Belva Davis, Barry Goldwater, Tea Partiers and Race


On the second night of the 1964 Republican National Convention, a wannabe radio reporter named Belva Davis sat in the nosebleed seats of San Francisco’s sweltering Cow Palace covering her first big story, an historic and raucous event that scared the hell out of her.

Today, the 78-year old Davis is in her sixth decade of working as a California broadcast journalist, an extraordinary career that has earned her national acclaim and countless awards since she became the first African-American woman in the West ever hired as a TV news reporter.

But on Tuesday, July 14, 1964, the day before the GOP confab would nominate U.S.  Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for president, she was a young and callow radio traffic manager who’d accompanied Louis Freeman, news director of a small black station in Oakland, who’d talked his way into a couple of convention spectator passes.

Politically, it was an extraordinary night, as the moderate and conservative wings of the GOP bitterly clashed and split over the Goldwater faction’s platform, an event that still echoes today. Personally, it was for Davis an astonishing spectacle of anger, chaos and racism that she never forgot.

In her terrific new memoir, “Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism,” she recounts what happened shortly after 10 p.m., when liberal New York governor Nelson Rockefeller was drowned out by screaming Goldwater delegates while urging passage of a platform amendment to condemn the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society:

While the Goldwater organization tried to keep its delegates in check on the floor, snarling Goldwater fans in the galleries around us were off the leash. The mood turned unmistakably menacing…

Suddenly Louis and I heard a voice yell, “Hey, look at those two up there!” The accuser pointed us out, and several spectators swarmed beneath us. “Hey niggers!” they yelled. “What the hell are you niggers doing in here?’”

I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck as I looked into faces turned scarlet and sweaty by heat and hostility. Louis, in suit and tie and perpetually dignified, turned to me and said with all the nonchalance he could muster, “Well, I think that’s enough for today.” Methodically we began wrapping up our equipment into suitcases.

As we began our descent down the ramps of the Cow Palace, a self-appointed posse dangled over the railings, taunting. “Niggers!” “Get out of here, boy!” “You too, nigger bitch!” “Go on, get out!” “I’m gonna kill your ass!”

I stared straight ahead, putting one foot in front of the other like a soldier who would not be deterred from a mission. The throng began tossing garbage at us: wadded up convention programs, mustard-soaked hot dogs, half-eaten Snickers bars. My goal was to appear deceptively serene, mastering the mask of dispassion I had perfected since childhood to steel myself against any insults the outside world hurled my way.

Then a glass soda bottle whizzed within inches of my skull. I heard it whack against the concrete and shatter. I didn’t look back, but I glanced sideways at Louis and felt my lower lip began to quiver. He was determined we would give our tormentors no satisfaction.

“If you start to cry,” he muttered, “I’ll break your leg.”

Belva’s story: The self-possession, courage and stoicism Davis displayed that night would guide her through a wearying series of professional, political and personal obstacles as she built her singular career.

As ambitious, energetic and determined as she was, however, it’s hard to imagine someone with more strikes against them: Born to a 14-year old in rural Louisiana during the Depression, abused as a child and raised by relatives in Oakland, she clawed her way into the white male-dominated news industry, climbing her way up despite the most unlikely of profiles: black, female, short of stature, equipped with a soft  voice and no college degree, for years herself a single mother.

Early on, she worked as a DJ at a Bay Area station that specialized in white pop music, where she was chastised by her boss for sneaking a Miles Davis  cut on the air late at night; the same manager also told her to try to sound more like “who you really are” – i.e. more black – so he’d get public props for hiring her; when she applied for her first TV job in San Francisco, she was told, “I’m sorry, but we’re just not hiring any Negresses.”

“I really bought the American story,” Belva told us. “I lived the American story.”

Her memoir, written with political journalist Vicki Haddock, is both a personal narrative and a modern political history of the Bay Area, California and, at times, the nation.

From ducking bullets and tear gas during street riots in Berkeley and being spat upon by Ku Klux Klan members at a demonstration she covered in Georgia, her story is filled with tales of some of the biggest news stories of the past half-century, from the AIDS epidemic, the civil rights movement and San Francisco’s City Hall assassinations, to one-on-one interviews with, among others, Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and the Rev. Jim Jones.

As a woman and an African-American, Davis said she always felt the pressures of blazing a trail for others. She constantly worked to master her emotions, in order to present the public face of the consummate professional newswoman – confident, imperturbable and scrupulously objective. Inside, she was afflicted by hurts and humiliations, fears and anxieties that she could never let show.

“I spent a whole lifetime being very careful of how I crafted every comment,” she told us. “I locked it up. Until I released it in this book.”

GOP ’64 and the Tea Party: Curiosity piqued by Belva’s recollections of that famous convention, Calbuzz set about tracking down the GOP platform over which long-lost Republican liberals and Goldwater conservatives clashed. Lo and behold, thanks to the UCSB American Presidency Project, what we found was an 8,740 word document that nearly 50 years later might serve as a manifesto for today’s Tea Party Republicans.

Attacking Democrats as “Federal extremists,” who have “enslaved” and “seek to master” ordinary Americans, the platform vowed , among other things, that Republicans would make deficit reduction their highest economic priority, oppose the “compulsory Democratic scheme” of Medicare and roll back actions of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration that “violently thrust Federal power into the free market.”

A week after the convention, Time magazine described it this way:

As carefully and deliberately as an architect planning a skyscraper, the Republican Convention drew its 1964 platform design to the political and philosophical specifications of Barry Goldwater…It struck out against costly, deficit-creating federal paternalism in a way that went well beyond the 1960 Republican platform.

It approved a platform of conservatism in the word’s dictionary sense, promising tightfisted fiscal policy, deploring pervasive federal influence, and urging local action to deal with local problems. Foreign-policy planks have a distinctive hard-line look about them… Principal planks:

GOVERNMENT SPENDING. Charging that Democrats have “burdened this nation with four unbalanced budgets in a row,” the platform promises “a reduction of not less than $5 billion in the present level of spending” and “an end to chronic deficit financing.” The 1960 Republican platform, in contrast, made no promise of a spending cut, even acknowledged the desirability of deficit spending in time of “economic adversity.”

TAXES. In order that “each individual may keep more of his earnings,” the G.O.P. pledges a removal of wartime federal excise taxes on such items as jewelry, cosmetics and luggage. Moreover, it promises further reduction in individual and corporate tax rates as “fiscal discipline is restored.” …

MEDICARE. Unlike the 1960 platform, the plank summarily rejects a medical-aid plan financed and administered through social security. The G.O.P. favors “full coverage of all medical and hospital costs of needy elderly people, financed by general revenues through broader implementation of federal-state plans, rather than the compulsory Democratic scheme covering only a small percentage of such costs for everyone regardless of need.”

Republicans and race: Debate over what the platform should say about civil rights set the stage for the outburst of racism that Belva Davis experienced at the convention (her recall is, if anything, understated: e.g. see Jackie Robinson’s account of how blacks were treated at the event).

Although Goldwater had voted in the Senate against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the convention approved a plank promising “full implementation and faithful execution” of that then-recent legislation.

Passage came, however, after “nearly 70 percent of the convention delegates, acting on (Goldwater’s) campaign’s instructions, had voted down a platform plank affirming the constitutionality” of the measure, according to a reconstruction in Smithsonian magazine,  and only in conjunction with a platform statement opposing affirmative action – described as “federally-sponsored ‘inverse discrimination’” – in hiring and the use of busing to achieve school desegregation.

While today’s Tea Party leaders (including the consultants making millions from the deal) do their best to avoid engaging over such divisive social issues, Belva Davis, like other African-Americans, traces the intensity and ferocity of the movement’s opposition to America’s first black president  “not (to) Obama’s ability to do the job, but because of his race.”

As evidence of the role that race still plays in conservative politics, Davis cited the Tea Party’s embrace of “birthers,” the slurs and spittle hurled by activists at Representatives and civil rights leaders John Lewis and James Clyburn at health care bill protests, and the recent email depicting Obama as a chimpanzee that was sent out by Tea Partier and Orange County Republican Central Committee member Marilyn Davenport.

(To his credit, newly elected Republican state chairman Tom Del Beccaro put out a statement “denouncing” the Davenport email. Unfortunately, almost anyone who read it would have no idea what he was talking about: rather than naming Davenport, he referred vaguely to a “committee member” and instead of clearly stating the matter, he opaquely mentioned “the actions in question”).

“Things haven’t changed – it’s not even veiled,” Davis said when asked about the racially offensive email. “I really thought my grandchildren would not have to endure those kinds of hurts.”

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There are 9 comments for this post

  1. avatar Chris Reed says:

    So lame and so predictable. So the actions of a few nuts are supposed to define an entire movement. And, of course, Davenport was a Republican official, not a tea party activist. What’s so troubling about Calbuzz is its insistence on seeing a world in which there is only one set of bad guys instead of acknowledging the louts in both parties. Why does Davenport define the right any more than the UTLA members who warned the South L.A. parents who wanted to set up a charter school that their organizing meeting might be raided by the INS define the left?

    As for the idea that race is the primary fuel of the anti-Obama movement, oh, yeah, the fact that the U.S. government spent eight times what it took in during March has nothing to do with it. A health care overhaul built on myths and deceit has nothing to do with it. The fact that Clinton faced a similar backlash in 1993-94 is simply ignored. The fact that the Internet era promotes a culture of political vilification and polarization is simply ignored.

    You guys are so convinced of your moral superiority. Yet you ignore so much and feel so free to go ad hominem in defining and degrading those you disagree with. You should be better than this.

    • avatar Donald from Pasadena says:

      Actually, you’re the one who should be better than this. But then, perhaps I’m giving you more credit that someone like you truly deserves

      When recent polls show that only 26% of the GOP believes that Barack Obama is an American citizen who was born in Hawaii, and another 20% doesn’t know that Hawaii is even part of the United States, such numbers speak volumes about the state of the Republican Tea Party.

      Without a doubt, we Democrats have a few true loons in our midst (Lyndon LaRouche, anyone?). But the difference is that those loons don’t make it past the primary to the general election.

      Meanwhile, the Republican Party has gone out of its way to court the far white-wing in this country, to the point that racist crackpots like my own uncle now feel perfectly free to refer to Obama as “your nigger president” to my face.

      Last year, the Texas State Police saw nothing wrong with pulling my half-Latina daughter over while we were visiting my in-laws in Corpus Christi, demanding to see her papers, taking her to the station when she said she didn’t have any, and then compelling me to come down there with a copy of her birth certificate in hand to vouch for her citizenship.

      That’s the reality of today’s GOP / Tea Party world, Chris – baggers, birthers,, bigots, bimbos and blowhards. And the bald truth of the matter is that the Tea Party movement and the GOP are one and the same. Dick Armey was the former GOP House majority leader in the 1990s. And last I saw, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker didn’t run as a Democrat or independent.

      You might as well piss into a 50 m.p.h. headwind, as continue to take such self-righteous umbrage at those individuals like me who don’t like what the GOP teabaggers stand for, and who aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. All that thin-skinned ignoramuses like yourself prove is that while you can dish it out, you sure can’t seem to take it.

      And if you don’t like that, that’s just tough.

    • avatar chuckmcfadden says:

      Your post is nonsense. The fact is there were red-faced, screaming racists at the 1964 Republican convention, and that was just fine with the Republican Party. It wasn’t a case of just a few “louts.” It was a case of a political organization that does well among racists, that does well when people are ignorant, frightened and scared. And yes, the Calbuzz “guys” are your moral superiors.

    • avatar TomY says:

      Those “few nuts” ARE your “entire movement” today.

      I’ve gotta give credit to the GOP of the 60’s in that they largely shunned the extremists, but today’s GOP is basically the same group of idiots that make up the Tea Party and they wear extremist racism as a badge of honor..

      Sir, please get your amydala examined for toxoplasma. Believe me, you will thank me.

  2. avatar Hank Plante says:

    Belva is such a class act. She is as decent and interesting “off the air” as she is on. The Bay Area has been so lucky to have her.

  3. avatar Curtis L. Walker says:

    Oh My Goodness! Thank you for introducing me to Ms. Davis. I must be quick with this post so I can get on to ordering her new book. Really, thank you for giving her space on your site!

  4. avatar lq says:

    I have always admired Ms. Davis, even more so after she started hosting ‘This Week in Northern California’ where she deftly asks the followup questions and keeps the discussion flowing. I was fortunate to speak to her at a conference in the hallway about something unrelated to the subject at hand and agree completely with Mr. Plante – she is graciousness personified. Thank you so much for this article.

  5. avatar tegrat says:

    The obsession with Obama’s birthplace is racism, pure and simple, and to pretend otherwise is a purely and attempt to deny one’s own racism. We are all racists; many of us who take the trouble to examine our thoughts and feelings have the courage to acknowledge this and call it out in others when racism leads to actions that are harmful. As a society we have also taken steps to acknowledge and remedy the costs to society of racism. Amongst these remedies is affirmative action.

    C. Reed’s argument that Obama is more hated by the right because of his deficit spending than because of his race is laughable given the fact that Reagan and Bush, both icons of the right, were massive deficit spenders. Also, I failed to see anything “ad hominem” in the above report. Could you, C. Reed, point out the phrase(s) that are of such a nature? All I see are the facts of the matter regarding the blatant racism of those who clearly identify themselves as being associated with the Tea Party. The truth has a liberal bias.

    Thanks for a great review of Ms Davis extraordinary life!

  6. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Congrats to Calbuzz for the kind words from Capitol Weekly:
    65. Phil Trounstine/ Jerry Roberts
    Calbuzz offers Democrats a worthy alternative to the right-wing punditry that seems to dominate the state’s web-based bloviation, but there’s another big difference: Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine are good reporters with solid chops, political acumen and a well-honed knowledge of the Capitol. Trounstine used to be a Mercury News political editor before he went to the dark side as Gray Davis’ communications director, and Roberts was a ranking editor at the Chronicle, and elsewhere, and he’s an adviser at UC Santa Barbara. Pros.

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