Bittinger: Civil Rights In Vermont

Aug 20, 2013

It’s true that Vermont went through a period of racial and religious intolerance in the 1920’s and thirties with the Ku Klux Klan and eugenics - the highly controversial practice of selective breeding to rid the human race of so-called “defectives.”

Kake Walk, a minstrel show featuring blackface strutters, was part of the University of Vermont’s sanctioned school events until 1969. And even today, Vermont has a small African American population and is often called the second whitest state after Maine.

But Vermont was the first state to ban slavery in its Constitution and was home to Lucy Terry Prince of Guilford, a former slave who defended her property rights in court in 1785 - and won.

Turning to modern history, in 1955 then-Attorney General Robert T. Stafford ruled that any public accommodation that discriminated on the basis of “race, creed or color” would not be listed in state funded publications. And that was a first.

Massachusetts followed with a similar statute, but most states did not act until forced to do so by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And that would not have passed without Vermont’s Republican Senator George Aiken who crafted a way to gain Congressional support.

Senator Aiken was a rumpled, smiling wildflower farmer from the hills of Putney, whose political career began with his passionate talks about wildflowers to garden clubs in the state. He went on to become the 64th governor of Vermont before serving in the U.S. Senate for 34 years. Well known for working both side of the political aisle, Aiken, a Republican, had breakfast with Democrat leader Mike Mansfield on a daily basis.

Aiken did support desegregation. In terms of business, he wanted a strong Equal Employment Opportunity commission and equal access to employment. But he also defended private, personal rights.

To pass the Civil Rights Bill, Aiken suggested that the Mrs. Murphy’s who ran small boarding houses all over the country should be able to rent rooms to whomever they wanted. He justified this compromise as allowing Mrs. Murphy to decide whom to allow into her home, because the stranger at her door might be dangerous, inebriated or worse. Aiken did not want to force the landlady to admit a person who could be unreasonably intrusive and that permitting her to find a congenial tenant had “nothing to do with color or
gender.”

The final legislation did prohibit discrimination, but allowed some leeway if the building contained not more than five rooms for rent or hire and was actually occupied by the proprietor.

Thus ended the longest filibuster in history, cloture was achieved and the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Some in Vermont criticized Aiken’s compromise as offering only “near equality” to African Americans. But the ever practical Senator Aiken countered by insisting that, ‘it would be better to get three fourths of the legislation passed than get nothing at all.”