Steve Kraske: Richard Bolling was a political giant, especially in civil rights

07/11/2014 4:27 PM

07/11/2014 4:27 PM

As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, let’s remember the critical contribution of the man from our own backyard.

Richard Bolling should be remembered for a lot of things in a 34-year congressional career that included seminal structural changes in the workings of the U.S. House and the ushering in of a new progressive era in a chamber long dominated by conservative Southerners.

So respected was Bolling that House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said that he had “more talent and brains than any other member I’ve ever served with.”

On the final day of the 20th century, The Wall Street Journal put Bolling in the company of five other “American political giants.”

He was our guy, Kansas City.

But Bolling’s work on civil rights, in 1957 but especially in 1964, should be enshrined forever. It was Bolling, along with President Lyndon Johnson, who cajoled, pushed and finally demanded that the legislation become law.

Former Missouri congressman Alan Wheat, who succeeded Bolling in 1983, remembers Bolling telling him that over a 30-year career, Wheat would have just two or three chances to make a difference on a major issue.

For Bolling, one of those chances was civil rights. He was a man who had gone out of his way to demonstrate the importance of the issue. He angered critics when he first went to Washington by drinking with African-Americans at the city’s only integrated club. He also hired black aides.

In 1963, shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Bolling and Johnson agreed on the one tool available to them to move the legislation out of the Rules Committee then led by a segregationist, Howard W. Smith of Virginia.

It was a discharge petition. If a majority of the 435-member House backed it, legislation would be freed from the committee and sent to the floor for a vote.

“This is the only lever we’ve really got in our arsenal,” Bolling told Johnson, according to Robert Caro’s magnificent biography of LBJ. Replied the president, “I agree with you.”

The two leaned full force into that lever, using the threat of embarrassing Smith to compel him to hold hearings and eventually pass the act.

A brilliant tactic it was, and Bolling paid a price. It earned him intense dislike from fellow Democrats from the South.

More than once, Wheat has called Bolling his hero. Now when you drive past the Bolling Federal Building downtown, you’ll know why the federal government bestowed the honor.

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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