The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. did not make many political endorsements. As the most recognized leader of a civil rights movement that enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans at the national level, and as a key player in the often life-and-death struggle to end American apartheid, he tended to stand above the political fray.
But in the spring of 1966, King traveled to Alabama with the explicit purpose of making an endorsement in the Democratic primary for governor. The man whose candidacy King supported was Richmond McDavid Flowers, one of the first “Deep South” politicians to embrace the promise of the civil rights movement.
Flowers died last Thursday at age 88. At the time of his passing, Flowers was an all-but-forgotten figure.
While others who lacked his courage or his prescience are now regarded as elder statesmen of the South, Flowers lived his last years in the obscurity reserved for those white southerners who came “too quickly” to the conclusion that Jim Crow had to go.
In a more just circumstance, Richmond Flowers would be a iconic figure — not just in Alabama but in a nation where those who rejected racism in dangerous times and places ought to be seen as the greatest Americans.
In a period when so many around him failed and faltered, Flowers stood tall.
He was not merely a gubernatorial candidate in 1966. He was the elected Attorney General of Alabama, the chief law enforcement officer in a state that in the mid-1960s was wracked by Ku Klux Klan-inspired violence.
But, despite the fact that he had crosses burned in the lawn of his family home, Flowers refused to back down.
On the same day that Governor George Wallace has promised in his 1963 inaugural address to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent integration of the University of Alabama, Flowers had refused to stand with Wallace. The governor declared that day, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The Attorney General responded, “Alabama’s soul will soon be laid bare before the world. God grant that we may not be ashamed of it.”
Alabama would be shamed, by Wallace and by the murderous Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils that fought integration with the gun, the boycott and the ballot box.
Flowers, a one-time segregationist who chose the rule of law over the rule of the mob, would stand against them.
When local prosecutors failed to seriously pursue cases against the murderers of civil rights workers such as Viola Gregg Liuzzo and Jonathan M. Daniels, Flowers exercised his authority as Attorney General to supersede the local lawyers. Then he marched into county courtrooms across Alabama and, as Time magazine reported in 1965, “Relentlessly, Flowers and an assistant questioned each prospective juror, asking him whether he thought the white race superior to the Negro, whether he felt that any person like Mrs. Liuzzo who associated with Negroes thereby made herself inferior to other whites. Over vehement defense objections, Judge [T. Werth] Thagard let Flowers get his answers. In short order, Flowers established that of 30 veniremen available for the jury, eleven felt that white civil rights workers were indeed inferior. Then Flowers dropped his bombshell. He demanded the right to challenge all eleven ‘for cause.’ ‘How can the State of Alabama expect a fair and just verdict in this case from men who have already sat in judgment on the victim and pronounced her inferior to themselves?’ he asked.”
In challenging racism prosecutors and judges, Flowers put his own life at risk. But he did not hesitate to tell judges and juries that they had a moral responsibility to deliver justice, telling those who sat in judgment of one of the murderers that, if they do not vote for conviction, “the blood of this man’s sin will stain your county for eternity.”
It was a “profile in courage” performance. And the leader of the civil rights movement noticed.
In 1966, when Flowers announced his candidacy for governor against Wallace’s wife, Lurleen, who was running because her husband was limited to serving just one term, King delivered his endorsement. He campaigned across Alabama, urging African Americans newly enfranchised by the federal Voting Rights Act to cast their first votes for Flowers.
Unlike many southern “liberals” of the time, Flowers did not run a “wink-and-nod” campaign. “I do not believe that the Negro is inferior,” he bluntly declared at some of the first integrated campaign rallies the state had seen. “I am a man of the law and, like it or not, I am going to follow the law. Every individual is entitled to, and shall gain, equal opportunities.”
Flowers promised to haul down the flag of the Confederacy, which flew over George Wallace’s state Capitol, and to replace it with the American flag. Clinging to the symbols of the losing side in the Civil War, he told Alabamans, was “a gesture of defiance that must be put behind us.”
That did not go over well with white voters. They cast their ballots as a bloc for Lurleen Wallace, who easily won the Democratic nomination and the governorship. But Flowers came in second in the primary, securing more than 142,000 votes, with his strongest finishes coming in Alabama’s “black belt” counties.
King declared Mrs. Wallace’s victory “a protest vote against the tide of inevitable progress.”
That was true. But it was also true that the Flowers campaign had helped to encourage a massive turnout in Alabama’s predominantly African-American counties. That turnout made it possible for two dozen African-American candidates for local posts and the state legislature survive the 1966 primary that marked the end of Richmond Flowers’ political career.
Flowers was not just ruined politically. After he was defeated, Flowers suddenly found himself targeted for prosecution on charges of extorting funds from insurance companies, a gambit that he always suggested was hatched by segregationists who wanted to thwart his hopes of drawing white working-class voters into an eventual economic populist coalition. Jailed briefly, he was finally pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.
Flowers returned to his native Dothan, Alabama, and lived his life out there — teaching American history at a local community college. By any measure, it was an ironic posting.
The revisionist history of the civil rights era would have Americans believe that every southern political leader of time was part of the “massive resistance” to civil rights. This convenient distortion would have us believe that the racism expressed in the late sixties and early seventies by a George Wallace, a Strom Thurmond, a Trent Lott or even a Jimmy Carter — whose 1970 gubernatorial campaign tapped into lingering segregationist sentiment in Georgia — must be seen “in the context of the times.”
But the story of Richmond Flowers reminds us that the “context of the times” argument is a lie.
There were men and women who stood up to the racism of the moment. A few of them risked their careers and livelihoods to do what was right. Few did so as courageously and as consequentially as the man the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. campaigned to elect governor of Alabama.
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