Melton McLaurin Oral History with Joseph Langan
McLaurin: Continuing the oral history project, this tape is being made the 12th of October 1972. Participants are Melton McLaurin, department of history, University of South Alabama, and Mr. Joe Langan of Mobile, former state senator and former commissioner of the city of Mobile. And Mr. Langan I'd like you at this time if you would please to give me a brief biographical sketch including your birth place, education, and years of service in the military and in political life.
Langan: Well, I was born in Mobile in 1912. I was educated in the parochial and public schools of Mobile. I graduated from Murphy High School. And of course, I graduated in 1931 in the Depression and was not able at that time to go to college. I did however, by working and studying law, was able to take the state bar examination and passed it and was admitted to the practice of law in 1935. I continued part-time college courses and – went for actually about twenty years until 1951 when I was graduated from Spring Hill College. In 1938, after I had been practicing law for about three years, I decided to enter into the race for state legislature and was elected,… being one of the three members of the house representing Mobile County. I served during the 1939 session which was Governor Dixon's administration and during that time many changes were made in Alabama government. Matter of fact, it was the reform period of Alabama history during which many of the departments of state government were reorganized and set-up. Industrial relation department, finance departments, and many others where a conglomerate of small offices and departments were brought together. The highway department and others were coordinated and streamlined and many boards were done away with and single directors were appointed to head-up these departments. Also, we introduced and had passed the merit system for the state government. I also introduced and had passed for the local government the merit system for Mobile County and voting machines in Mobile County and many other reform activities took place at this time. In 1940, I was serving as a member of the National Guard and was called into service as a captain commanding the headquarters company of the 31st division. I served over five years in the armed forces during World War II and, of course, immediately the year before World War II when we were preparing for what might be the eventuality of us being engaged in that war. I also served with the 93rd division, served over seas with the 8th Army and was chief for the 8th Army Area Command, which [was] comprised all of the South Pacific, south of Luzon at the close of the war. And I was a colonel in the army at that time. I decided to come back however, as I was interested in government and in 1946, [I] terminated my service in the army and ran for the state senate. Was elected to the state senate in '47, served until 1950, served one year as a member of the county commission in 1951, and was then again called back into service in 1951 for the Korean War. I served two years in the army during the Korean War, much of the time with the 8th division and with the 31st division in training of replacements for overseas duty. Then I served in Japan with the 16th Corps. At the end of two years, as the war was coming to a stalemate and the negotiations, which went on for many, many month,s were commencing, I again terminated my service and returned to Mobile. Upon coming back to Mobile, I found quite an argument over some of the phases of the merit system that I had put in effect back in 1939. And after attending several meetings and trying to dissuade the city commission from doing things I felt were against the best interest of the merit system, I finally decided to seek office myself just a couple of months before the election. And I was elected to the city commission. I served on the city commission from '53 until 1969, sixteen years, during which time I was president of the Alabama League Municipalities and one of the directors of the National League of Cities of the United States. As a matter of fact, at the National League's convention about eight or ten years ago, I introduced the resolution calling on the government to go into the revenue sharing program, which is now finally getting on to its last stages in Congress.
McLaurin: Thank you very much, Mr. Langan, for that biographical sketch. I'd like to ask you today some questions about a particular topic. Primarily race relations in Mobile immediately following the Second World War. You have the reputation of being a forthright man in this area and you have also the reputation of being a fair individual in this area and you took some stands in the 1940s that had adverse political consequences. I would especially like to question you about the period of 47, '46, '47, when you returned and entered into politics again. First, I'd like to get just a general impression of what you saw in Mobile returning from the war. Did you find that blacks in Mobile had higher expectations than before the war? That they seemed to be more interested in getting involved in politics, the economic life of the city, or were things approximately the way were before the war?
Langan: Well, I believe that blacks certainly, because there had been many of them in the armed forces with us. Matter of fact, I had served with a number of them at different times overseas. [I] had had many of the units that they manned in parts of my command. And so when many of these men came back, they certainly expected and had a right to expect as citizens of the United States the right to full citizenship and the privileges that we feel are important being an American citizen. And they were becoming more interested in taking a part in government. However, I found really in Mobile when I came back, due to many of the changes in housing during the war and other changes that had taken place, that actually Mobile was becoming a little bit more of a segregated city than what it was when I had left before the war. Also, I had found that due to the large influx of population from the interior of Mississippi and Alabama into the Mobile area, that there was really more racial prejudice and particularly hatred than I had seen here before. Mobile before had been a city of families that had lived in Mobile for many, many years. Many of us had grown up as children with Negroes living in the same blocks with us, in the neighborhoods with us. We played together and had known each other as friends for many, many years. Well, many of these conditions had begun to change after World War II. Also even though the Negroes were endeavoring to get the right to vote, you had very repressive legislation being passed such as the Boswell amendment and other activities being taken by your members of the legislature to prevent them from voting. Also, another thing that shocked me very deeply was the fact that during the war, with rationing and a lack of production of vehicles, buses and public transportation was a means of transport for many, many people. And one day in returning from my law office I was on the bus and noticed the bus was practically filled. And yet, we came to one corner where a number of black people were waiting to board the bus and the bus driver drove past them and would not pick them up. Yet on another corner [he] stopped to pick up white persons. I immediately wrote a letter to the newspaper and also to the bus company vehemently protesting this unfair treatment of American citizens. I felt many people who had served in the armed forces to protect our nation and then to come back and be denied public transportation was going entirely too far.
McLaurin: Can you give the approximate date on that?
Langan: That was around 1947 I believe--'46 or '47.
McLaurin: Now, Mr. Langan, in 1947 as I understand it, you were at that time the only senator from Mobile County. Mobile County had one senator. I think that as senator you probably had a good deal of power in the legislative delegation if the senator in the county operates as senators in the national legislature operate. And I think that is somewhat correct. I understand that in 1947 a group of blacks, members of the NAACP, approached you with a seven point program concerning educational facilities for blacks in Mobile. And one of things they wanted was equal pay for black teachers. Another thing they wanted was a decrease in the number of pupils that black teachers were being asked to teach. They were asked to teach almost twice as many pupils as were whites, and more equal funding for blacks. Now, I wish you would just, first of all, could you give me as specific a date on that as you could. When this took place? If you can remember if it was the fall or spring of '47 and give me your impression of what happened. I understand you sponsored a bill for a tax on beer to try to equalize some of these or try to end some of these inequities. So, if you'd just take that subject and say whatever you'd like to about it, I'd appreciate it.
McLaurin: Well, when this matter was presented to me, it certainly was shocking to feel that a black teacher who had a college degree, whether it would be a master's degree or doctor's degree or even just a bachelor's degree, that you would have that person teaching in our local school system and possibly have a white person without a degree earning more money than a black person with a degree. And of course, this was one of the things that the group of Negro civic leaders came to me to protest concerning the fact that this inequity in pay. At that time, the schools of Mobile were under-financed due to the tremendous expansion that was taking place in Mobile and the great growth that the city had seen during the war years. And the school board was very much in need of additional funds. One of the suggestions was that a two cent beer tax be passed to provide additional funds for the Mobile County public schools. This of course being local legislation, in order to be passed in the state legislature, would need to have a majority vote in the house and the concurrence of the senate. And of course, under the courtesy rules of the senate, if the senator from a local community did not approve of legislation, the legislation would not be passed. So therefore, it was entirely up to me when the bill got to the senate as to whether or not the tax would be levied or not levied. I, of course, knew that the schools were in need of funds and was willing to pass the bill or to vote for the tax. However, I felt that some concession should be made with regard to the inequities that existed in the system. And I asked the school commissioners if they would see that blacks did receive equal pay with equal qualifications for their service in the Mobile County public school system and that the work loads were better equalized. Upon their agreeing to do this, I then had the bill passed which provided the additional legislation. So from the beginning, the following year when this money became available, the teachers' salaries of blacks were put on the same pay scales as the white teachers in the Mobile public school system.
McLaurin: Again, can you give me any dates on [this]?
Langan: This was around 1947, '48. I don't remember exact dates.
McLaurin: Excuse me for a minute. If you were the senator in '47, the legislature would have been in session for you to introduce the bill in the fall of '47 or in the winter of '48. Do you recall?
Langan: They were meeting – the legislature in the spring of the year. So, it would have probably been during the summer and it would have been in the fall of '47 that the bill would have been effective.
McLaurin: So they were meeting in the spring of '47 then when you were approached? And this is when you decided to support the bill. That helps me a great deal. Ah, were you ever in contact with any black organizations – such – there was a veterans group that was organized during this time to try to get better educational facilities and also to press voter registration campaigns. And it was this veteran’s group that finally brought suit against the Boswell Amendment. Were you in contact with the black community at any time during this period? And did you know any of these people working and did they ever express to you what their goals were, what their hopes were about voter registration in this [county]? I know this is a rather broad question. But what I'm trying to do is ascertain if blacks were actively pushing for things? Were they coming to people they respected and asking to obtain things? And we have this one example in the school situation. But were there others that you could think of?
Langan: Well, as I say I had been in the service with a number of the black veterans in Mobile and knew them. At that time I was also active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars and served as a junior vice commander in 1947--'46, latter part of '46, '47. I imagine. And then I was also elected as state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. So as state commander, I was interested in working with the various posts. And did help to establish and work with the black VFW post here in the city of Mobile and help them to get a post home, and some of the other groups in and around Mobile that were interested in trying to improve the conditions of blacks. I pointed out to them many times that I felt there were certain priorities that they should be attacking with regards to the discrimination against them. But first of all, I felt that a man in his relationship with his God was the most important relationship that a man has. And therefore, freedom of religion was probably our greatest blessing under our American system of government. Then next came his right as a citizen to participate in government, to be a voter. And therefore, I felt that the right to vote was the next most important goal that should be attacked. And of course, at this time we did have the many things going on and shortly thereafter when we had a group in Alabama and in Mobile that was not only denying the black people the right to vote but actually in the Truman race, denied myself and many white persons the opportunity to vote for the person who was the nominee of the Democratic party for president. So, you did have some very repressive politics in Alabama with regards to the right to vote and the right to participate in your national parties, and many of the things that were dealing with bringing about change in the nation. Of course, when this group did then file to challenge the Boswell Amendment, and it was declared unconstitutional, then at the next session of the legislature, legislation was introduced to try to meet the criteria that was set up in the court’s decision as to why the Boswell Amendment was unconstitutional. Well, this again was directly aimed at keeping black people from voting in Alabama. So, I finally discussed this matter with the governor who felt that something should be done to defeat this legislation or not even allow the constitutional amendment to be presented to the people, because of its repressive nature. And finally, there were four or five senators that did agree out of the total senate that we should try to block it. So we did put on a filibuster for a number of days speaking against this constitutional amendment. As it was drawing to the close of the session of the legislature, we filibustered night and day until twelve o'clock midnight of the final day of the session. Even though Senator Allen and some others presiding in the chair tried to throw the rule book out of the window, we were able to finally, under the rules of the senate, by the small group of five senators, even though, they castigated us and made all kind of defamatory remarks about us and everything from a racial standpoint. We did filibuster because we felt that it was injustice for a person who had fought to protect this country not to be allowed to cast a vote in selecting the officials for our government. So that finally by filibustering through the midnight period of the end of the session, this legislation was killed. And a substitute Boswell Amendment was never presented to the people of Alabama for ratification.
McLaurin: Was it the original Boswell Amendment? Was this adopted?
McLaurin: And then it was declared unconstitutional in '49-early '49. And this was another Boswell Amendment which would have been.....
Langan: It came back to the legislature with a constitutional amendment which tried to give judicial authority to boards of registrars. In other words, to try to meet the reasons that the first Boswell Amendment was declared unconstitutional. But, it was still aimed at educational testing, and judicial powers, and various ways to give to the boards of registrars the right to prevent any Negro from voting. And of course, the number of blacks voting in those days was very minimal. In other words, there was only a handful in Mobile that did have the right to vote. And unless the boards of registrars – who did everything they could to keep the Negro from voting – unless the rules were changed to where they did not have this arbitrary power they would be able to continue to keep the Negro from voting.
McLaurin: Mr. Langan, I'd like to ask you now if you were in politics before the war, 38, '39 you were in the house of representatives, the Alabama house. And then after the war, '46-'47 rather you were elected to the state senate. Now, you were a native of Mobile. You obviously knew people in the black community at both times. You worked with members of the black community in '47. Do you feel that there was a greater emphasis on political involvement on the part of blacks in '46 or '47 than there was in '38, '39? [Was there] a feeling among blacks that perhaps they could get involved and perhaps that the doors could be broken down. That something had happened during the war to make them more hopeful, more willing to work to get into the political and economic system of Mobile.
Langan: Well, very definitely there was a great change. Of course, your restrictive laws that you had, your power structure you might call it and others that just prevented completely any participation. Even one Mobile Negro, as one of the white members of the board of registrars once told me, that this person came down to register to vote. And they just asked him every question under the sun to see if they could get him with something he didn't know. And finally, they came up with one question that he didn't have the answer to and asked him what it meant. And he said well, I guess that means that a black person doesn't get to vote. Or a Negro doesn't get to vote, as they used the term in those days. So, that was the whole attitude. Up until the war most of the blacks were almost resigned to the fact that there just was no way to buck the system. And many of them just accepted things as they were. However, during the war you had thousands of Negroes from the Mobile area and from the state of Alabama that went to Europe. They went out in the South Pacific. That went to see other parts of the nation, other parts of the world. As a matter of fact, I had two Alabama boys with me. One of them was my driver. And many times, in many parts of the country, when we were maneuvering, we would be out on the road doing area checking for the movement of troops and where we could locate the troops. And it would become time to get something to eat. And I would stop at a restaurant. Well, many of the restaurants wouldn't even feed the boy. And there was a man in the service, in the uniform of our country, going and risking his life probably later on in the war, but yet could not even get a meal on the road. And I'd have to go into the restaurant and get two dinners and bring them out where he could sit in the car and eat his dinner. I will never forget one day as I was in southern California, we were out there on dessert maneuvers, the driver and myself, we stopped there to get a meal. And I went in to ask the lady. I didn't want to embarrass the boy to find out whether he could come here and eat dinner with me. And the lady said well, if he's good enough to wear the uniform of my nation and fight for me, he's certainly good enough to come into my restaurant and have a dinner. And for one time in my life, I really began to feel proud that we had people in our nation with that type of attitude. But, as I say, all up until World War II the Negro in the South, as the saying went, knew his place and stayed there., and didn't try to make change. But during the war, many of these boys did get a chance to go to other parts of the world, other parts of the nation and saw that they did have legal rights. That these rights were respected and that they were participating in government and in politics. And many times, I heard them discussing [overseas] about the problems. And yet how many of the southern boys, some of the the colored boys from the Chicago area and others would be telling them about all the rights and things they had. But yet, the southern Negro seemed to feel well, that he was still better off even though he didn't have any of his rights recognized or given. In other words, he would rather be in New Orleans than he would be in Chicago, irrespective of the legal rights [that] the boy from Chicago may have had over the boy in New Orleans. But with the close of the war and the fact that these men had participated, many of them being wounded, many of them serving in very trying circumstances, they came back and felt that they had made a contribution to the nation and therefore, should have some voice in its government and some participation. So that after the war, you did find a desire on their part to vote, to become involved. And it was this feeling that brought about the contest of the Boswell Amendment and [they] began to demand the right to ride on buses, and began to demand the right to be seated where ever they wished, to be fed in restaurants, and other things that had been denied to them in the South. And even in other parts of the country – to say that I ran into this discrimination not only in the South but other parts of the nation as well. But this was a changed attitude on the part of the black in the South. And as a consequence, they did come to see myself and other people who were in government and asked us to try change laws or change conditions to bring about things that would be more in keeping with the democratic system of government where all people are recognized as human beings irregardless of race, creed, or any other differences that might be accidental.
McLaurin: I know that you suffered some repercussions, political repercussions, for supporting efforts of blacks to obtain equal pay for black teachers, and to obtain equal student loads for black teachers, and for opposing the second Boswell Amendment. I wish you would comment on that briefly.
Langan: Well after taking those stands, every race I ran of course – during the time of the debates Senator Perry and some of the others tried to bring in all types of questions concerning intermarriage and all kinds of things that were not really involved in the legal rights. These types of things were used continually. And every quote – the letter that I wrote to the bus company complaining about the discrimination and not riding blacks on the buses when the buses were loaded, all of these things were reproduced many, many times over. My answers on the floor of the senate that God created every human being as an equal and therefore, that the Negroes had rights, any time that I had made any quote upholding the rights [of] Negroes to equal protection under the law as our constitution guarantees to every American citizen, well all of these things were used in handbills and in advertisements. And many of them quoted out of text and used to even raise greater racial hatred and prejudices in the political races that I was involved in. So that every race, and of course I was defeated in my race for re-election to the senate, and that was practically the sole criteria, or you might say the sole issue of the campaign, was the fact that Joe Langan was a "nigger lover" and therefore, should not be elected.
McLaurin: [Was that '49?]
Langan: That was in the forty – well it would be in 1950, the 1950 election. And then of course I say I served in the army again for two years, came back and ran for the city commission and was successful. But in each city race after that, the race issue became the major issue. And even though in debates with my opponent in [the] 1969 city commission race, he said he was not going to use the race question, he immediately in the last week played up nothing but the race issue. And by the Negro people being threatened by the black militant leaders and not voting, it made the difference. And I lost that election by not having the support of the Negro population of the community. And yet the white people who were prejudice minded, were taken away from me through the prejudice and hate literature, and ads, and television, and newspaper, and everything else that was put out.
McLaurin: Mr. Langan you were born and raised in the South and yet you adopted a, one wouldn't
say liberal position, but a humane position on the race issue. Why do you think you
did and so many, many southern leaders never did? And yet, they were raised and educated,
grew up in the same culture that you grew up in. Do you have any answer to that
Langan: Well, I would imagine its a part of growing up or was a part of growing up because I as a young person in Mobile was subjected to all the racial prejudices that everyone else was and the doctrines. And [I] felt many of the same feelings possibly toward the black people in Mobile even though as I say, I had black people living in the same neighborhood with me. As boys, we played together. But there was a racial prejudice there. There were certain things that were proper and certain things that weren't proper in our relationships. And that's the way we felt about it. But during World War II, serving with black people, seeing them wounded, seeing many of them giving up their life for our nation, beginning to really look at some of the basic principles of life and what it's all about, and the fact that we are creatures of God and that God created all men equal and created us all with the same rights, I could not as a Christian really consider any person to be less entitled to anything in life than I was entitled to. So as I became deeper convinced of my Christian heritage and the fact of my beliefs and convinced of Christ and his teachings, there could be no other answer. I could not as a logical person and by trade being a lawyer. I had to think through things to their logical conclusions. So therefore, if God did create all people equal, and if he did teach us to love one another, and through the parable of the Good Samaritan and others tried to teach us respect for all people no matter who they are, well then, it was nothing more than logical that every human being whether they be black or white was entitled to the same rights. So when I came out of the service in 1946, I came out deeply convinced that every person who had served in our nation to protect our nation possibly giving up his life, that he was certainly entitled to every right as an American citizen. And looking at it from a Christian standpoint, I owe to him the [deepest]....
[End of tape.]