Palmer Weber, 1914-1986
By Patricia Sullivan
Vol. 8, No. 6, 1986, pp. 5-7
In 1948, Palmer Weber and Louis Burnham organized Henry Wallace’s third party campaign in the South. Building on earlier voter registration and education efforts, the Southern campaign focused primarily on the issue of civil rights. Wallace’s Progressive Party also challenged the segregation system and culminated with his tour of the region in the fall of 1948. Despite a violent reception, Wallace campaigned in seven Southern states and was the first presidential candidate to address nonsegregated audiences in the South. On election day, the Progressive Party suffered a disastrous defeat at the polls, but “defeat” was not an operative word for Palmer Weber. A year after the election, he wrote to Wallace praising his enormous courage during his Southern tour, “which gave profound heart to all the oppressed elements in the South.” He chided those who would lose hope: “The mere fact that the battle continues, that we get tired and discouraged is no proper measure of accomplishment. We have no right to even stop so long as one person’s rights are not fully sustained. This is the most simple and accurate moral principal which has sustained you and your leadership.”
Continuing effort on behalf of political, economic and social justice was the leitmotiv of Palmer Weber’s life. It was a life that incorporated a wide variety of experiences and associations, accented with good cheer and enormous generosity of spirit. Palmer often referred to himself as “an accumulation of accidents.” But there was a simplicity of purpose and steady determination that shaped his sojourn. Palmer’s creative participation in the major reform movements of the twentieth century will be remembered by historians. The significance of this life, however, speaks of a man who mastered the art of living.
Palmer Weber was born in 1914 in Smithfield, Va., a small rural town on the James River. Diagnosed at the age of twelve as having tuberculosis, he was sent to the Blue Ridge Sanitorium outside Charlottesville. Palmer remembered this as “a fabulous piece of luck.” While selling newspapers on the wards of the sanitorium he met a variety of adults who undertook to educate him. They included socialists, Gandhiites, Baptist ministers–“a whole collection of people in the midst of dying and getting well, all of whom were concerned about the state of the human soul, the state of economics and politics.” Palmer was reaing Foreign Affairs and Current History at the age of thirteen. He read the first volumes of Plato’s Dialogues, the Buddhist Sutras, and Gandhi’s Young India. It was, he recalled, “a magic mountain type of experience where you had a continual dialogue going on.” At seventeen he enrolled in the University of Virginia with a determination to study philosophy knowing that he “wanted to be a wise man, a good man an ethical man.”
Palmer came to the University on scholarship and to maintain it worked diligently to stay at the head of his
class. He succeeded in doing so not only in philosophy, but in economics, mathematics, Greek, and biology as well. Virginius Dabney’s history of the University of Virginia describes Palmer as probably the most brilliant student at Virginia during the 1930s. In addition to his studies, he immersed himself in student politics. He was, he recalled, “a Christian-Socialist, Buddhist, Ghandi type person…any kind of variation where it was a questioning of authority or where an effort was made to bring justice.” Palmer organized the Marxist study group, joined in establishing a branch of the National Student League at the University, and successfully led a challenge to fraternity control of student government. His political activities also addressed the broader concerns of race and class stirred by the depression. He helped to organized a union for hospital workers at the University hospital, and worked as a labor organizer at a local textile mill. From the beginning, civil rights was central to Palmer’s political concerns. He raised money for the Scottsboro defendants and campaigned for the admission of Alice Jackson, a black woman, to the University of Virginia. The Jackson case marked the beginning of the NAACP’s twenty-year legal battle for school desegration, culminating in Brown v. Board of Education. In his column for the student newspaper, Palmer called for federal legislation against lynching, decrying the South’s “decades long violation of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution.” By the time he was awarded his Ph.D., it was not surprising that this most brilliant student was unable to obtain a teaching position in a Southern university.
Undeterred, Palmer Weber found his way to Washington where he worked as an economic advisor to several Congressional committees, and wrote speeches for a number of Senators. Palmer embraced the New Deal as a reaffirmation of national citizenship rights and found opportunities to try and implement his social ideas. He organized a legislative campaign to abolish the poll tax, lobbied for the continuation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (which prohibited racially discriminatory hiring practices in defense industries), and led the fight for a Soldiers’ Vote Bill. When it became clear that conservatives in Congress could effectively block all New Deal legislation, Palmer joined the newly established CIO-Political Action Committee. In addition to working for the election of New Deal candidates, this first national PAC concentrated on strengthening the New Deal coalition through a nationwide voter registration effort. Largely due to Palmer’s initiative, the CIO-PAC coordinated its effort with the NAACP, in what became the most ambitious voter registration drive in the South up to that time. From 1944 to 1948 the number of registered black voters in the South tripled. In 1946 Palmer became the first Southern white man to serve on the National Board of the NAACP.
In an article on “The Negro Vote in the South,” written while still a student at the University of Virginia, Palmer observed that reform “lost its most valuable ally, when the Negro was denied active citizenship. Equal access to the ballot, Palmer believed, was essential to securing a more just society, and he dedicated himself to that struggle. His commitment and unique abilities helped shape the early civil rights movement. Virginia Durr, who first worked with Palmer in the anti-poll tax fight, recalls: “Palmer could get hold of something, organize it and set it into motion, action, and people began to develop around it. Palmer was the moving spirit behind eveyone else. He was full of vitality and able to attract people. The essential thing was that he had such a burning desire to get this thing done, to get the people in the South the right to vote, and to end the segregation system.”
Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign in the South was a continuation of the New Deal-inspired movement to open up the political process to the region to whites and blacks. Palmer Weber co-directed Wallace’s southern effort along with Louis Burnham. Looking back on that campaign thirty years later,
Palmer recalled, “if there was one thing the Progressive Party did positively and effectively in the South it was to challenge the segregation system everywhere–in public facilities, public speaking, blacks running for public office. In every city we conducted registration drives to register black voters. For example, in Greensboro, N.C., at AT College we managed to have about thirty-five black students. They qualified three thousand black voters and the next year they elected the first black city councilman since Reconstruction. Randolph Blackwell ran that campaign.”
For Blackwell, his association with Palmer Weber in the 1948 Wallace campaign helped shape his life-long commitment to advancing economic and political justice. Blackwell remembered, “Palmer had as much influence on my professional development as anybody. We were always delighted when Palmer would come to North Carolina AT during the ’48 campaign. He had a great influence on those of us whose lives he touched to dedicate ourselves to the task of ridding the society of racial discrimination.” (After completing a law degree at Howard, and several years of teaching, Randolph Blackwell went on to work with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1966 he founded Southern Rural Action, a non-profit corporation dedicated to helping small, poor and mostly black communities in the South become self-reliant economically and politically).
The Progressive Party campaign was also the culmination of the New Deal-inspired movement for economic justice and political reform in the South. During the 1950s, Palmer, like so many others, was subject to Congressional investigation of his political beliefs. As organizations and individuals collapsed in the face of McCarthyism, Palmer Weber and his compatriots from the Southern Conference for Human Welfare defended basic civil liberties. He and Clark Foreman helped found the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. In 1954, Virginia Durr, Jim Dombrowski, Myles Horton, and Aubrey Williams drew national attention when they defied Senator Eastland during his hearings on “subversive activities” in the South. Palmer praised their heroic behavior which he likened to a blood transfusion. “How wonderful you have made it to be Southern again!” He then went on to strategize on how they might “maintain and also spread out the pattern of moral resistance which you five established in New Orleans.”
These early opponents to racial discrimination recognized the obvious–that without securing the liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, the civil rights movement had no foundation. Palmer’s old friend, NAACP counsel and strategist Charles Houston, echoed this sentiment in response to President Truman’s loyalty program. “The only way I can make sure of my own liberty of action and freedom to agitate for what I believe to be right is to fight for the liberty of action and freedom to agitate for every man.” Wall Street, which prized financial acumen over “loyalty” tests, enabled Palmer to make a living for his family. He used that base during the 1960s to organize Businessmen against the War in Vietnam. And helped raise over $2 million on behalf of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign.
Returning to his home state of Virginia in the 1970s, Palmer turned his attention again to voting rights. Equal participation in the political process had yet to be realized in many black communities throughout the South. Often, at-large systems of voting continue to inhibit black political representation. Following the renewal and strengthening of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, the Virginia ACLU affiliate began a legal challenge to at-large districts throughout the state. Palmer Weber and Leonard Dreyfus generously supported this effort and Palmer helped raise additional financial backing. Thus far, the Virginia ACLU has won every case it has filed. Early this past summer, Palmer convened a meeting of state and national officials of the ACLU to plan a long-term campaign which would implement the Virginia strategy throughout the South. Chan Kendrick, director of the Virginia ACLU, recalled that Palmer was one of the few people who had a sense of how much work still needed to be done. The civil rights movement of the 1960s had eliminated the most blatant forms of legalized discrimination. Full political participation, however, has yet to be realized and remains essential to securing full citizenship. As an organizer during the 1930s and 1940s, Palmer learned that the battle for political and economic justice required continuous, systematic effort.
Palmer commented shortly before his death that “Justice” was a key word for him, much as it was in Plato’s Republic. He asked, “What is your responsibility as a citizen to see to it that the body politic embodies justice?” Palmer spent a lifetime considering this problem and acting on it. He greeted the efforts of others engaged in its pursuit with great enthusiasm and generous support. All the while he was a master teacher, conducting a “floating seminar.” Nearly forty years ago, Palmer commended Henry Wallace “for not faltering on the simple principle of human rights which is not so simple after all, considering it underlies the American revolution of 1776 and the whole panorama of colonial movements throughout the world today.” During a half century of political activism, Palmer Weber never faltered.
Patricia Sullivan is associate director of the Center for the Study of Civil Rights and Lecturer in History, University of Virginia.