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.”