Gaylord Nelson takes his political career from local to state politics

Download this document.

Although civil rights had been a marginal issue in Wisconsin's electoral politics during Gaylord Nelson's tenure as state senator and governor, he quickly revealed himself to be an ardent supporter of federal civil rights legislation after his arrival in the U.S. Senate in 1963. Nelson stood with those who insisted that the government strive to protect a broader array of human rights under racist attack around the country.

This document—a draft of his 1965 Senate floor speech proposing legislation to make the murder of a civil rights activist a federal crime—shows Nelson aligned with those in Congress at the vanguard of using federal action to support the efforts of the civil rights movement.

Images and accounts of racist violence in the South had moved many of Nelson's constituents to believe Washington needed to step in and restore order. For example, following the violent response to the 1964 voter registration drive in Mississippi—the "Freedom Summer"—a Milwaukee woman wrote Nelson aghast that "we read and approve of U.S. military helping East Berliners to freedom while at the same time we tolerate an invisible, but equally effective, wall dividing the citizens of one of our own states." Nelson assured her that his staff was "in almost constant contact" with the Department of Justice and working to raise concern about the "disgraceful conditions" in Mississippi and throughout the South.

This speech works to awaken the "American conscience" that has "sunk once again into apathy" by detailing case after case of violence against African Americans. It paints the South with a broad brush as a place where "keeping the Negro 'in line' [with] both official and unofficial violence [is] part of the southern tradition."

Nelson then expands his scope to consider, as well, violence against white activists, white moderates, and the form of widespread "economic coercion" with which "just a few words over the phone may be enough to cost a person his job and his livelihood."

While he did not propose a method of combating such economic discrimination, his attention to it is significant. Four months after he wrote this draft, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, leaving many in both parties content that the federal government had done all it could to protect the civil rights of African Americans.