Flashback Friday: 1950 Florida US Senate Democratic Primary – Liberal vs Conservative and the onset of McCarthyism

By George Smathers for Senate campaign – Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

The current battle that is raging between progressives and those who are more aligned with the corporate world is far from the first such battle within the Florida Democratic Party. The tension that began with the New Deal between progressives supportive of FDR and old-line Bourbon Democrats who were aligned with business interests raged throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s in Florida. It came to a head on May 5, 1950.

While most modern historians and political activists would point to November 7, 2000 as the most significant election in Florida’s history as far as national implications, it can be strongly argued the most important election in the state’s history as far as impacting national politics was on May 5, 1950. The 1950 US Senate Democratic Primary in Florida was arguably the single political campaign most responsible for ushering in the era of McCarthyism.

Florida much like other southern states in the early part of the century had an inherent conflict between business and populism. Florida was the boom state of the 1920s but after the land bust, stock market crash and onset Great Depression a liberal New Deal hero emerged -Claude Pepper.

Pepper rose in the 1920’s as well and when he was elected to the US Senate in the 1930’s, became among the nation’s leading liberals. In fact, during the 1940 election no liberal Senator was more in demand on the stump throughout the nation than Claude Pepper. Pepper was the quintessential New Dealer, remaining steadfastly loyal to President Roosevelt while most southerners drifted towards Senator Josiah Bailey’s (D-NC) “conservative coalition” of southern Democrats and Midwestern/Western Republicans.

James C. Clark’s book  Red Pepper and Gorgeous George: Claude Pepper’s Epic Defeat in the 1950 Democratic Primary (Florida Government and Politics) develops Pepper’s biography by pointing out despite the liberal heroism of Florida’s Senior Senator, he had misread the electorate by showing such blatant naivety about the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin and communism in general. The book is a must-read for anyone truly interested in this race.

While the Florida Senator was an early advocate of Lend-Lease and one of the few vocal members of Congress regarding the Nazi threat in 1938 and 1939, his softness of the Soviet Union was unlike any other member of Congress post-World War II. Pepper spent time in Joseph Stalin’s company, wrote a pamphlet entitled “The Conspiracy Against Russia” and spent much of 1946 defending the Soviets across the United States. Pepper was a leftist and since the Soviet Union had been a wartime ally, he was comfortable befriending Stalin.

Pepper’s growing leftist tendencies alienated him from the mainstream of the Democratic Party and fueled a quixotic run for the Presidency in 1948.  His desire to be a national candidate was not only undermined by his naivety about the Soviet Union but his record on race issues which was like any other Southern Democrat in the Senate. Clark consistently brings the race issue into the narrative about Pepper, perhaps unfairly as every elected Southern Democrat of that era was extreme on the issue. However, Pepper’s liberalism which did bring him in contact with radical African-Americans in the north from time to time was used against him in the 1950 Democratic Primary. Additionally, Pepper who had lost his State House seat in the 1920’s (at the time Pepper resided in Perry but moved to Tallahassee before he ran for US Senate) did so largely because he was the one no-vote in legislature against a bill condemning President Herbert Hoover for having an African-American guest at the White House. In 1950, Pepper questioned the Groveland verdict which puts him squarely on the right side of history on a matter that the Florida Legislature is seriously contemplating issuing an apology all these years later, in 2017,

From Wikipedia:

In the Groveland Case, four young African American men – Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas – known as the Groveland Four, were accused of raping a 17-year old white women in Groveland on July 16, 1949. Thomas fled the area but was later shot and killed by police. Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were convicted by an all-white jury. After the St. Petersburg Times questioned the verdict in April 1950, Lake County State Attorney J. W. Hunter, a supporter of Pepper, demanded that Pepper repudiate the news articles. However, Pepper refused. Hunter then denounced Pepper and endorsed Smathers. In addition to the racial violence, cross burning was also common at the time, with five in Jacksonville, ten in Orlando and Winter Park, and seventeen in the Tallahasseearea.[4]

In 1950, Congressman George Smathers (D-Miami) defeated Senator Pepper in the Democratic Primary for US Senate. Smathers campaign was the first modern media campaign in Florida’s history and developed themes mimicked later that year by his friend Richard Nixon and in the future by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan among others. The use of the communist card against Pepper helped usher in the era of McCarthyism. Once Joseph McCarthy saw the success of Smathers’ in Florida, he took the idea national.

It is certainly true that Pepper had made things easy for Smathers with his comments about the Soviet Union and the publication of articles such as the Saturday Evening Post’s infamous “Pink Pepper” story in 1946. Pepper received almost universally negative media coverage nationally and in Florida led by The Orlando Sentinel’s Publisher Marvin Anderson, which allowed Smathers’ the veil of the respectable cover the media gave him. Moreover Pepper’s which opened the door for Smathers to use the communist card freely.

Beginning on March 28 and culminating on Primary Day May 2, Smathers’ spoke about a different “communist” organization Pepper had addressed or held membership in. This effective tool motivated Joseph McCarthy to do much the same thing to his opponents, even ones whose records were far more conservative than Pepper’s such as Senator Millard Tydings (D-Maryland).

Smathers’ supporters distributed a 48-page propaganda pamphlet known as “The Red Record of Senator Claude Pepper” which included a centerfold of Pepper with African-American leader Paul Robeson and controversial former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, a virtual socialist at Madison Square Garden in 1946. Also included  in the pamphlet were allegations that Pepper like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg wanted to give bomb-making secrets to the Soviets and lauded Pepper’s endorsement from The Daily Worker. 

Smathers’ victory rewrote the rules of politics – he had run the most negative campaign in the state’s history and perhaps the most biting one nationally in the 20th Century and won. Pepper’s advocacy of New Deal and Fair Deal programs as well as his echoing of Henry Wallace’s calls to engage the Soviet Union rather than create a Cold War left him susceptible to attack. Much like Wallace, Pepper would eventually move to the middle on foreign policy, but in 1950 he was firmly anchored to the left in an era where any association with communism was dangerous electorally and having a wishy-washy record and race made you unelectable among Florida Democrats.

Smathers’ primary victory by 54.7%-45.3% was tantamount to election in pre-1960’s Florida. The primary victory owed itself to the votes up and down the East Coast of Florida on FEC Railway line. Smathers carried every county on the FEC line except for Dade. Pepper despite his liberal reputation and previous embrace of President Harry S. Truman’s Civil Rights program ) carried Tampa and the Panhandle, the former area being fairly race-oriented in its voting and the later being known at the time for Jeffersonian politics.

Pepper was elected to the US House from Miami in 1962 in a new district and served until his death in 1989. In 1964 as a member of the House, Pepper was the only vote in the Florida Congressional Delegation for the Civil Rights Act and one of only two Democratic Congressman from the south (not including Texas or Oklahoma) to do so.

The man behind Smathers bid for the Senate was Ed Ball.

Ed Ball was the inheritor of the DuPont fortune and for all intents and purposes Florida represented in the 1920s the boom state or even the last frontier in America. Thus, Florida attracted all types of people, both wealthy industrialists like the DuPont’s and get rich quick schemers/land speculators.

In the 1940’s Ball was actively pushing his influence throughout the state, particularly in the legislature. But Pepper’s liberalism was threat to Ball’s control of the state which was becoming consolidating in the 1940s. Ball was a critic of the New Deal which he felt was little different than Joseph Stalin’s Soviet economic system and railed against FDR. Pepper of course was a strong ally of FDR and perhaps the American closest to Stalin for a period of time.

The highly-recommended book, Claude Pepper and Ed Ball: Politics, Purpose, and Power (Florida History and Culture) by Tracy E. Danese gives a description of Ball’s antipathy toward Pepper.

Ball ran Smathers in the 1950 Democratic Primary because Pepper was a New Deal liberal whose own moral compass and ethics prompted him to oppose an industrialist like Ball.

From the 1940’s to the early 1960’s Ball’s allies in the Pork Chop Gang enforced his economic agenda, benefiting his companies especially St Joe Paper Company which he founded in 1938 and is still the largest landowner in the panhandle. The Pork Chop Gang controlled the state, clashing with populist Governor Fuller Warren and later with Leroy Collins. These rural, conservative Democrats were a throwback to the pre-New Deal era “bourbons” that had run the state. The political philosophy of the Pork Chop gang was to maintain the interests of large landowners, keep as much state money in rural north Florida counties and to reject any attempt to weaken racial segregation.

Ball in adherence with his political allies and Florida law kept his mill strictly segregated into the 1960’s. Ball continued to exert influence over the state into the late 1960’s, but legislative reapportionment following the Baker v. Carr decision and the 1968 Constitution greatly diluted his influence.

Those truly interested in Ed Ball should visit the lodge at Wakulla Springs State Park, which Ball constructed in the late 1930’s. The lodge hosted several historic events including the Southern Governors conference in 1948 where the “States Rights Democratic Party” aka Dixiecrats was first conceived as a protest to Harry Truman’s embrace of Civil Rights. On this Pepper initially supported Truman’s Civil Rights program owing to his national ambitions but once Florida reelection got threatened Pepper reversed course. As Clark points out, Florida was possibly the most violently racist southern state in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. We explored this shameful history last week on this site, and it is important to remember large numbers of elected officials as well as the hierarchy of Florida’s ruling Democratic Party were in league with racists, sometimes violent racists. (it is also worth noting all segregationists weren’t necessarily racists – most were but some were not.)

Clark’s book on Pepper and Smathers is perhaps the most thorough and well-researched book ever written about an election in the state of Florida. While at times Davis seems to be highly critical of Pepper (perhaps to compensate for the heroism most historians have given him through the years), the narrative is a page-turner and his conclusions on the 1950 campaign are irrefutable. It like Danese’s work is highly recommended for anybody interested in Florida political history.

One comment

  1. […] stop Collins from being elected. While Faircloth wasn’t as overt in his attacks on Collins as Smathers and his allies had been against Pepper in 1950, Faircloth was still race-baiting and in Collins faced a candidate whose psychology was different […]

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