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Meek stops courthouse name

Rep. Carrie Meek has quietly blocked a plan to name the new federal courthouse in downtown Miami for retired U.S. Sen. George Smathers, citing his lack of support for civil rights in the 1950s and '60s.

Smathers, a native Miamian, was once one of Florida's most powerful, well-connected politicians. Now 88, he lives in Indian Creek Village.

"His record made me concerned. I thought about it carefully and just couldn't support his family on this," said Meek, after she met with Bruce Smathers, son of the ex-senator.

"I have to respect the congresswoman's position on this," said Bruce Smathers, a former secretary of state, who had talked to several members of the Florida delegation about naming the building for his father.

"We would have been honored, but if it's not going to be, it's not going to be."

George Smathers was traveling and unavailable to comment, his son said.

Meek helped secure funding for the $137-million courthouse that will rise on Miami Avenue, part of her district. Naming such a building usually requires the support of the entire state delegation.

Smathers' career was long and colorful. He ousted Sen. Claude Pepper in a bitter Democratic primary in 1950 and served 18 years in the Senate. He was best man at John Kennedy's wedding, a confidant of Lyndon Johnson and introduced Richard Nixon to Bebe Rebozo on Key Biscayne.

In 1956, Smathers was one of 19 senators who signed the Southern Manifesto _ those senators resisted rulings by the Supreme Court and other federal courts to desegregate schools.

Smathers voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most far-reaching rights legislation since Reconstruction. He opposed the first version of a Voting Rights Act in 1965 before voting for it on final passage.

A top lieutenant of Majority Leader Johnson, Smathers was also the only Southerner to support a civil rights bill pushed by Johnson in 1957.

After researching Smathers' record, Meek said, "I like to keep the peace but on this I have to take a stand against it."

"I'm old enough to remember those days. I lived through segregation and I know the price so many paid," said Meek, 76, who is retiring from Congress.

Meek also said she was bothered by Smathers' defeat of Pepper during a nasty campaign in which Smathers' allies labeled the incumbent "Red" Pepper and accused him of aiding communism.

Smathers, in an oral history interview with a Senate historian in 1989, said that he and other Southern senators opposed civil rights legislation out of political necessity.

"There wasn't any doubt that before 1964 if Spessard Holland (Florida's other senator) or I had voted for civil rights _ you couldn't do it and survive," he said. "It was just because the natural progression of breaking down the barriers between the races had never gotten that far by that period of time."

After he retired from the Senate in 1969, Smathers practiced law and became a prominent Washington lobbyist.

In recent years he has donated $26-million to the University of Florida, which named the library system after him, and gave $10-million to the University of Miami, which named its Wellness Center for him.