The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests and violence has left America’s leaders with an unanswerable question. What to do?
History provides examples of political leaders rising to this challenge. One such politician was Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes, who faced racism in Iowa and appealed to Iowans to rise above their prejudices.
On the surface, Hughes seemed an unlikely candidate for this mission. Born in rural western Iowa, he saw few, if any, African-Americans growing up. A rough-hewed truck driver, Hughes overcame alcoholism and served three terms as governor in the mid-1960s. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1968 for a single term, he entered Christian lay work and built clinics for other alcoholics. He died in 1996.
It was his actions in 1967 and 1968 that we can look back on today. At this time, American cities burned with race riots. Iowa cities with African-American populations, such as Des Moines and Waterloo, erupted with protests and violence.
Hughes realized he knew little about the black experience in Iowa. He remedied this by visiting homes of black families in Des Moines. He was overcome by the stark poverty and despair he saw. Most importantly, he listened to their stories of racial prejudice that impacted their lives.
He visited other African-American homes in Iowa, talking with large groups and taking into his soul their life stories. Conversations often lasting until 2 in the morning.
Then he acted. He got businesses in Iowa’s large cities to provide employment for black youths to quell possible violence, creating 20,000 summer jobs.
But Hughes realized the issue was greater than that. It was racism itself — raw, burning prejudice that assaulted human dignity.
Hughes joined with Iowa Methodist Bishop James Thomas of Des Moines, an African-American, to create the “Crisis Conferences.” These were a series of assemblies, organized by Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders in six of Iowa’s largest cities — Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Sioux City, Waterloo and Council Bluffs — to rally Iowans against racism in early 1968.
These could have turned into shallow gatherings of nice platitudes — except they were headlined with a bold address by Hughes, one of the most charismatic speakers in Iowa history. A large, handsome man with a deeply rich and booming baritone voice, Hughes spoke as if a prophet from the Old Testament. These addresses were more sermons than speeches.
Of his visits to black homes, Hughes said, “I was humbled and ashamed. For I had lived in an ivory tower — in office for five years while people within five blocks of the capitol lived in poverty. Yes, I felt bitterness and resentment — resentment against the so-called white power structure that has been grinding these people into the ground without even knowing it.”
Speaking to thousands, Hughes called upon Iowans to empathize with their African-American neighbors, urging all to place themselves in the shoes of their black brethren. He asked they try to understand the burden of bigotry. Offering no simple answers, Hughes stressed understanding, empathy and, most importantly, compassion.
He later said, “I felt that I was not only swimming upstream, but that I was taking a major step to destroy whatever political future I might have had … But it really didn’t matter to me. I felt that a message had to be brought to the people of Iowa and America and that for a man to shirk his responsibility in bringing the message would be the worst thing he could ever do.”
Did Hughes’ actions make a difference? Perhaps not. Racism obviously still exists — as we well know today. But his actions provide a direction, a hope, that public officials can lead us on a better path, that they can take chances to call forth, as Lincoln said, the better angles of our nature.
This was done by Hughes. Instead of holding a Bible for a photo op, Hughes lived it.
Jerry Harrington of Iowa City is writing a biography of Iowa governor and Sen. Harold Hughes.