1991 Profile in Courage Award recipient Charles Weltner with John F. Kennedy, Jr., Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, May 29, 1991.

Background

Rather than "compromise with hate" and be forced to support the candidacy of Lester Maddox, an advocate of segregation, Congressman Charles Longstreet Weltner (D-Ga) placed principle above ambition and withdrew from his own race for re-election. Although his action cost him a third term in Congress, Weltner's willingness to risk everything for his principles was in step with other actions that he took throughout his career.

In the spring of 1966, Weltner signed a newly-adopted "oath of loyalty" in support of the entire state Democratic ticket for the November general election. Maddox, a restaurant owner, was considered a long-shot candidate until he emerged as the Democratic nominee for Governor.

Prior to that, in 1965, Maddox became the first person to be ordered under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to allow blacks to be served at his restaurant. He finally closed his restaurant rather than comply with the Federal law.

Few expected Maddox to win the nomination. However, the political climate was an explosive mixture that included segregationists determined to maintain the status quo; those who felt the South had to change for moral and economic reasons; and those determined to forge a peaceful revolution for civil rights.

Weltner, considered certain to win re-election, grappled with his conscience regarding the oath he had taken and decided on a matter of principle to drop out of the race rather than support Maddox. His words remain an inspiration:

"Today the one man in our state who exists as the very symbol of violence and oppression is the Democratic nominee for the highest office in Georgia. His entire public career is decidedly contrary to my deepest convictions and beliefs. And while I cannot violate my oath, neither can I violate my principles. I cannot compromise with hate. I cannot vote for Lester Maddox. Therefore I am withdrawing as the Democratic nominee for the House of Representatives."

A candidate popular among both Democrats and Republicans, Weltner's decision angered many of his supporters. While the oath was later discontinued by the Democratic party, Weltner was unable to win an elected office seat again until 1976, when he won an election to become a Fulton County Superior Court Judge. He lost a race for his former Congressional seat in 1968, and for mayor of Atlanta in 1973.

Weltner's courageous action typifies John F. Kennedy's words in Profiles of Courage: "In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience - the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men - each man must decide for himself the course he will follow."

The Path to Southern Change

An attorney, theologian, author, and an expert in seven ancient languages, Weltner graduated from Oglethorpe University with a bachelor's degree in 1948, and from Columbia University School of Law in 1950. After practicing law for ten years, he entered politics in 1962, running as a long-shot on the Democratic ticket against long-time incumbent Representative James C. Davis. Weltner won the election with the support of a growing force in the South, the black voter. He was re-elected in 1964 with 54 percent of the vote, the same percentage he had in 1962.

During Weltner's two terms in the House, he met the challenge of courage head on. Although fiercely independent, Weltner's Southern heritage made him an unlikely catalyst for change - which he called the "new reality" - in the South. His great-grandfather, Thomas R.R. Cobb, was the first author of the state legal code, the author of the Confederate Constitution, and a Confederate General who died in Fredericksburg. His great-great-grandfather, Joseph H. Lumpkin, was the state's first chief justice.

Weltner faced the extraordinary challenge of speaking out against the violence and repression that supported segregation in favor of a society in which whites and blacks could share equally. In June 1963, Weltner openly supported the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, outlawing segregation in public schools, and urged voluntary desegregation of public accommodations, but not by Federal law.

In September 1963, in another courageous action, he blamed the murder of four black children in the bombing of a Birmingham church on the failure of politicians to condemn the violence of segregationists. In a widely-publicized remark, he said:

"It happened because those chosen to lead have failed to lead. Those whose task it is to speak have stood mute. And in so doing, we have permitted the voice of the South to preach defiance and disorder. We have stood by leaving the field to reckless and violent men."

In July 1964, when the Civil Rights Act came before the House of Representatives for a final vote, Weltner broke with his region in a further courageous act of conscience and became the only Congressman from the Deep South to vote in favor of the act. Upon casting his vote he said:

"I will add my voice to those who seek reasoned and conciliatory adjustment to a new reality. And, finally, I would urge that we at home now move on to the unfinished task of building a new South. We must not remain forever bound to another lost cause."

After his vote, he was widely hailed as one of the leaders of the "new South." In 1964, he requested an appointment to a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which investigated allegations of Communist activities. Weltner succeeded in persuading the committee to investigate the Ku Klux Klan on the premise that segregationists were shifting from economic pressure tactics to terrorist tactics. He was quoted then as saying that the best weapon against the Klan was publicity.

After his historic refusal to "compromise with hate," Weltner returned to his private law practice until 1976, when Governor George Busbee named him to the Fulton County Superior Court. In 1981, he was appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court to fill a vacancy, and since 1983 has won re-election to this position three times.

Excerpts of Charles Weltner's Resignation Speech

On October 1st, 1966 [Charles Longstreet Weltner] made the following statement:

As all Democratic candidates, I signed a pledge to support on November 8 the nominees of the Democratic primary. And though I have always opposed Mr. [Lester] Maddox in the past, I cannot violate my oath.

Today, the one man in our state who exists as the very symbol of violence and oppression is the Democratic nominee for the highest office in Georgia. His entire public career is directly contrary to my deepest convictions and beliefs.

And, while I cannot violate my oath, neither can I violate my principles. I cannot compromise with hate. I cannot vote for Lester Maddox.

Therefore, I am withdrawing as the Democratic nominee for the House of Representatives.
I do so with abiding gratitude for the many friends who have sustained me - and with deep regret.

I love the Congress. But I will give up my office before I give up my principles.
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