Judging the late President George H.W. Bush’s record on race and civil rights

I arise this morning to learn that former President George Herbert Walker Bush has died at the age of 94.

May he rest in peace…

While the encomiums for a long and distinguished private and public career will pour in over the next few days as America says goodbye to its last World War II generation president, as a Black man who grew heavily interested in politics as a child during the Ronald Reagan-George Bush era, of particular interest to me is where former President Bush stood on civil rights.

To begin, I would be remiss if I did not note that during his 1964 run for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in then Democratic dominated Texas, Bush hitched his hopes to Arizona Sen. (and presidential aspirant) Barry Goldwater. Much like the then Republican nominee, Bush strongly opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that was signed into law by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. In an interview that year, Bush called that law which  eliminated discrimination against blacks in restaurants, bathrooms, water fountains, and public accommodations “Politically inspired and bad legislation in that it transcends the Constitution.”

c088e331c4568b09348c8cdb34e617a2(The Bush family during the ’64 Senate campaign in Texas)

download (31)(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr shakes hands with President Lyndon Johnson following the signing of the same Civil Rights Act that George H.W. Bush opposed in ’64)

Four years later, while serving as a Congressman from Houston in 1968 (shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), Bush voted in favor of the Fair Housing Act, a vote that upset many within his predominantly white Houston district. Commenting on the FHA, Bush said, “…somehow it seems fundamental that a man should not have a door slammed in his face because he is a Negro.”

Such set the tone of what would be standard fare for Bush, which means that where he stood in the fight against racism and discrimination often depended upon the issue as opposed to being staunchly “yes” or “no.”

Indeed, as I think back this morning, three other memories immediately spring to mind:

1. Willie Horton
2. Clarence Thomas
3. Rodney King

Willie Horton

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I was in 11th grade in 1988 when Bush benefitted from the Willie Horton campaign ads orchestrated by the late Lee Atwater, ones that blasted Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts, for a controversial program that allowed Horton, a convicted murderer, a furlough.

Horton subsequently committed multiple felonies in Maryland, including rape, but the tone of the Horton ads were virulently racist and played upon white fears of blacks committing crimes. In fact, the ads were so despicable that several years later, Atwater, then dying of cancer, apologized profusely.

Clarence Thomas

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The summer before my sophomore year at Morehouse College, President Bush nominated Thomas, then 43, to replace Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Replace is not the correct word; when considering that Marshall had been a civil rights icon who as a jurist, often voted to expand civil rights and liberties from harsh police practices, Thomas, on the contrary, had a remarkably unremarkable career as a bureaucratic lawyer and one term federal judge before joining the Supreme Court.

In the 26 years since his heated confirmation hearings, ones in which Thomas was accused of sexually harassing his former associate, law professor Anita Hill (among others), Justice Thomas has been hostile towards civil rights for minority demographics and a champion of expanded police powers. Thomas has also supported the erosion of Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures, the right to remain silent, and the right to counsel who may confront accusers, respectively.

In hindsight, Bush did black folks no favors by appointing the quisling Thomas, and this legacy is one that we are stuck with to this very hour.

Rodney King

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If the Clarence Thomas hearings dominated my sophomore year at Morehouse, Los Angeles motorist Rodney King’s beating by LAPD dominated my junior year.

The acquittals of the four white officers who savagely pummeled King–and subsequent riots in LA and Atlanta, the latter of which I and many of my classmates at Morehouse, Spelman, Clark and Morris Brown were a part of in some form or fashion, led to catastrophic death, destruction and mayhem.

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(Atlanta riots at Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University)

Surprisingly, Bush was disgusted by the verdicts, saying, “what I saw made me sick..it’s sickening to see the beating that was rendered. There’s no way in my view to explain it away. It was outrageous.”

In an attempt to quell the rising tensions, Bush announced that his Justice Department would investigate and consider federal charges.

To his credit, unlike recent  investigations under former President Barack Obama that led to ZERO charges being filed against white officers and vigilantes in the Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice cases, to name a few, the Bush Justice Department did secure convictions against two of the four officers who later served federal prison time.

Rodney King Riots Major Players(Rodney King’s attackers–two served time)

Hobbs’s verdict on Bush 41’s legacy on race 

As I did not know Bush  personally, I cannot fully comment upon his personal views on race. Judging from his political record and anecdotal evidence, I sense that like many patrician white males, he had blacks who he admired or was even friends with who shared similar political ideologies or social philosophies.

For example, one cannot overlook how Bush tapped Colin Powell to become the architect of the Gulf War and the most powerful black general officer in military history. It is unlikely that Powell later becomes the first Black Secretary of State–or Condoleeza Rice the second–but for their relationships with Bush 41 that continued with his son, President George W. Bush (43).

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120713_2_condi_bush_ap_328(Bush 41 with Powell; Bush 43 with Rice)

Still, Bush’s life served as a microcosm of the key issues of the turbulent 20th Century and America’s tortured history with race. When Bush served as a naval officer during World War II, the military was still segregated. By the time he graduated from Yale in 1948 after being discharged, the military was fully integrated.

That Bush ran for the Senate as an opponent to civil rights in 1964 was of little surprise because Texas, while still solidly Democratic at the time, was a Jim Crow loving, black folks lynching former Confederate state where most whites wanted blacks to remain second class citizens. Thus, while his position was abhorrent, it was consistent with what white Democrats and Republicans were most concerned about in Texas circa ’64.

As for the Horton ads and the Thomas nomination, these are far more telling as by the point Bush signed off on both, he was well into his 60s and endowed with a lifetime of experiences that should have led him to nix the Horton ads for being racist, and to nominate a more qualified black conservative than Thomas to the bench.

Further, when one considers that Bush 41 was a strong advocate for the United Negro College Fund and contributed funds each year to Morehouse College, the alma mater of civil rights icon Dr. King, one can only note that his, truly, was a life filled with interesting juxtapositions on race.

As for his call for justice for Rodney King, perhaps the beatings that Bush took from the black press regarding civil rights, coupled with his presidential adversary that year, Bill Clinton’s, facile relationships with black voters, were what led him to be so disgusted by King’s beating that he sprang into action?

Who knows? Perhaps King’s videotaped beating moved him like it moved many decent human beings?

But what we do know is that even in his failures on race, there was a certain level of introspection and humility that has since allowed Bush to admit as much in his 2015 memoirs. As such, while many will hold fond remembrances of Bush 41 for his “kinder-gentler” persona, particularly in this caustic modern era of political polarization where “us” vs “them” has become blood sport, lest we forget where he erred greatly–and where he triumphed greatly–so that future leaders can avoid similar pitfalls while inspiring all of us to our better natures.