This year is full of important political anniversaries — 50 years since the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Had a Dream” speech; 45 years since both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; 45 years since the riots in Chicago during the ’68 Democratic National Convention. These dramatic events helped shape the political conscience of many Americans, including me. But a special anniversary date for Montanans was on Jan 12, which was the 35th anniversary of the passing of Montana Senator Lee Metcalf.
That moment in 1978 is seared into my memory. My friend Michael and I were driving near Bozeman, working on Pat Williams’ Door-to-Door for Congress campaign. Suddenly a radio voice declared that Sen. Lee Metcalf had passed away. I pulled the car to the side of the road. We sat in stunned silence. How could it be? This giant was only 66 years old. Who could possibly replace him as the people’s champion? Perhaps Pat Williams would fill the bill. But there was an unbelievably huge pair of empty political shoes to be filled.
Who is Montana’s Lee Metcalf? More than a name on the annual Democratic Mansfield/Metcalf dinner, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness or the Metcalf Wildlife Refuge, Lee Metcalf had a record of remarkable achievement — measured by the people he fought for … and those he fought against. Historically, Montanans have had a strong streak of populism, and in that Montana tradition, Lee Metcalf fought for the little people … and against the big and the powerful.
The record is clear, Lee Metcalf was a giant for everyday workers and for organized labor … a giant for education. He was a giant for clean air, safe water, free-flowing streams ... a giant for public lands and for wilderness. Montana’s Lee Metcalf was a giant for Native Americans and a giant for health care. He was a giant for consumer rights … women’s rights and for civil rights — in a very big way for civil rights.
A Stevensville native, Lee Metcalf, after a brief stop at UM, attended and graduated from Stanford University. After UM Law School, he was elected to the Montana Legislature at age 25. After time as assistant state attorney general and his World War II service, Montana’s Lee Metcalf was elected to the state Supreme Court at age 35, to Congress at 41 and to the US Senate at 49.
And through it all, Montana’s Lee Metcalf was fighting. In the state Legislature he was fighting for the little people when he pushed for a minimum wage. He fought against the giant Anaconda Copper Company when he battled to force mining companies to pay miners for the actual time they were underground in the mines, not just paying them until the shift whistle blew. And he carried that fight for the little people — for the powerless — when he went to the Congress and then to the Senate.
For a quick perspective of this remarkable man, go to YouTube and type in “Remembering Lee Metcalf” where you will see a short biographical film that I produced back in 1996.
Among other things, the film tells of the critical, but little known, role Montana’s Lee Metcalf played in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
One of the first to welcome Lee to the Senate was Hubert Humphrey. Over the years Metcalf and Humphrey formed a close friendship and a nearly unbeatable political partnership. Their greatest triumph was the Civil Rights Bill. As Senate progressives, led by Humphrey, readied the bill for what would be a very close vote on the floor of the Senate, a group of intransigent senators, mostly from the South, planned a series of parliamentary maneuvers to kill the Civil Rights Bill. Earlier, Mike Mansfield had asked Lee to serve as temporary president pro tem of the Senate. That meant Lee would chair the floor debate over the Civil Rights Bill. As expected, the conservatives threw up parliamentary roadblock after roadblock, but Lee, from his position in the chair, judiciously steered the debate around every attempted delay. The historic bill passed and became one of America’s most important laws. “Metcalf has stripped us of any parliamentary strategy,” said one frustrated opposition senator. “That man was the Civil Rights Bill’s secret weapon.”
So this year, when we think of political anniversaries, of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and of civil rights, we can also remember a strong-willed Montanan who made a real difference for millions of little people who had a just cause, but little political power. That’s one of the things Jan. 12, 2013 reminded me of.
Again, go to YouTube for “Remembering Lee Metcalf” and learn more of this important Montanan.
(Evan Barrett, Butte, is director of business and community outreach and instructor at Highlands College of Montana Tech. He has spent the last 44 years at the top level of Montana economic development, government, politics, and education.)