meted out in contempt cases. I am convinced that nothing of pertinent good can be achieved by denying trial by jury where it is so obviously appropriate, if not constitutionally required and I know that the consequences for the federal courts would have been serious indeed. I likewise am grateful for your exposing the procedural inadequacies of the proposals this year. But contributions such as these seem to me to do no more than show that the authors of the bills had not adequately thought their problems through and that these bills as drafted ought not to pass. They do not promise solutions to the difficulties that beset us.
In that task of providing solutions, I think the South, and North Carolina in particular, ought to have something to contribute. I know very well that you abhor discrimination by government and I can assure you that my suggestion that you come forward with positive proposals was not idly made. I don’t see why the field has to be left to the breast-beaters from the North.
I have indicated above that you appear to me to think that there is no legislation problem with respect to voting, that our present laws are adequate. If I am right in believing that there is still widespread systematic discrimination in voting, this prevailing discrimination seems to me powerfully to suggest that the remedies are not adequate. The alternative explanation seemingly would be that the Justice Department and the Negroes somehow out of sheer perversity are refusing to utilize them. At any rate, I would think this problem can be solved whenever there is a resolute purpose to solve it. I simply cannot believe that the government of the United States is unequal to the task of assuring all its citizens equality at the polls.
There is one further thought that I should like to express and that is that our institutions are being stained almost unbearably by Congress’s inability or unwillingness to legislate about the race problem. I do not see how it can be denied that we had and have fundamental adjustments to make in this country in respect to Negroes. So far, those adjustments have been largely left to the Executive and to the courts. The branch of government that ideally should lead the ways in making such adjustments has been for the most part inert. I shudder to contemplate the consequences had they not done so. One of the things that impressed me the most about President Kennedy’s death was the good will displayed by the people of the world for the United States. Is it possible that there could have been such good will if in 1963 we were still adhering to the “separate but equal” formula as our official creed? I don’t believe it. The Supreme Court decision and our various Presidents’ commitment to it have made it possible for us still to appeal to the world at large as “everyman’s country.” Now, I think, the Executives and the courts have gone about as far as they can by themselves. They need help. I hope that Congress can and will supply it.
As a North Carolinian and a Southerner, I think one of the most regrettable aspects of the race problem is the failure of the white South to contribute to its solution. Fortunately, there have been stirrings at the local level, notable in Charlotte, Durham, and Raleigh and some other cities and towns. A small beginning has been made at the State level with the Good Neighbor Council and slightly more liberal employment policies. But nationally, except for Senator Ervin’s investigation in respect to Indians, our record is one largely of negation. The lawyer for the State of North Carolina in the school segregation case refused out of hand the court’s statesmanlike solicitation of advice as to how the decision reached might be implemented. And now our representatives in both the House and the Senate exhibit the same discredited negative attitude Senator Ervin tells us the civil rights bill is “the most monstrous blueprint for governmental tyranny ever presented to Congress.” No one would say that these bills are without their defects but I would be more impressed with the Senator’s rhetoric if he showed some concern in rooting out, once and for all, the monstrous tyranny involved in systematically denying the vote to Negroes. I would be more impressed if he would use his great abilities in devising means of solving the very real problems of discrimination in public accommodations and in employment.
There is not enough to summon, as Senator Ervin does, the specter of an all-powerful centralized federal government. After all, it was the central government that abolished slavery, that stopped the practice of sending people to their death without the right of counsel, that has placed the most effective barriers against monstrous tyranny of the third degree. In the great adventure in freedom of this century, that of liquidating the last vestiges of slavery, I covet for our State a significantly creative role. That role will in part be denied us so long as our representatives in Washington cling to the outworn policy of negation.