Terra Sigillata

If I live to 93 and someone holds a mirror up to my life, I wonder how proud or embarrassed I would be.

In my weekend reading, I realized that I never commented on the passing last month of former Florida Democratic Senator, George A. Smathers. He was 93 and left this world largely revered by today’s Floridians.

I bring up Smathers because of my educational links to the State of Florida, my previous writing on Florida civil rights leader Stetson Kennedy, and the melding of Smathers and Kennedy by Woody Guthrie in a song written to drum up votes during Kennedy’s unsuccessful write-in campaign for US senator in 1950. Billy Bragg recorded a version of “Stetson Kennedy” on the Mermaid Avenue collaboration (Volume II) with Wilco.

Smathers gave millions of dollars to the University of Florida and the University of Miami (tens of millions according to the WaPo). In fact, the library system at UF is named in his honor and the building I knew as Library East is now called the Smathers Library.

But like many politicians whose careers spanned the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s and the McCarthy communist witchhunt hearings, Smathers had a spotty past. As the WaPo obituary notes:

He opposed Thurgood Marshall’s nomination to the Supreme Court and called the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared school segregation illegal — a “clear abuse of judicial power.” When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in St. Augustine, Fla., Mr. Smathers offered to pay King’s bail, but only if he left the state.

[…]

When Mr. Smathers ran for the Senate in 1950, the race turned out to be among the most contentious in Florida’s history. Mr. Smathers badgered incumbent Sen. Claude Pepper (D) on his support of civil rights and accused Pepper of being a communist sympathizer. Both sides issued scurrilous statements, but the most famous remarks may never have been uttered.

“Do you know that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert?” Mr. Smathers was quoted as saying. “Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.”

The comments appeared in Time magazine and were forever etched into public memory, but Mr. Smathers denied ever having made them. Pepper’s backers called Mr. Smathers a fearmonger and a bigot, but Mr. Smathers prevailed.

But once in Congress, Smathers supported the establishment of the Everglades National Park, the Small Business Administration, and Medicare. The Wikipedia entry on Smathers is also equivocal on his legacy, singing his praises, clarifying misunderstandings, and owing up to to his anti-civil rights stands.

Ninety-three years is a very, very long time. It’s a long time to accumulate power and wealth and use it in various ways. If one takes a snapshot of anyone’s life, you too could be perceived as a bigot, a philanthropist, a statesperson, or a fearmonger – and all would be right.

I guess that the goal is to strive to do more good than bad, and to use one’s power for what is right and just, regardless of the prevailing politics of one’s time.

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Peripherally related to this story, I also came across a 2 October 2000 editorial section in The Nation that discussed Stetson Kennedy, his role in the 1950 election, and the source of the Guthrie song of that appeared that year:

As the only living American for whom Woody Guthrie wrote a campaign song, Stetson Kennedy, [then] 84, ought to be running for something this year. The Guthrie ballad, “Stetson Kennedy,” is sung by Billy Bragg on a new CD of unpublished Guthrie songs, Mermaid Avenue, Volume II. “I’m swinging over to this independent gent,” Bragg sings, “Stetson Kennedy’s the man for me.” So who is Stetson Kennedy, and why did Woody write not one but two campaign songs for him? Writer-historian David Taylor has the story: During the thirties Kennedy worked for the Federal Writers’ Project as a folklore interviewer, collecting folk tales and recording people’s songs in fields, food lines and juke joints. In 1945 as a journalist he infiltrated the KKK, interviewed the Imperial Wizard and other high Kluxers and unmasked them in his book, Southern Exposure. He also contributed articles to The Nation. In 1950, when George Smathers stole Florida’s Democratic nomination for senator from liberal incumbent Claude Pepper by McCarthyite smears, such as calling him “Red” Pepper, Kennedy launched a write-in challenge on a color-blind platform of equal rights and equal pay, and his reputation as a Klan-buster. From New York City his friend Woody Guthrie composed a couple of songs for him, which he recorded on tape. Even with Woody urging folks to “run down election morning/And scribble in Stetson Kennedy,” the campaign faced long odds. Florida radio stations refused to air the songs until a last-minute FCC order. Kennedy’s war chest was under $500. And on election night, he was arrested for challenging laws that nearly blocked the counting of write-in votes. Kennedy, who still lives in Florida, doesn’t plan on running for anything this year. “The corporate and financial circles have made it impossible for a candidate of the people to run,” he says.