HISTORY | CIVIL RIGHTS | RACE
A Question of ‘Cojones’ — Lottie Watkins, Congress, and Two Black Boys from SW Atlanta
In the time before Stacey Abrams, having them had nothing to do with the accident of maleness.
When we talk about cojones, what we’re really talking about is courage. Not giving in to fear. We’re all afraid sometimes, but people with courage feel the fear and do the scary thing anyway. This is not an abstract point to be debated. Sooner or later, a dragon of one kind or another will appear in everyone’s life. Most will run away and hide. A few others will grow a pair. Here’s a story about one of them.
Once upon a time, two boys rounded the corner of an Atlanta neighborhood looking just like other Black kids in this part of town — except for one thing. They wore suit jackets and neckties. A dead giveaway for Catholic school. Standing up when the teacher enters. Remaining quiet until called upon. Prayers to begin the day. Prayers at the noonday Angelus bell. Tuition your working-class parents scrape together every month.
Why? Because public schools in Georgia are still segregated. And the parents of these two boys think they’ll probably have a better shot with the nuns and priests five miles from where they live. Even though several public schools are within walking distance.
The two boys are vaguely aware of what’s being done for them. And also of the white people on TV shouting at small Black kids in other cities who are trying to enter school houses with the help of federal marshals. They’re also aware of the fire hoses, billy clubs, and attack dogs unleashed on Martin Luther King, Jr., and his supporters.
But mostly these two boys care about girls. At 13 and 14, they want to know how to kiss them. Whether to slide the tongue in or wait for the girl to do it first. There is the question of breathing. Correct pressure. How best to know when a girl will actually let you kiss her. And whether she can get pregnant if one of those pesky, unpredictable lumps appears behind your zipper.
Somewhere around the tongue-kissing part of this discussion, a car rounds the corner and begins to follow them. They don’t pay much attention until a woman rolls down the window and calls out.
“You boys want to earn some money?”
It’s a strange proposition. Especially on this tree-lined street where everyone is a homeowner. The neighborhood used to be exclusively white but is now entirely black. A day is coming when people will equate this racial alteration with decline. But on this particular sunny autumn afternoon, that is not the case.
If anything, the streets here look better than when white folks owned these properties. Everyone is grateful. Each family has a story about the particular miracle that made it possible to live here. When it comes to pride of ownership, it’s as if some unspoken competition is underway. The houses are painted, the lawns manicured, and the azaleas trimmed.
The light this time of day finds its way past a lacy filter of maple, spreading oaks, and pine. You know right away from the setting why the neighborhood’s official name is Mozley Park. Most of the addresses on this street belong to modest craftsman-style homes with slatted wooden swings suspended by chains from the front-porch ceiling. The third house down Mozley Place — number 1532 — is where the boys live. When they open the front door, a fresh-cooked meal will be waiting.
The woman who calls out to them from the car turns out to be real estate agent Lottie Watkins, a neighbor who is also the mother of a schoolmate.
Except for the odd lawn-mowing or car-washing gig for their parents’ friends, neither of these boys has ever had a job.
“You see all these brochures I’ve got in the back seat? I need someone to deliver one to every home in the district. Some young fellas around here might throw them in the garbage or down the sewer and still try to get paid. But the stakes are too high. I need boys I can trust.”
She holds up a flyer.
“We’re going to try to get this white man elected to Congress,” Mrs. Watkins says. “He’s promised to help the Negro when he gets there. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how important that is. You think I can trust you boys to do this job right?”
Southern white aristocrats
A few days later, the boys ring the bell of Mrs. Watkins’ turquoise-colored house on Mathewson Place, roughly a block and a half away. About two dozen adults are already inside when the boys arrive. One of them points to several boxes on the family room floor. The boys fill their backpacks with the contents — brochures touting Charles Longstreet Weltner for Congress.
They sling the backpacks over their shoulders and are about to leave just as Weltner arrives. He shakes their hands and thanks them for being willing to work on his campaign. Weltner is the only white person in the room.
One of the adults taps the older boy on the shoulder. “Okay, you fellas can go now.”
“No, let them stay,” Weltner says. “This is really about them. They need to hear.”
What the boys hear as they sit in a crowded room trying to look as grownup as possible is that Charles Longstreet Weltner is in favor of Civil Rights. He says he’s going to fight for that if elected to Congress.
Weltner, it turns out, is a patrician white Southerner. His father had been Chancellor of the University System of Georgia and president of Oglethorpe University. His great-great grandfather, Joseph L. Lumpkin, was a slave-owner who became the first Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. A great-grandfather, Gen. Thomas R. R. Cobb, helped write the Confederate Constitution and was killed at the battle of Fredericksburg.
Candidate Weltner got the middle name Longstreet from his maternal grandfather — a prominent banker who was both Trustee and Treasurer of the University of Georgia. Not from Confederate General James Longstreet, the controversial soldier who went from being Robert E. Lee’s right-hand man to supporting the Union, Ulysses S. Grant and Reconstruction. And yet…
“We must not remain bound to another lost cause.”
At the time of this meeting with Black folks in the home of Lottie Watkins, Charles Weltner is a 34-year-old lawyer with degrees from Oglethorpe and Columbia University Law School. From birth, he has been the beneficiary of rank, privilege, and a liberal education. Although the boys have been educated by white nuns and priests since first grade, this is the first time they have met a genuine Southern white aristocrat. A soft-spoken man with sincere eyes and a gentle manner. Butter wouldn’t melt.
White man speak with forked tongue
After a big push by both white and Black voters, Weltner is elected to Congress in November of 1962. In February of 1964, he is is one of 96 Southern Democrats who vote against the Civil Rights Bill.
Lottie Watkins is disappointed. So are lots of other Black folks, including the two boys who risked dog bites and slammed doors to distribute his brochures.
They remember how Weltner said he was in favor of civil rights at Lottie’s house. The boys had repeated this to strangers who stood in doorways or sat rocking on screened-in porches. There was every reason to believe him. Weltner had spoken out against the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls. He was in favor of the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate public schools.
But when it came time to vote, he equivocated and rationalized. Said he was still in favor of civil rights — just not this particular bill. Hearing this, the elder boy says, “White man speak with fork tongue. I don’t think I understood how the Indians feel until now.”
When the fat lady sings
After the Senate weighs in on the Civil Rights Bill, it’s sent back to the House of Representatives for a final vote. The disappointing Charles Weltner rises to address the chamber. He’s not a powerful man, does not have charisma, is not forceful. His genteel patrician voice does not fill the chamber with stentorian tones.
It is instead a quiet, halting voice that says: “We must not remain forever bound to another lost cause. Mr. Speaker, I shall cast my lot with the leadership of my community [Atlanta]. I shall cast my vote with the great cause they serve. I will add my voice to those who seek reasoned and conciliatory adjustment to a new reality.”
When the votes are counted, Weltner is the only member of Georgia’s congressional delegation to vote for the Civil Rights Bill — one of nine Southern Democrats out of 116 to do so.
Something happened between that first vote and the second. Charles Weltner crossed the Rubicon. And in doing so earned his cojones.
When you do something like that, it changes you.
Because talking is one thing. Acting is another. The following year, Weltner stood up again to support the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And when loudmouthed segregationist Lester Maddox was elected governor of Georgia, Weltner refused to sign a loyalty oath supporting him and declined to run for re-election.
“I love the Congress,” he said in a dramatic speech before the House of Representatives, “but I will give up my office before I give up my principles.” That move ended his political career.
Years later, in 1991, Charles Weltner received the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award. By this time, he had found a new life as Associate Justice (and eventually Chief Justice) of the Georgia Supreme Court where his slave-owning great-great grandfather served as Chief Justice more than a century earlier.
Can the sins of the father be reversed?
Everybody knows the old saw about the sins of the father getting passed on to the sons. But I wonder if it’s possible for karma to travel in both directions. If maybe the virtues of the son can redeem wrongs committed by previous generations.
Charles Longstreet Weltner died of cancer one year after receiving the Kennedy award. But before leaving the earth, he had evolved considerably since giving up his seat in Congress. He’d reached beyond his Confederate roots to become something congressional office cannot confer — his own man, a Self.
After Congress, Weltner wrote two books. Learned to speak Spanish and German. Earned a Master of Laws Degree from Virginia University and another masters from Columbia Theological Seminary.
The other members of the state Supreme Court referred to him in a published opinion as “our philologist.” And for good reason. At the time of his passing, Weltner was working on a doctoral dissertation in biblical studies at Trinity College, Dublin. As part of those studies he learned to read and write Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, Ethiopic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Syriac, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
Weltner’s obituary noted that he could sometimes be seen outside the state supreme court building speaking to recent immigrants in their native tongue. That is the Charles Weltner those two Black boys wanted to believe in back in the day. A man seeking to move beyond inherited privilege to make a difference in the lives of those without it. The lone Georgia Democrat whose vote helped change a nation.
He was not quite that man the night he met those two boys at Lottie’s. But he put his faith in something greater than the usual grasping after comfort and approval. And it changed him.
Lottie Watkins and those boys
The realtor who helped Weltner get to Congress continued her political involvement. The first Black woman in Atlanta to become a licensed real estate agent back in 1960, she delivered votes for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and numerous candidates for mayor and governor. In 1977, she won a seat in the Georgia State Legislature and remained a vital part of the city until her death in 2017 at age 98.
Eventually, those two boys would grow up to become men who must contend with their own dragons, as sooner or later everyone must. If it is slightly easier for them than for their parents and ancestors, surely the 1964 Civil Rights Bill had something to do with it. But it is also because of what they learned growing up during that special time when people like Weltner and Dr. King walked the streets of Atlanta and ate fried chicken at Paschals restaurant. When it was possible for a boy to see with his own eyes that you don’t get cojones because you’re born male. That has nothing to do with it. You get them by facing your fears.
These days, the boys are old enough to talk of something other than kissing girls when they get together by iPhone or on Zoom. On those occasions, as they reminisce about the past, they remember Lottie’s strength and determination. When the conversation inevitably turns to politics, this thought comes to mind: We could sure use someone like Charles Weltner now.
© 2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill. All Rights Reserved
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