While working for my Texas Congressman from the 1960s through the early 1980s, I spent a great deal of time in and around the Capitol Building. I developed a special awe for it, and what it meant to our democracy.
During the late 1960’s, there were huge protests over the Vietnam War and Civil Rights. I remember asking my closest friend and co-worker, Hyde Murray, if we could survive all of the dissention in the country. I will never forget what he said:
“Fowler, the Capitol Dome is very strong. It can withstand anything. We will survive.”
The January 6 storming of the Capitol by a mob intent on disrupting the certification of the Presidential election was an assault on our representative government. Yet the Capitol Dome still stands—just as my friend predicted so long ago.
This breach led me to remember two other occasions when I feared that the Capitol might be invaded. I was involved in each instance.
On January 4, 1965, I was working as a doorkeeper on the Floor of the House of Representatives. Tensions were high over the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama. The House was considering whether to seat the Congressional Delegation from Mississippi, but several civil rights groups had called on the House to reject the Members who had been elected to represent Mississippi.
I was assigned to the doorway of the House Chamber, near the Speakers Lobby and the press area. My partner was Mr. Bob Williamson, an older gentleman. A reporter asked us to get a message to then-Representative Gerald R. Ford; he wanted Ford to come to the press area for an interview. Williamson asked me to deliver the message. And then, it happened in a flash. Just as I located Ford, I heard a loud bang at the door. Williamson had been knocked to the floor, and the blur of the intruder—dressed in Black Face and a minstrel costume—charging onto the House floor. We were stunned when the interloper did a little dance and proclaimed in a racist tone: “I’se the Mississippi Delegation. I demands to be seated!” Within a couple seconds, two Capitol Hill Police officers raced into the chamber and dragged the trespasser off the Floor. It was only then that the seriousness of this gate-crasher hit me. Fortunately, the shaken Williamson was only bruised.
There was not much publicity that I can recall. I did find the photo and brief caption below.
It was no surprise that the infiltrator was found to be Nazi sympathizer. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Once again, the past has proven to be prologue. What happened on January 4, 1965, was greatly magnified on this past January 6th. But these two events, 56 years apart, shared a common ingredient, HATE.
Thirteen years later, as the Chief of Staff of the House Agriculture Committee, I witnessed a truly remarkable event—The American Agriculture Movement’s “Tractorcade.”
Several thousand farmers and ranchers from all parts of the country drove their equipment to Washington and generated a lot of publicity and traffic chaos.
Indeed, their behavior was a stark contrast to what happened on January 6!
About a month before the farmers arrived, an American Agriculture Movement representative from The Plains, Virginia, visited me and a few other Agriculture Committee staff. Polite and knowledgeable, he told us that thousands of farmers were coming to Washington within the month, hoping to get a better Farm Bill.
I thought he must be exaggerating, but I assured him the farmers were welcome to use Committee’s facilities. I admit I was worried by the thought of thousands of farmers, with their powerful machines, in and around the Capitol complex. Would they be peaceful?
Remarkably, thousands of ranchers rolled into Washington on their tractors in late 1978. The National Park Service allowed them to park their machinery on the National Mall. Day after day, hundreds visited the House Agriculture Committee offices in the House Longworth Building. My congressman, Bob Poage of Texas, was the Committee Chair. He allowed them to use our two hearing rooms for meetings and/or rest areas. For weeks, the growers continued to show. Many stood in the long Committee hallway, expecting to talk to any Member of Congress who passed by.
Unlike the lawless mob that invaded the Capitol Building in January, the farmers were almost entirely peaceful. Many Congressmen met with them and joined in lively folksong sessions; the singer-songwriter, Harry Chapin, met and performed in one of the Committee’s hearing rooms.
There were only a few instances of unruly behavior. After a large snowstorm, a few farmers did “wheelies” on the mall, which left some huge ruts for the Park Service to repair; the damage was offset by others who used their equipment to
help remove the snow around the Capitol.
Things grew somewhat tense when a thousand farmers descended on the Department of Agriculture and crowded into a large meeting near the office of Bob Bergland, the Secretary of Agriculture. They were somewhat unruly and noisy, but eventually they left.
While I had counted on some helpful and substantive legislation would get passed to benefit them, little was accomplished. Even Bergland did little on their behalf.
As hundreds drove their tractors to the White House gates and paraded slowly by, they honked as a final gesture of protest. Then they were gone.
A few weeks later, Chairman Poage asked me to join him in a meeting with the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge. As we entered his office, Talmadge took a few puffs on his signature cigar, and from within his cloud of smoke, asked with a smile, “What’s become of the American Agriculture Movement?”
That said it all.
After the farmers left, we discovered a dark line all along the lengthy hallway near the Agriculture Committee office. It was about three feet above the floor. For many days, hundreds had lined up along that wall, with one boot pressed on the wall behind them. The farmers’ boots had created it, as they waited to make their case for more help from the Congress–help that was not to come.
Of course, the wall was immediately cleaned, the line disappeared, but. I now wish we had found a way to preserve it. After all, it represented peaceful Democracy in action.
Let us welcome groups, like those long-ago farmers, to come to their Capitol. First, however, we must tear down the fences and barbed wire that, since the November 6 attack, barricade this great shrine to Democracy.
The Capitol belongs to the people. Its Dome is strong. Let it be opened to all.
Mr. West consults about political and environmental issues.