McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

Local News

July 8, 2014

The Rev. Wade Watts, Congressman Carl Albert helped pave way for civil rights

McALESTER — Fifty years ago this month President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the landmark Civil  Rights Act of 1964 —and two McAlester residents were among those who helped push the civil rights movement along.

The late Rev. Wade Watts and former U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert were both involved in helping advance civil rights —and both at personal risk.

Watts marched in Selma, Alabama alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in March 1965. The three marches are credited with helping achieve passage of Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Albert, the McAlester Democrat who served as House majority leader in 1964, helped line up southern Democratic House votes that were needed at the time to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Both men now have streets in McAlester named in their honor — Carl Albert Parkway and Wade Watts Avenue.

Both are honored in another way —Albert by a statue in Chadick  Park as well as by a bust outside the Carl Albert Federal Building.

A memorial to Watts is in place at the bottom of Wade Watts Avenue, close to the U.S. Highway 69 Bypass.

Although there were threats of violence —and plenty of actual violence at the time — Watts did not let that deter him from participating in the civil rights movement.

Before embarking on the Selma-to-Montgomery march with King and others in March 1965, Watts first learned the “protective crouch” — how to crouch and protect his head with his hands and press his knees against his chest to protect his abdomen, to be ready if beatings were administered by Alabama police or local thugs opposed to the movement.

Inspired by Mahatma Ghandi who used non-violent protests to free India from rule by the British, King’s philosophy called for non-violent protests, so he encouraged those with him in the movement not to fight back when attacked.

The threat of violence didn’t thwart Watts, though. He didn’t let it keep him away from the cause in which he believed.

Watts, who pastored the New Jerusalem Church in McAlester, continued to champion civil rights in a number of ways, including serving as state president of the NAACP from 1968 to 1984. He died in 1998.

In Albert’s  autobiography “Little Giant,” co-written with Danney Goble, Albert spoke of how he and other lawmakers had worked in 1963 and 1964 to help make sure a strengthened civil rights measure would be presented first to the U.S. House and then to the U.S. Senate.

Albert told of a meeting that he, along with then-House Speaker John McCormack, House Committee Chairman Emmanuel Celler, of New York, and several rank-and-file House members, including both Democrats and Republicans, went to the White House in 1963 to convince President John F. Kennedy to support a stronger civil rights bill, already put together by a house subcommittee, than the one the president initially supported.

“Late into the night we argued with the president for the subcommittee’s version,” Albert wrote in his book. “It was the right thing to do, it was the right time to do it and we believed we could pass it.”

President Kennedy made his fateful trip to Dallas in November 1963 before the bill passed. However, after Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson made passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a priority, and Albert helped get the Democratic House votes that ensured its passage.

As usual, Albert won re-election in what was then the Third Congressional District when his term for office came up again.

He went on to serve as U.S. House Speaker during the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Albert, who died in February 2000, sometimes spoke of his work to help pass legislation leading to great civil rights for Americans.

“He considered that one of his major accomplishments,” said Sara Lane, who had served for years as Albert’s  office representative in McAlester.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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