Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Mark StricherzSeptember 22, 2008

In his native western Pennsylvania, he is still remembered in the homes of the silent and greatest generations. The mention of his name provokes a slight nod of the head, a dart of the eyes and a faint smile. When Pittsburgh officials named the city’s new convention center in his honor several years ago, they had in mind fond remembrances like these.

He was known in the region as Mr. Democrat (or, to his detractors, King David or David the King.) Outside of it, he went by other names, including “kingmaker” and “maker of presidents.” In August 1964, The New York Times called him “a convention pro,” while a Harper’s cover story called him “the man to watch at the Democratic convention,” describing his roles in choosing the last four Democratic presidential nominees.

Yet after his death in November 1966, his name was reduced to a historical footnote, one confused with another David Lawrence of mid-century American public life, a conservative columnist and writer for U.S. News & World Report. The national reputation of David Leo Lawrence fell into eclipse. No statues or monuments were built to him; no portraits or paintings of him adorned the halls of Congress or the White House; no academic papers or seminars were devoted to his political legacy. His accomplishments were reduced to his official public titles: mayor of Pittsburgh (1945-58) and governor of Pennsylvania (1959-63).

Lawrence’s obscurity is understandable in some ways. He was not born into wealth—his father was a manual laborer and ward politician and his mother a homemaker—and he died with only $110,000 to his name. His looks were not memorable; he wore a dark Beau Brummel-style suit at work and rimless glasses. His children did not carry on his political legacy; two of his young sons were killed in a car accident and another son became a businessman. And his political type, the big-city and state boss, is remembered as crude and corrupt, not moral and pragmatic.

Yet a lack of appreciation for Lawrence’s legacy says more about us than him. This Irish-Catholic political boss laid the electoral and legislative groundwork for Barack Obama’s nomination. As the longtime leader of the Pennsylvania delegation and as a Democratic national committeeman, he played a major role in keeping African-Americans in the Democratic coalition and extending civil rights protections to them. To forget Lawrence is to forget the political and public virtues he embodied.

Lawrence’s Legacy

David L. Lawrence faced two great challenges in keeping African-Americans in the Democratic coalition. His first challenge took place in 1948. At the Democratic convention that year, the delegates had approved a strong civil rights plank, which called on the national party to support efforts to outlaw lynching and the poll tax, abolish segregation in the military and create a permanent commission to eliminate discrimination in hiring. The vote required Lawrence and other northern bosses to undertake a unique political juggling act: to win the votes of three key Democratic constituencies—African-Americans, white Southerners and citizen-intellectuals.

The future of the Roosevelt coalition was in jeopardy. As Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, the co-author of the plank, said, the measure “might tear the party apart.” If the plank were rejected, many African-Americans might bolt from the party and join the Republican Party, which at its convention in June had approved a similar civil rights plank; and many activist-intellectuals threatened to flock to Henry Wallace, who was mounting an alternative bid on the Progressive ticket. If the plank were adopted, Southern governors Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Ben Laney of Arkansas threatened to bolt from the convention and form a Dixiecrat party.

Lawrence’s second great challenge took place in 1964. Three months before that year’s Democratic convention, African-American Mississippi Democrats had formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The M.F.D.P. drew up a petition to the Democratic National Committee in which they demanded that their 68 delegates be seated at the national convention in Atlantic City. Like the vote over the strong civil rights plank, the petition required the northern bosses to broker a deal among three main forces—the M.F.D.P., the all-white regular Mississippi delegation and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The future of civil rights legislation was in doubt. The all-white Mississippi delegation threatened to walk out if the M.F.D.P. were seated. Johnson believed that his efforts to pass his civil rights and Great Society legislation by majority-proof margins in Congress would be doomed if it walked out. If the M.F.D.P. were not seated, the party’s liberals would have enough support to bring the issue up for a vote before the whole convention, which would bring embarrassing media attention.

A Change of Heart

David L. Lawrence was not always a supporter of civil rights for African-Americans. In the 1930s, he opposed an African-American man for a top state position on the grounds that white voters would resent the appointment. His change of heart on the issue was likely due to moral and political considerations. Lawrence’s beloved mother once said that she raised her four children not only to continue their Catholic faith and learn a trade, but also to be moral. After befriending an African-American Pittsburgh political official, Lawrence broadened his definition of morality to include civil rights for African-Americans. Ten days before the 1948 Democratic convention opened, an ad appeared in The New York Times that listed 50 prominent Democrats who had signed a moral declaration on behalf of the strong civil rights plank. Among the names listed was Lawrence’s. In the early 1960s, Lawrence addressed an annual conference of the National Urban League: “In civil rights, the government of this country has an immediate duty, one which will affect not only our material might but our moral right as well. No nation as committed to freedom, democracy, and liberty as we are, can long fight its enemies without first living what it is protecting.”

Lawrence also recognized that as millions of Southern African-Americans began migrating northward in the early 1940s, African-Americans were an increasingly powerful constituency in the northern cities. As Pennsylvania Sen. Francis Myers, a Lawrence confidant, was informed in a confidential May 1948 memo, “In Philadelphia alone, according to the latest registration, there are 156 thousand Negro registered voters. This sum is growing yearly.”

What made Lawrence a great advocate for African-Americans was not only his moral and political motivations, but also his skills as a negotiator. Take his accomplishments in 1946: Lawrence mediated a 115-day Westinghouse strike, a 53-day hotel strike, a 27-day lights-out power strike, a 26-day steel strike and a jurisdictional dispute over local breweries between the Teamsters and the local C.I.O.

His skills endeared him to Democratic leaders. As President Johnson told assistant attorney general Burke Marshall, who considered appointing Lawrence as the head of a commission to examine the deaths of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, “The South likes David Lawrence. They respect him. Every one of them: the Dick Russells, the Lyndon Johnsons—everybody that he was against. He’s never been for us. I mean, he was strong for Jack Kennedy against Lyndon Johnson. But he does it in such a way that you respect him, you like him.”

At the 1948 Convention

To win approval for the strong civil rights plank at the 1948 convention, Lawrence did two things. First, he refused to antagonize opponents of the plank. The opponents included Senator Myers, the co-chairman of the platform committee that had rejected the plank. Around midnight on the second day of the convention, Lawrence, the 59-year-old mayor of Pittsburgh, convened a meeting of the Pennsylvania delegation. Faced with a divided and grumpy delegation, he played it safe. Rather than ask for a roll call or head count, he discussed the importance of showing up at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall at 11 a.m. Many planks will be important “to us in Pennsylvania,” Lawrence told the delegates. “Such as what the platform says about civil rights, the Taft-Hartley Labor law and Palestine. The Palestine question will be particularly important in our large centers where there is a big Jewish vote. And some Southerner,” he added, alluding to the strong civil rights plank, “might want to poll the delegation, so you’d better be there to answer.” The delegates applauded.

The second thing Lawrence did was to lobby behind closed doors. According to Frank N. Matthews, a longtime political reporter for the Pittsburgh Gazette, Lawrence and other state party leaders convinced Senator Myers to drop his opposition to the strong civil rights plank. If anything, Matthews’s account understates Lawrence’s role. In the words of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Lawrence was the “dominant factor” in the state delegation.

Whatever his role, the Pennsylvania delegation provided the crucial support for the civil rights plank. Delegations from the Plains, rural New England, mid-Atlantic, Mountain West and Southern-state parties had opposed the plank almost unanimously. When it came time for Pennsylvania to vote, the resolution was trailing. “Pennsylvania casts 74 votes aye!” shouted one delegation member. The plank was ahead, and it never trailed again. The final vote for the resolution was 6511/2 to 5811/2. Had Senator Myers succeeded in peeling off only 36 of the delegation’s 74 votes, the plank would have failed.

The 1964 Dispute

To help settle the dispute over the seating of the Mississippi delegation at the 1964 convention, Lawrence, it seems likely, came up with an ingenious idea: the Democratic Party would create a national commission to ensure that African-American voters were not discriminated against in choosing the party’s presidential delegates. Unlike the case 16 years earlier, Lawrence’s power did not derive from his status as the boss of the Pennsylvania delegation. Rather, it came from his chairmanship of the credentials committee, the 110-member panel that either could reject the M.F.D.P.’s bid or require the whole convention to vote on whether the African-American delegation should be seated.

On the convention’s second morning, Lawrence went to a ninth-floor suite in the Shelburne Hotel, where Minnesota’s Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, the labor leader Walter Reuther, Senator Walter Mondale and other leading Democrats were working on the settlement. Over breakfast, one of the men made a suggestion: create a national commission to ensure that state parties did not discriminate against African-Americans in the future. When Humphrey and Reuther called Johnson at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Johnson asked for Lawrence’s view of the proposal. “He’s 100 percent!” Humphrey told Johnson. Reuther added, “We had breakfast this morning where we worked out this proposition, and he’s enthusiastic for it.”

The likely author of this proposal was Lawrence. After his tenure as governor ended in 1963, he was appointed by President Kennedy to head the Commission on Equal Opportunity in Housing; the panel examined claims that African-Americans had been discriminated against in government-subsidized housing. Lawrence thought the national party should take a stronger stand against Southern-state parties.

If it was his proposal, Lawrence played a key role in settling the Mississippi dispute. According to Godfrey Sperling of The Christian Science Monitor, the commission proposal was decisive in bridging the settlement: “[T]his was a ‘sweetening’ that satisfied enough liberals on both the credentials committee and among the delegates to make it impossible for the Freedom Party to get the numerical support needed to put forward a minority report on the floor.”

The Role of Party Bosses

David L. Lawrence’s accomplishments in the field of civil rights should not be overstated. African-Americans would have emerged as an important political constituency regardless of whether they allied with the Democrats or the Republicans. Also, Lawrence was not the only northern Catholic boss who whacked his delegation into line for the strong civil rights plank in 1948. John Bailey convinced all 20 of his Connecticut delegates to back the plank; Frank Hague of Jersey City successfully lobbied all 36 of his New Jersey delegates; Edward Flynn’s New York delegation cast all 98 of its votes for the plank. Yet the accomplishments of these northern Catholic bosses have been ignored by historians and scholars. John T. McGreevy’s otherwise first-rate Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North, for example, does not mention the role these Democratic bosses played.

Politicians who worked with them knew better. In his 1976 autobiography The Education of a Public Man, Hubert H. Humphrey wrote: “As I came to know the party bosses better, I found that they agreed with the spirit, the principle, the rightness of our plank. They reflected, and our victory reflected, a deep current running in the party and in the country that would make the next quarter century one filled with turmoil and triumph.” Humphrey got that right.

The passage of the strong civil rights plank at the 1948 convention altered the balance of power within the Roosevelt coalition. The “solid South” began to dissolve. In the four elections before 1948, roughly three-quarters of white Southerners voted for the Democratic presidential candidate; in the five elections from 1948 to 1964, only about half did. The party needed to look for other sources of support, and it found them in the votes of Northern African-Americans.

The settlement at the 1964 convention was, as Lawrence said at the time, a “turning point in the history of the Democratic Party” in two ways. First, President Johnson passed his civil rights and Great Society legislation with significant support from white Southern Democrats. Second, the Democratic Party had committed itself to a new goal: its presidential nominating system in the South would be democratized. Lawrence was named chairman of the 18-member commission, which became known as the Lawrence Commission. This prototypical postwar boss helped to destroy the boss system. Today it is not possible to imagine the presidential nomination of Sen. Barack Obama, an African-American politician from Illinois, without those developments having taken place.

Listen to an interview with Mark Stricherz.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

In this episode of “Inside the Vatican,” hosts Colleen Dulle and Gerard O’Connell bring you inside the G7 summit and Pope Francis' meeting with comedians.
Inside the VaticanJune 20, 2024
A Homily for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinJune 20, 2024
Pope Francis and a nine member Council of Cardinals heard presentations from women experts on the role of women in the church through the lens of canon law.
Ultimately, it is up to each of us to prayerfully discern the individual contribution we can make. Guided by our faith and Catholic social teaching, we can do our part to support a just peace in Israel-Palestine.