Who deserves the title, “Florida’s Greatest Politician?” One could make a case for Claude Denson Pepper. As a U.S. senator from 1935-1950, and a congressman from 1963 until his death in 1989, he was the champion of the elderly and liberal causes. He was also a racist, or at least a deeply conflicted pragmatist over the South’s “color line.”
Born in 1900 into grinding poverty in Alabama, Pepper, by dint of hard work and a commanding intellect, earned his way into Harvard Law School. After teaching briefly at the University of Arkansas Law School—one of his students was J. William Fulbright-- Pepper moved to Perry, Florida, a Big Bend town numbering about 2,000 residents engaged in agriculture and lumber. In 1928, he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives.
On June 17, 1929, Pepper participated in one of the most bizarre debates held in Tallahassee’s Old Capitol. The issue, considered so significant, required a rare “Extraordinary Session.” A Pinellas County legislator, William Finley Way, introduced the resolution. A native Georgian, Way moved to St. Petersburg in 1923. A nephew of David Yulee, Florida’s first congressman, Way had been admitted to the Florida Bar at age 18. His bill, written in a florid, legal style, read:
"Whereas, it has become common knowledge that at a social function held
in the City of Washington at the White House . . . presided over by the wife
of the President, a negro woman by the name of DePriest was entertained and received on terms of equality with the ladies present.
AND WHEREAS, we believe that social intercourse between the white and black races in contrary to decency and subversive of the best interests of all
AND WHEREAS, there has always existed in the Southern States, and always shall exist, a line of demarcation between the social status of the white and negro races. . . .
NOW THEREFORE be it resolved by the House of Representatives of the State of Florida that the act of Mrs. Hoover in thus entertaining a negro woman on a parity with white ladies was both shameful and disgraceful."
Legislators denounced First Lady Hoover and Mrs. De Priest, the wife of Chicago congressman Oscar De Priest. “I am voting yes,” said Rep. R. Lucas Black of Gainesville, “because I am a Southern gentleman and a true Democrat.”
Claude Pepper addressed his fellow solons with a simple but powerful sentence: “I am a Southerner and a Democrat like my ancestors before me and have always voted for the Democratic nominee, but I consider such a resolution as this out of place as an act of this body.”
Pepper paid a price for his maverick behavior. Taylor County voters tossed the brash young legislator from office in the 1930 election. Pepper moved to Tallahassee, a city of 10,700.
In 1934, the brash Pepper challenged U.S. Sen. Park Trammell and most likely would have upset the incumbent were it not for massive vote fraud in Ybor City and West Tampa. In West Tampa’s Precinct 34, Trammel received 341 votes to Pepper’s 2, while in Ybor’s Precinct 26, the tally was 446 to 1 in favor of Trammell.
Pepper never challenged the verdict. In 1935, Florida’s U.S. Senators Trammell and Duncan Fletcher both died within a month. The Democratic Party rewarded Pepper for his honorable actions (or inaction) and Pepper became a U.S. Senator in an uncontested election.
The 35-year-old Senator quickly established a reputation as a liberal voice in the American South. Time magazine’s May 2, 1938, cover featured a photograph of Pepper and the inscription, “A Florida fighting cock will be a White House weathervane.” When President Franklin D. Roosevelt greeted his young stalwart, he exclaimed, “Claude, if you were a woman, I’d kiss you!”
But Pepper accepted a Faustian bargain that the only way he could bring New Deal liberalism to the South was to embrace the region’s racial code. Claude Pepper was all things to all voters: a hawk on defense and military appropriations; a fist-thumping populist, reminding Floridians of his support of Social Security and opposition to the Poll Tax; and a white southerner, reminding voters of his Alabama roots and Confederate ancestors, voting against national anti-lynching bills.
In January 1938, a young, ambitious lawyer and a future Florida governor, Fuller Warren, wrote Pepper, noting that he had read Pepper’s speech on the floor of the Capitol against an anti-lynching bill. “I think it is the ablest speech you have ever made,” Warren gushed.
In April 1944, Pepper was running for re-election to the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Supreme Court unleashed an April surprise. The Court ruled in Smith v. Allwright (1944) that the White Primary was unconstitutional. The White Primary had forbidden Blacks from registering as Democrats, dictating that only whites could vote in the only election that mattered in a one-party state: the primary. Millard Caldwell, a candidate for governor, explained, “I look at the primary as being similar to a club.” He added, “I feel in the primaries each party has the right to determine its own membership.”
Tallahassee neighbors, the conservative Millard Caldwell and liberal Claude Pepper loathed one another. But each denounced the Smith v. Allwright decision. Caldwell declared, “This new menace to the independence of the state and party must be resisted with well-directed energy.” Pepper vowed that the South must “maintain white supremacy.” In his private diary, Pepper was more introspective and honest: “The Negro question is a difficult and tragic one.”
In 1950, Democratic Party insiders begged Caldwell to run and defeat “Red” Pepper. Instead, Caldwell became the first director of the U.S. Civil Defense Administration. He urged a young Miami congressman, George Smathers, to take Pepper down. In one of America’s ugliest elections, “Gorgeous George” Smathers slayed the liberal dragon.
Claude Pepper moved to Miami where he was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1962. Liberated by a liberal constituency, Pepper became the champion of African Americans, the elderly and the dispossessed. In 1983, he again appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, this time as “Spokesman for the Elderly.” His last great wish was to bring national health care to Americans.
In 1974, Pepper sat down for an interview with Jack Bass, an acclaimed journalist. Pepper candidly confessed to filibustering against bills that would have made lynching a federal crime. He explained, “Because I thought that a Senator from the South had to do that.” In another interview, Pepper rationalized his conduct “because I still hadn’t gotten out of the clutches of my Southern background.” He noted, “My mother never sat at a table with a Black person in her life. She came up the old way.” In other words, to be elected in the South in the 1930s and ’40s, the color line was inviolable. To Pepper, the ends justified the means. Pepper is largely remembered as a great, if flawed, man, whereas Caldwell is depicted as “governing on the wrong side of history.”
In February 2020 — under nine months ago — Congress finally passed legislation that made lynching a federal crime. The measure had first been introduced in 1900.
Gary R. Mormino, scholar in residence at Florida Humanities, is the author of the recently released biography, “Millard Fillmore Caldwell: Governing on the Wrong Side of History” (University Press of Florida). He is a participant in the Times Reading Festival.