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The Day LBJ Made History

Voter Suppression All Fixed Now?


Thursday, March 7, 2013

ALL FIXED? On August 6, 1965, Jeffrey Oshins was a 15-year-old House of Representatives page, present for what he calls president Lyndon B. Johnson’s “extraordinary” speech upon signing the Voting Rights Act.

Today, Oshins is a Santa Barbaran recalling that historic day when LBJ acknowledged that “millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color.” The 15th Amendment, supposed to guarantee black Americans the right to vote, had been passed 95 years previously. It was high time to end this injustice, president Johnson declared.

“The right to vote is a basic right without which all others are meaningless,” said LBJ in his Texas drawl. Surprisingly, perhaps, the ballot battle is still going on, with complaints of voter suppression in some states. Republican governors are making it harder for blacks, who are mostly Democrats, to get to the polls, critics claim. Yet the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority at a recent session questioned whether a key section of the bill still needs to be enforced.

Jeff Oshins
Click to enlarge photo

Sue De Lapa

Jeff Oshins

Is racial discrimination and bias still a problem, some justices asked? (They need to get out more.) The court case involves a section of the act requiring nine states, mostly in the South, to get federal clearance before changing election laws. In 2006, Congress extended the requirement for 25 years, but Shelby County, Alabama, has filed a challenge. A ruling is awaited.

Oshins’s father, Robert, was a key aide to Averell Harriman in the Roosevelt and Truman presidential administrations. Oshins and I sat in the East Beach Grill sun and talked about his youth in highly segregated Northern Virginia.

When the 1963 Jobs and Freedom March on Washington was announced, a neighbor announced that “if they came by he’d get a gun and shoot them,” Oshins told me. Teachers, Oshins said, routinely used the n-word.

When newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall bought a home in the neighborhood, the seller went door to door apologizing for having sold it to a black, Oshins said.

In a recent PBS NewsHour program, Oshins recalled how segregated his Northern Virginia neighborhood was in 1965, with separate schools and churches for the races, and a completely different community on each side of a main street, blacks living on one side, whites on the other. A wink-wink “separate but equal” school doctrine was used to justify segregation, but the schools were hardly equal by any standard, he said. The 2000 film Remember the Titans, the true story of Herman Boone, an African-American coach trying to integrate a racially divided team in the 1970s, was filmed nearby.

With his Stanford-graduate mother heavily involved in the area’s politics and the early Civil Rights Movement, Oshins and his two brothers were largely raised by Annie Metcalf, a black woman from Mississippi. “I have very maternal feelings about her. She was a mother figure,” he said. Washington, D.C., “was a completely different place then,” more like a small town, he recalled. Legislators argued during the day and went out at night and socialized together and with press, he said.

“With Rep. Sam Rayburn of Texas as speaker of the House and Lyndon Johnson as president, it can truly be said that the leadership that passed the act was from the South,” Oshins noted. “It seemed like a crusade that would take forever because the forces against us were so entrenched.” But when he returned from a 1967-69 European education-abroad trip, one of the first things he noticed was the presence of black faces on TV in ads. Peaceful change by way of the cathode ray tube.

The racial situation of his youth “just seems ridiculous now,” said Oshins, 62. Change “started with sports and Jackie Robinson, then entertainment, and now you have a black president.” However, he added, “D.C. is still a very segregated place, but getting better.”

After his father retired here in 1970, Oshins graduated from UCSB and worked on numerous presidential campaigns, including the doomed 1972 George McGovern presidential bid. Despite the Watergate scandal, Republican Richard Nixon swamped McGovern, who won only “Massachusetts, D.C., and I.V.,” Oshins joked.

DAVID AND LISA: I saw the movie back in 1962, and when I heard that the stage version was playing at the Plaza Playhouse Theater in Carpinteria, I was curious. Under the direction of Asa Olsson, a fine group of young actors tell an unusual love story involving a boy and a girl in a boarding school for emotionally challenged teens. It was well done. (To be staged Fri.-Sat., Mar. 8-9, at 8 pm and Sun., Mar. 10, at 2 pm).

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