Everett Dirksen's Civil Rights Record: The Case of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs
Everett McKinley Dirksen enjoys a well-deserved reputation for his effectiveness in passing civil rights legislation. He led Senate Republicans in the successful effort to enact President Dwight Eisenhower’s civil rights program in 1957. Dirksen provided crucial support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His leadership proved indispensable in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Senate Minority Leader’s presence loomed large on the national stage.
Over a 35-year career in the House and Senate, the Republican senator from Pekin, Illinois, proposed more than 140 bills to eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Dirksen himself pointed repeatedly to his civil rights record, claiming that he was “no Johnny-come-lately” to the issue.
Less well known, however, is Dirksen’s performance in a smaller theater of civil rights politics where progress came incrementally, often only for the benefit of a few.
The senator’s efforts on behalf of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in the mid-1950s to establish a National Negro History Week, to obtain a national charter for the organization, and to exempt it from a variety of taxes demonstrate his doggedness in supporting the NACWC’s civil rights agenda. He was motivated primarily by three factors: (1) the president of the organization was a constituent and a Republican active in the black community in Chicago; (2) Dirksen believed the organization should be treated in the same manner as other non-profit organizations in the matter of taxation; and (3) the senator acted in a manner consistent with his career-long commitment to advancing civil rights.
The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs
The NACWC was founded in 1896 at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in the nation’s capital. The organization grew out of a merger of the Colored Women’s League of Washington and the National Federation of Afro-American Women. That black women’s clubs had been prevented from exhibiting at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois, Dirksen’s home state, provided the impetus for the consolidation.1 Harriet Tubman, Frances E.W. Harper, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell numbered among the founders. Their original intention was “to furnish evidence of moral, mental and material progress made by people of color through the efforts of our women.”
By the early 1950s, the organization counted 50,000, with members in every state, in Canada, Hawaii, Haiti, and in Africa. There were state associations in 44 states, including Illinois. The women had instituted “industrial homes for girls and boys all over the Southland,” opened boarding homes for “colored girls,” sponsored scholarships, and maintained the home of Frederick Douglass on 14 acres in Anacostia in the District. As its 1952 convention program proclaimed, “The National Association of Colored Women is probably the largest organized group working without remuneration for the social uplift of the race.”2
According to the program, the organization listed five specific goals:
1. Standardize the Negro home.
2. Make [the] best environment for the Negro child.
3. Train Negro girls to be industrious and artistic, gracious and deserving.
4. Raise [the] standard of service available among Negro women.
5. Make working conditions what these women and girls deserve.3
At its core, the organization proclaimed,
We consider our deficiencies (the source of all our ills) as entirely within the home circle; we lack something of [a] foundation which the race, as a whole, is not receiving at the proper time during childhood; something of [the] beauty and culture that [a] poor environment is robbing our children of; something of an informed and careful motherhood that will be able to produce a virile race; something of the love of law and order and propriety that helps our general prosperity; something of the respect for the rights of others that would cause us to give the evidence of leadership, initiative, and the regard for leadership.4
To reflect their estimate of the challenge, NACWC organized itself into five departments: Legislation, Family Life, Vocational Guidance, Peace, and Interracial. Each had a charter. For the Family Life Department, the charter read
The American family is under severe strain. Rising divorce rates, delinquencies, desertions, maladjusted children and other manifestations of severe emotional tension clearly show that we must concentrate our efforts on the members of the family. To help cope with such problems is the department of family life.5
The Interracial Department accepted the following charge:
The function of this committee is most important. Racial tensions in recent years have tended to increase, rather than diminish. Negroes have moved into industrial employment in which they were previously denied, creating new situations of tensions. Negroes have been taken into the armed services and stationed in communities where Jim Crow and patterns of segregation exist. Discrimination at the polls is still prevalent, job discrimination in public and private employment persist[s], denial of the use of public parks, public health, restraint in the use of hotel and facilities of public use, denial of civil liberties in general—these remain problems that confront 15,000,000 Americans. Thus the work of the Interracial Department is incessant.6
|Irene McCoy Gaines Elected President of NACWC|
In 1952, NACWC elected Irene McCoy Gaines, then 62, as its 15th president.
Irene McCoy was born in Ocala, Florida, in 1892 but moved to Chicago as an infant. She attended public schools in the city, graduating from Wendell Phillips High School before enrolling in Fisk Normal School in Nashville, Tennessee. She returned to Chicago in 1910 for a job as a typist in the complaint department of the Juvenile Court.7
During World War I, at the urging of Mary Church Terrell, a civil rights activist, Gaines joined the War Camp Community Service, just the beginning of a long career of volunteer and public service. In 1920, she became industrial secretary for the first African-American branch of the YWCA in Chicago. During this period, she also recruited for the Urban League and took classes in social work at the University of Chicago.
After her two children began school, Gaines became a social worker in the Cook County welfare department, where she stayed for 15 years. She grew increasingly active on behalf of civil rights during this period. For example, she used her position as a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee and as president of the Chicago Council of Negro Organizations from 1939 to 1953 to protest against inferior schools and segregation. The CCNO provided a high-profile platform for Gaines; it coordinated the work of nearly 100 civic, educational, religious, and labor organizations.8 Her lobbying was effective, too, resulting in the first integrated nursery schools in the city and improved facilities for pregnant teenagers.
Gaines tackled discrimination in employment, as well. She tried to improve working conditions for domestics, most of whom were black. Through the CCNO, she organized what has become known as the march on Washington in 1941 to advocate for fair employment. She led a group of 50 Chicagoans where, with other protesters from throughout the country, they formed committees to visit government department heads to protest discrimination against blacks seeking employment.
Before assuming the president of NACWC, Gaines served as president of the Chicago and Northern District Association of Colored Women and the Illinois Association of Colored Women. She was a past matron of the Northern Light Chapter, Order of the Eastern Star; a member of the board of directors of the Chicago NAACP; a member of the Illinois Child Labor Committee, Citizen School Committee, and Women’s Conference on Legislation; and vice chairman of the Women’s Joint Committee on Adequate Housing.9 She also served as president of the Maude E. Smith Nursery School, Inc., where “children from two and one-half to five of different races learn to play happily together under the direction of two well-trained and experienced staff members, aided by parents and other volunteers.”10
Her other activities included membership on President Herbert Hoover’s Housing Commission, on the Citizen Advisory Committee to the Chicago Plan Commission, and on the Advisory Committee on Intercultural Activities in Chicago Public Schools.11 Gaines also made a plea for minority rights at the United Nations Assembly at Lake Success, New York, in 1946.
Gaines earned Republican credentials, too. As president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Colored Women’s Clubs from 1924 to 1935, she helped organize the first network of Republican women’s clubs in Illinois. In 1928 she served as the Republican state central committeewoman for the First Congressional District. Gaines was the first black woman to run for a state legislative seat, and the first to run for the county commissioner’s office in Cook County.
She and Dirksen, through the senator’s aide in Chicago, Harold Rainville, became acquainted during her political campaigns. In 1950, at the same time Dirksen first ran for the Senate, he and Rainville convinced Gaines to run for the county commissioner position on the Republican ticket. She was the first African American to lead a party ticket in any Chicago election.12 As Rainville later recalled, “As the first colored woman ever to graduate from the University of Chicago [,] she has a very high standing in the colored community . . . .” Although she topped the list of ten Republican candidates, Gaines failed in her 1950 election bid by a very small margin—she did receive 743,316 votes.13 She, her husband, Harris, a lawyer and former representative in the Illinois General Assembly, and their son, Charles, worked for years to build the Republican Party in Chicago.14
Gaines’s work with the NACWC began inauspiciously when she assumed the post of the organization’s historian and then recording secretary. In 1952 she was nominated from the floor at the biennial convention to be president and was elected to the first of an unprecedented three terms. As was the custom for NACWC president, Gaines operated from her home at 4534 Woodlawn Avenue in Chicago rather than from the headquarters in Washington, DC. She was Dirksen’s constituent by residence.
Not surprisingly, Gaines contacted Senator Dirksen periodically on behalf of NACWC.15 In 1954 and 1955, for example, she invited him to participate in the association’s biennial meeting, informed him of the NACWC’s move to headquarters on O Street in the nation’s capital, asked him “to find out if the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs is on the Attorney General’s subversive list” (it was not), and weighed in on a patronage matter.16
Early in 1956, Gaines wrote Dirksen to endorse a request of President Eisenhower by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to designate a week to honor black history. “Although we are earnestly working for integration of the races,” she wrote, “we feel that for some time to come it will be necessary to observe Negro History Week, pointing up the achievements and accomplishments of that race as school textbooks for the most part, either ignore or distort the truth about the Negro and his accomplishments.” Gaines asked Dirksen to initiate action in the Senate, promising “you shall make Negroes everywhere your debtors.”17
Americans had recognized black history annually but without presidential sanction since 1926 when history scholar Carter G. Woodson, himself the son of former slaves, launched National Negro History Week. Woodson chose the second week in February because it marked the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced black Americans, Frederick Douglass18 and Abraham Lincoln.
Dirksen initially believed, erroneously, that the president had the constitutional authority to issue the proclamation absent congressional direction. When he discovered his error, however, Dirksen introduced S.J. Res. 140 on February 8 authorizing the president to proclaim February 12 to February 16, 1956, as National Negro History Week. Since a joint resolution required passage by both the House and the Senate, Dirksen doubted the measure would pass in time for the observance. He was right.19
On January 7, 1957, Dirksen renewed the attempt, introducing S.J. Res. 6 to proclaim February 12 to February 19, 1957 as National Negro History Week. The measure again went to the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Charters, Holidays and Celebrations chaired by Joseph C. O’Mahoney (D-Wyoming). Nothing came of the effort.
He tried again in the 86th Congress, updating S.J. Res. 6 and introducing the new version, S.J. Res. 38, on January 29, this time at the behest of the Afro-American Heritage Association. Dirksen continued to push for congressional authorization of a presidential proclamation at least through 1963, always without success.20
Despite Dirksen’s best efforts, even after he assumed the more powerful role of Senate Minority Leader, it took another decade for the black history designation to receive official status. In 1975, President Gerald F. Ford issued a “Message on the Observance of Black History Week” urging all Americans to “recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by black citizens.” Another decade passed before Congress enacted Public Law 99-244 which designated February 1986 as “National Black (Afro-American) History Month.” The law further directed the president to issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe the occasion with the appropriate ceremonies and activities.21
While it is true that Dirksen did not use the full force of his personality or position to push for National Negro History Week, it is doubtful that he could have prevailed in any case given that southern Democrats would have prevented the measure from passing.
NACWC Seeks Property Tax Exemption
The NACWC had a more ambitious agenda than simply establishing a National Negro History Week by presidential proclamation. They again appealed to Dirksen for help.
In 1954, the organization purchased a building to house their national headquarters at 1601 R Street NW in Washington, DC, moving from 1114 O Street NW. This purchase set in motion an effort by the NACWC to secure an exemption from District of Columbia property taxes for the facility. To succeed would take the proverbial “Act of Congress” because of the building’s location in the federal enclave.
From Irene Gaines’s perspective, Dirksen must have seemed the ideal candidate to sponsor the necessary legislation. She knew him. She was his constituent. She and her family were prominent Republicans among Chicago’s African Americans, and Dirksen was running for re-election to his Senate seat in 1956. There were more substantive reasons to recommend Dirksen, too.
Dirksen’s record on civil rights was well established by 1956. As early as 1945, when he served in the House, he had introduced legislation to prohibit discrimination in employment, to punish the crime of lynching, to outlaw the poll tax, and to protect persons from mob violence. As a junior senator, he introduced S. 1 on January 7, 1953, to establish a Federal Commission on Civil Rights and Privileges. Dirksen followed that in 1954 with yet another proposal to prevent employment discrimination.22 None made it out of committee. The senator also endorsed the 1955 United Negro College Fund drive; re-introduced his bill to establish the Federal Commission on Civil Rights and Privileges on March 12, 1956;23 and introduced S. 3605 to establish a six-member, bipartisan Commission on Civil Rights in the executive branch.24 In April 1956, he joined with several colleagues to sponsor two bills to strengthen civil rights statutes.25 His personal notebooks and speech drafts frequently include remarks on behalf of civil rights measures.26 On April 29 and May 12, 1956, for example, Dirksen talked about civil rights during his weekly television and radio address.27
Dirksen used these occasions to provide historical justification for guaranteeing equality of rights. In his April television program, for example, he cited the Declaration of Independence as the authority for the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Bills Of Rights, he said, guaranteed the freedom to speak, worship, and assemble for all citizens. He recounted two decades of congressional efforts to outlaw the poll tax, lynching, employment discrimination, and segregation in housing, military service, transportation, and recreation. Dirksen then reviewed a series of legal cases that had moved the nation in the direction of equal rights before concluding with a summary of pending civil rights matters in the Senate.28 Dirksen may not have been the most liberal of senators on civil rights, but he adopted a progressive stance on much of what constituted the civil rights agenda in the mid-1950s.
Nor were appeals on behalf of groups related to federal district business foreign to Dirksen. He introduced S. 3069 on January 27, 1956, for example, to benefit the General Federation of Women’s Clubs by granting the organization an exemption from property taxes within the district.29 In making the case to the Committee on the District of Columbia, Dirksen compared the General Federation to other organizations to which tax exemptions had been provided. “The General Federation of Women’s Clubs is broader and more inclusive to reach many more people,” a background memo contended. “Its programs include all that these organizations do, and much more, and reach more representative groups of people—not just professional or selected individuals. It is a very democratic organization with no barriers to membership whatever and is open to women of all classes—political, religious, racial, etc. It is essentially an adult educational and community-service organization.”30
Dirksen’s involvement with District issues is easily explained, even though he was not a member of any Senate committee with relevant jurisdiction. He had served, however, on the House District committee for a time during his 16-year career in that body, and he had even chaired the committee in the 80th Congress. As a result, he knew the players both in the House and in the federal district.
On May 28, 1956, Gaines wrote Dirksen to request his help in obtaining a property tax exemption for NACWC.31 On June 16, Dirksen introduced S. 4044 to grant the tax exemption for the property at 1601 R Street NW in Washington. The assessed value of the property was $36,500--$11,500 for the land, $25,000 for the building.32
The total tax revenue at stake: $839.50 annually as of July 1, 1956.33 The bill was referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia.34 Bill Stevens, Dirksen’s legislative assistant, listed in a background memo the following organizations that had received a like exemption: the Jewish War Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, the American Veterans of World War II, the YMCA and YWCA, the Young Women’s Christian Home, Colonial Dames, Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution, General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Inc., “and various other educational, scientific, and charitable institutions.” Stevens’s conclusion: “It would appear from the foregoing that the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Incorporated, ought to have like exemptions.”35
Next, Dirksen sought the advice of Samuel Spencer, Commissioner of the District, about “the merits of the bill and the propriety of its passage.”36 As Dirksen well knew, the District committee would request the views and recommendations of the District Commission before acting on Dirksen’s proposed bill. Dirksen knew Spencer and thought highly of him—the senator chose Spencer to serve on the Platform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Immigration at the Republican Convention in San Francisco later that year. Dirksen chaired the subcommittee.37
The Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia held hearings on S. 4044 on July 12. Senator Alan Bible (D-Nevada) presided over the session in Room P-36 of the Capitol. Only Senator Joseph Frear (D-Delaware) and committee counsel William P. Gulledge joined him. The third member of the subcommittee, Senator James Beall (R-Maryland) was unable to attend. Dirksen showed up before 10:00 to testify but left almost immediately for an Appropriations Committee hearing without making a statement. He asked Gulledge to express his interest in the bill, which Gulledge did as the hearing opened.38 Later that day, Dirksen wrote Senator Matthew Neely, chairman of the full committee, stating his support of the bill and citing the precedents Bill Stevens had discovered.39
Speaking on behalf of the bill at the subcommittee hearing was Ruby Kendrick, Director of Public Relations for NACWC.40 She stressed that her organization operated almost exclusively through volunteers, that it was “dependent almost entirely upon its membership for financing its several projects,” and that it expected nothing in return from “recipients of its beneficence.” Senator Bible asked a question about the size of the staff and, upon hearing how small it was, stated, “The Chairman is delighted to see some association that does not have more paid employees than it has members. I think that is wonderful.”41
Kendrick continued her testimony by describing NACWC’s history, organization, programs, and services. “The fundamental needs of all working women are equality of opportunity and of pay,” she told the subcommittee. “Since Negro women must work to compensate for the customary low wages of their husbands, the Negro Club Women decided to do something about the condition—and they did,” by establishing NACWC. She closed with these words:
These women of National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs Inc. their name is legion, their will to serve is without limit; and their power for good is without measure. With their 60 year old motto “Lifting As We Climb” still as their beacon, they stand ready to the last woman to answer any call to make this battered world of ours a better place in which to live.
Therefore gentlemen of the committee, I feel that because of these things, this Association falls well within the law of Exemption of Taxes.42
Henry Wixon, Assistant Corporation Counsel for the District of Columbia, testified next on behalf of the Commissioners of the District. Despite Dirksen’s entreaty to Commissioner Spencer, the Board of Commissioners opposed the bill. As Wixon stated, the commissioners “have consistently opposed bills of this type conferring upon separate or distinct organizations exemption which could not be conferred under the general laws of the District of Columbia.” This opposition “stems from the basic theory that tax exemption should only be conferred upon organizations which perform a function of public service and thus relieve the District government of a part of its public burden.” Examples included schools and organizations which provide assistance to indigent persons who otherwise would become public charges of the District of Columbia government. Granting the exemption would be discriminatory “in that it confers upon a single organization a favored status over other organizations which are unable to comply with the standards laid down by Congress in the general exemption statute.”43
The Board of Commissioners also pleaded financial distress in opposing S. 4044. Noting that over 50 percent of the total land area in the District with an assessed value in excess of $1,251,000,000 was exempted from taxation, “it is the Commissioners’ view that the cumulative effect of granting of special exemption from real property taxation, when added to the vast amount of property now exempt from such taxation, is an extremely serious matter.”44 “That has nothing to do with the merits of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs,” Wixon testified. “That factor does not enter into these matters as the committee well knows.”45
July 19 brought good news for NACWC—Dirksen sent a telegram to Gaines announcing that the District Committee, following the hearings on July 12, had approved and favorably reported out S. 4044.46 Four days later, on July 23, the full Senate passed the bill without amendment and cleared it for action in the House of Representatives.47
Dirksen immediately wrote Congressman Sid Simpson (R-IL) asking him to “secure action in the House” on S. 4044.48 Simpson, a former colleague in the House who represented a congressional district southwest of Dirksen’s, served on the House district committee and had been its chairman in the 83rd Congress. But it was too late for Simpson to lend a hand. The bill reached his committee on July 24; Congress adjourned three days later for the national political conventions in 1956 with no action on Dirksen’s bill.
Earlier in the summer, Gaines alerted Dirksen to a potential obstacle involving her past associations. She asked the senator to arrange an interview with the House Un-American Activities Committee “regarding my connection with the several ‘Red Front’ organizations that Harold [Rainville] told me they have listed against me.” She added, “I am most anxious to have the opportunity of clearing my name of any Red taint that may be connected with it because of any previous affiliations with some of their ‘front’ organizations which were so numerous during the war years and the time that our country was an Ally of theirs.”49 Gaines’s concern about “Red taint” resurfaced later.
Following the November elections, in which he ran successfully for a second term, Dirksen told Gaines that both branches of Congress would take up the tax exemption early in the upcoming session since it had already passed the Senate. 50
On January 7, Dirksen introduced three civil rights-related measures. S. 83 proposed “to make more certain that rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws of the United States will be enjoyed by all, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin.” That bill, along with H.R. 6127, became the basis for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 signed by President Eisenhower on September 9.51 Dirksen also proposed S.J. Res. 6 authorizing the president to proclaim a week in February as National Negro History Week.52 Finally, the Illinois senator introduced S. 105 to provide the tax exemption for NACWC. He asked the chairman of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia for “speedy action.”53 “I am sure that S. 105 will receive the same favorable consideration by the Senate that was given in the last session,” Gaines wrote upon learning of Dirksen’s initiative. “I am writing to Congressman Marguerite Stite Church,” she continued, “to remind her of her promise to introduce the same bill in the House.”54
On April 12, the Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia held hearings on S. 105. In what was essentially a replay of the hearing on S. 4044 nine months before, the committee spent all of nine minutes collecting written testimony from Ruby Kendrick (almost identical to her previous testimony), the Board of Commissioners of the District (in opposition), and Henry Wixon (also opposed).55
On May 15, the Senate committee reported the bill favorably to the Senate floor without amendment.56 The bill passed the Senate on May 27 and was sent to the House.57 “We are all rejoicing over the good news,” Gaines exclaimed. She confirmed that Congresswoman Church would shepherd the bill through the House.58
By the Fall, however, the bill to provide the property tax exemption remained stuck in the House District Committee. At the same time, Dirksen was pursuing yet another tax break for NACWC—this time an exemption from the District of Columbia Income and Franchise Tax Act of 1947. He wrote the District’s Collector of Taxes on September 13 urging his “careful and sympathetic consideration” of the matter.59 Five weeks later, however, NACWC still had not completed the necessary application.60
Dirksen’s work on behalf of NACWC took place against the backdrop of the vigorous debate in the Senate on what became the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Dirksen’s fidelity to the cause of civil rights was confirmed repeatedly in remarks he made on the Senate floor while fighting for passage of the bill. He believed that the momentum for civil rights was unstoppable, “that the whole unfolding is according to the great design and plan of the Great Architect.” A moral and ethical standard was at issue, he thought. “Though their color is black, I cannot imagine for a moment that they were not endowed with a spirit and a soul, just as is every other human being under the canopy of God’s blue heaven.”61
Dirksen attempted to re-start action in the House on S. 105, the property tax exemption bill, in February 1958 by writing John L. McMillan, chairman of the House District Committee. McMillan acknowledged Dirksen request by offering a quid pro quo: “I would like to state that we have approximately thirty bills that have passed the House of Representatives now pending before the United States Senate for consideration and I would consider it a personal favor if you could use your best efforts to secure prompt consideration of these bills.”62
Dirksen also urged Gaines to contact other members of the House committee: “Letters direct from you will carry a great deal of weight in our effort to push this bill along.”63 Gaines did so, but no action resulted. Dirksen’s staffer Harold Rainville met with Congressman Simpson in May in yet another attempt to resolve the property tax matter.64
Finally, in early June, the Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the House Committee on the District of Columbia favorably reported S. 105 to the full committee. Rainville’s conversation with Simpson had the desired result.65 The Washington Daily News took note on June 10 with a story headlined, “When Will Exemptions Stop? The District Tax Merry-Go-Round.” Apparently, subcommittee chairman Howard W. Smith (D-Virginia) complained that one exemption inevitably led to another and then another. District tax officials claimed that exemptions cost the District $750,000 per year. In referring to the NACWC exemption, Smith said he would approve it but would then establish a subcommittee rule “that we won’t have any more bills like this.”66
On July 10, Dirksen wrote John McMillan, chairman of the House District Committee, requesting action by the full committee on S. 105 at the committee’s next meeting. The senator reported, too, that the House bills pending before the Senate District Committee “had been pretty well cleared.”67 The House committee reported the bill that same day.68 On July 14, Dirksen sent Gaines a telegram with the long-awaited news: “The Association’s bill (S. 105) passed the House of Representatives today, without amendment, thereby clearing it for the White House for Presidential action.”69 President Eisenhower signed the bill on July 25.
For Irene Gaines, the two-year effort to secure a property tax exemption for 1601 R Street NW capped her six-year presidency of NACWC. Dirksen went to the trouble of securing from the White House the pen used to sign Private Law No. 85-496, which he sent to Gaines.70
Years later when compiling a list of his civil rights measures over his entire career, Dirksen counted the property tax exemption among them.71
|A Federal Charter for NACWC?|
Dirksen and the NACWC did not enjoy the same success in obtaining a federal charter. As was the case with the property tax matter, Gaines started the ball rolling in May 1956 when she sought Dirksen’s advice about how to proceed.72 The Senate Judiciary Committee had jurisdiction over bills granting such designations and had done so only in very limited numbers for such organizations as the American Legion.73 Dirksen promised to “do my best on these matters.”74
On July 11, Dirksen learned that the charter application completed by Gaines had been found wanting by the Senate Legislative Counsel. Dirksen sent to Gaines a copy of Public Law 605, 83rd Congress, approved August 20, 1954, outlining the requirements imposed by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on organizations seeking a federal charter. The senator suggested that Gaines use legal counsel to draft a proposal “using the enclosed law as a pattern, containing the names of your incorporators and trustees, together with current information with respect to the purposes of the new corporation, its corporate powers, and other necessary information.” Dirksen promised that such a draft could be translated into “proper legislative language” for introduction in the Senate.75
As Dirksen put together his legislative program for the 85th Congress, which would convene in January 1957, he wrote Gaines to ask if she had compiled the information he had requested in July, information necessary for the Legislative Counsel to draft an appropriate bill.76 She replied on November 27, reporting that her husband was compiling the information. “We are still rejoicing over your splendid victory on November 6th!” Gaines exclaimed, referring to Dirksen’s successful bid for re-election to the Senate. “Both Mr. Gaines as president of the 4th Ward Regular Republican Organization and as one of your Watchers in another 4th Ward precinct, and I as a Watcher for you in our home precinct . . . felt very elated when the returns indicated that you were in by such a good margin!”77 “Let me say that I appreciate the splendid work performed by you and Mr. Gaines in the Fourth Ward,” and that “I will certainly do my best on the Federal charter proposal,” the senator replied.78
At long last, Gaines sent the information prepared by her husband for the application in late March.79 On April 1, 1957, Dirksen introduced S. 1768 to incorporate the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. The bill listed more than 120 women from 41 states and the District of Columbia as the creators of the organization. The bill stated NACWC’s purpose as
To promote the education of women and girls, and to hold an educational institute biennially at the convention; to raise the standard of the home; to work for the moral, economic, social and religious welfare of women and children; to protect the rights of women and children who work; to secure and use our influence for the enforcement of the constitutional rights for our group; to obtain for all women the opportunity of reaching the highest standards in all fields of human endeavor, and to promote interracial understanding, justice, good will, and peace among all people.
Notice that this version of the purpose statement omitted mention of race. The 14-page bill also described the organization’s corporate powers, the nature of its membership structure and governing authority, the principal office and scope of activities, the use of income and a prohibition on loans to officers or employees, the nonpolitical nature of the organization, and various administrative matters, including a requirement to report to Congress annually.80
S. 1768 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Charters, Holidays, and Celebrations. Senators Joseph C. O’Mahoney of Wyoming (chairman), John C. McClellan (D-Arkansas), and Arthur Watkins (R-Utah) comprised the subcommittee, but they had not considered a single federal charter proposal thus far in the congressional session. Dirksen asked Gaines for more updated information about her organization’s programs in order to bolster the case before the subcommittee.81 By the Fall, the bill to grant a federal charter languished there.82
Throughout Dirksen’s efforts on behalf of NACWC in Washington, Irene Gaines was not bashful about contacting Harold Rainville in Dirksen’s Chicago office for all manner of help. On November 21, 1957, for example, she asked Rainville to assist on five separate items. First, NACWC had received word that it would receive the George Washington Medal from the Freedom Foundation. But Gaines had been unable to learn the details and sought help from Dirksen’s assistant. Next, she wanted Dirksen’s or Rainville’s help to join a “People to People” trip to Asia, Africa, and Europe sponsored by the Department of State. She hoped “to show other colored peoples of the world, regarding the opportunities given by our country for the advancement and progress of colored Americans.”
Returning to a request she had made the previous year, Gaines asked to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee to clear her name. “I admit that during the war I had association with three or four organizations . . . that I later found to be controlled or dominated by Communists,” she explained while noting that she had left those groups. She suggested that “the continued by-passing of me and my organization of Colored Women’s clubs, the oldest and largest—and only federation of colored women’s clubs in the country, makes me know that something is definitely wrong.”83 Presumably, she was referring to the lack of progress on both the tax exemption and the federal charter.
Fourth, she complained to Rainville that the State Department had selected the president of the National Council of Negro Women to participate in a Radio Free Europe trip abroad instead of someone from NACWC, especially since the NCNW president was a Democrat. Her final request had to do with her son, Charles, who was trying to find employment as Deputy Coroner—“The many long years of service to GOP by his father as well as his mother, should also be a factor in helping to secure for him something better than he has now.” After expressing gratitude for Dirksen’s help on the tax and charter matters, Gaines concluded her letter, “I hope you can also appreciate my position in these other matters, and try to clear it [sic] up for me . . . .”84
The paper trail regarding the federal charter for NACWC ends at this point. Dirksen’s staff carefully recorded the progress of each bill he introduced, co-sponsored, or amended from start to finish. The bill file for S. 1768 merely notes the date of introduction and referral to committee. There are no notes indicating hearings or action by the subcommittee or full committee. Further, when the staff compiled Dirksen’s legislative record for use in his 1968 re-election campaign, S. 1768 does not appear on this list. It seems safe to conclude that Dirksen failed to obtain the charter.85
|Commentary: What is the Significance of Dirksen’s Efforts on Behalf of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs?|
Over Dirksen’s career in Congress, progress toward guaranteeing equality of rights for black Americans came in fits and starts. Southern Democrats blocked the most ambitious legislative attempts in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Success typically came in small steps until 1957 when Congress passed a civil rights bill proposed by the Eisenhower administration. Momentum increased in the years following, with Dirksen playing key roles in passing substantive civil rights legislation in 1960, 1964, 1965, and 1968.
In the meantime, however, Dirksen attempted to move Congress to act on a range of more restricted pro-civil rights measures from designating an official National Negro History Week to establishing a civil rights commission in the executive branch.
Against this backdrop, Dirksen’s work on behalf of the NACWC can be interpreted on different levels. Was it simply a case of constituent service? Perhaps. Although the organization she headed was located in Washington, Irene Gaines was Dirksen’s constituent. Moreover, she had an established relationship with the senator and with his political adviser, Harold Rainville. It is no stretch to assume that Dirksen would lend her a hand.86
Alternatively, “politics” might explain his motive. Gaines held various leadership positions in the African American community in Chicago, and she was active and prominent in Republican circles there. Did Dirksen need her support to advance his career? No. Dirksen stood to gain little politically by cultivating Gaines—his success at the polls depended on turnout downstate, far removed from Chicago politics and the African American vote.
The most compelling interpretation combines constituent service with Dirksen’s core commitment to civil rights. It seems reasonable to assume that Dirksen would respond to a request from Irene Gaines and the NACWC simply because she was his constituent. But there is more to it. By his actions over two Congresses, Dirksen helped to secure the future of the organization, went on record as endorsing the purpose and worth of the NACWC, and encouraged their on-going activities on behalf of African American women and children.
He helped the NACWC because, at the heart of it, he supported equality of rights for all Americans. He was asked later in his career, “How have you become a crusader in this cause?” Dirksen replied, “there occurs to me a line from an English poet whose name was John Donne. He left what I believe was a precious legacy on the parchments of history. He said, ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’
“I am involved in mankind,” Dirksen continued, “and whatever the skin, we are all involved in mankind. Equality of opportunity must prevail if we are to complete the covenant that we have made with the people, and if we are to honor the pledges we made when we held up our hands to take an oath to defend the laws and to carry out the Constitution of the United States. . . . in line with the sentiment offered by the poet, . . . every denial of freedom, every denial of equal opportunity for a livelihood, for an education, for a right to participate in representative government diminishes me.”87
In 1964, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, NACWC awarded Dirksen its Distinguished Service Award for his “untiring efforts in the fight for human rights and dignity for all Americans.”88
1 http://www.nacwc.org/about/history.php. Accessed September 22, 2009.
21 http://www.loc.gov/law/help/commemorative-observations/african-american.php. Accessed October 6, 2009.
22 Civil rights record, 1956, Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 133; Dirksen Papers, Remarks and Releases, January 6, 1956; Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 41; “The problem of Civil Rights,” January 1953, Dirksen Papers, Notebooks, f. 181; Press Release, 1954, Dirksen Papers, Remarks and Releases, 1954.
23 EMD, Remarks to the Senate, Congressional Record, April 26, 1955, p. 5221; EMD to Gaines, February 8, 10 and 27, 1956, Dirksen Papers, Alpha File, 1956; “Dirksen Record on Discrimination & Civil Rights,” 1956, Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 133; Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 166.
29 Gaines to EMD, May 28, 1956, Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 280. S. 3069 was similar in purpose and language to Private Law 323, 84th Congress, 1st Session (S. 1741), approved August 4, 1955, to exempt from taxation certain property of the Jewish War Veterans in the District.
32 Board of Commissioners to Matthew M. Neely, July 10, 1956, “Report of Proceedings,” Hearing held before Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, July 12, 1956, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (SEN 84A-E5, Box 137).
35 Memo headed S. 4044, no date, Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 280. He sent a copy to Gaines promising to do his best to obtain early committee consideration of his proposal. See EMD to Gaines, June 15, 1956, Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 280.
38 “Report of Proceedings,” Hearing held before Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, July 12, 1956, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (SEN 84A-E5, Box 137).
39 Dirksen to Neely, July 12, 1956, “Report of Proceedings,” Hearing held before Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, July 12, 1956, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (SEN 84A-E5, Box 137).
40 Kendrick joined the organization after teaching in the public schools in Greenville, Mississippi. She earned her normal school degree in 1905 from Knoxville College, Knoxville, Tennessee. Widowed in 1923, she began a career that spanned five decades with NACWC in 1927.
41 “Report of Proceedings,” Hearing held before Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, July 12, 1956, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (SEN 84A-E5, Box 137).
42 “Report of Proceedings,” Hearing held before Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, July 12, 1956, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (SEN 84A-E5, Box 137).
43 Board of Commissioners to Matthew M. Neely, July 10, 1956, “Report of Proceedings,” Hearing held before Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, July 12, 1956, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (SEN 84A-E5, Box 137).
44 Board of Commissioners to Matthew M. Neely, July 10, 1956, “Report of Proceedings,” Hearing held before Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, July 12, 1956, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (SEN 84A-E5, Box 137).
45 “Report of Proceedings,” Hearing held before Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, July 12, 1956, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (SEN 84A-E5, Box 137).
51 See S. 83, January 7, 1957, Dirksen Papers, Working Papers, f. 1819e; Legislative File, f . 274-75. Dirksen provided the leadership for the Senate Republicans in helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957
55 “Report of Proceedings,” Hearing held before Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, April 10, 1957, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (SEN 85A-E5, Box 100).
56 EMD to Gaines, May 15, 1957, Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 281; “Report of Proceedings,” Hearing held before Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, April 10, 1957, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration (SEN 85A-E5, Box 100).
58 Gaines to EMD, May 28, 1957, Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 281. Dirksen wrote Sid Simpson, as he had done in 1956, urging the congressman to assist with the bill in the House. See EMD to Simpson, May 31, 1957, Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 281.
73 Memo re NACWC, June 1, 1956, Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 280. The organization was originally incorporated under the laws of the State of Missouri; Goldstein to EMD, June 4, 1956, Dirksen Papers, Legislative File, f. 280.
83 Dirksen eventually received a report from HUAC that listed four so-called “communist” activities in which Gaines had once engaged. For example, the report noted that Gaines “was one of the signers of the “Statement by Negro Americans” in behalf of arrested Communist leaders, as shown in The Worker, A Communist Party publication, August 29, 1948, (page 11)” and that she was listed as a member of the Board of Directors of the Abraham Lincoln School which the Attorney General, HUAC, and the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee had cited as subversive. See “Information from the Files of the Committee on Un-American Activities,” November 27, 1957, Dirksen Papers, Alpha File 1958. There is no evidence, however, that Gaines’s past activities accounted for the delay in action on the legislation proposed by Dirksen on behalf of the NACWC.
86 Yet Dirksen seemed to put more time and effort into the property tax matter and the federal charter than he normally did for constituents. This may simply be the artifact of his record-keeping—there are few, if any, similarly well-documented examples in his constituent case work files. He could have worked just as hard for others in Illinois but the files did not survive.
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