Americans tend to take a short view of history, so when Congressman Joe Wilson yelled “You lie” at President Barack Obama during his State of the Union speech, many observers reached the conclusion that Obama was the most disrespected black politician in American history. He may very well be the most disrespected president, but it’s good to recall the disrespect that other black lawmakers have faced throughout history.
After Lyndon Johnson appointed Walter Washington mayor of Washington, D.C. on September 6th 1967, the black lawmaker faced overt racism. And like Obama, Washington, a Howard University graduate, had the credentials for the job, but that didn’t do anything to thwart the racism that was directed toward him. One Dixiecrat in Congress even took pleasure in sending Washington watermelons.
Washington led a city that was torn by racial divisions, both locally and congressionally. When he sent his first budget to Congress in late 1967, Democratic Representative John L. McMillan, chair of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, responded by having a truckload of watermelons delivered to Washington’s office.
And The Economist tells the same story, but with more context:
Mr Washington was tested personally and politically almost as soon as he took office. John R. “Johnny Mac” McMillan, a notorious segregationist democrat from South Carolina, chaired the House Committee on the District, which governed a city whose population was about 70% black. A colleague of Mr Washington’s told an interviewer that McMillan “would give Walter a watermelon and say, ‘Here’s a letter from home.’”
The point isn’t that Obama hasn’t been the target of racist attacks, but let’s face it, these sorts of attacks are nothing new. Both political and non-political African-Americans navigate these treacherous waters day in and day out.