Within the vaults of the National Archives is William C. C. Claiborne's proclamation of December 1803, informing the residents of New Orleans that they were now citizens of the United States, courtesy of the Louisiana Purchase. The document's three columns of text—in English, French, and Spanish—reflected the region's diversity, while heralding the best real estate deal in American history. Claiborne, who had once been a member of Congress from Tennessee, later became Louisiana's first governor after it achieved statehood. He then served in the United States Senate until his death in 1817.
William C. C. Claiborne was not the only member of his family to serve in Congress. His brother, his uncle, and a nephew also served in the U.S. House of Representatives. But his most illustrious congressional relative was his great, great, great grandniece, Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne, whom the world would come to know as Lindy Boggs. She was one of Washington's most beloved and respected residents for seven decades until her death on July 27, 2013 at age ninety-seven. She was also the first woman elected to Congress from the Pelican State, the first woman to chair a major political party's national convention, and the first to serve as ambassador to the Vatican.
Lindy accompanied her newly-elected congressman husband Hale Boggs to Washington in 1941. The couple quickly became favorites of Speaker Sam Rayburn, who taught his protégés a profound respect for representative government, its institutions, and its symbol—the U.S. Capitol. The Boggses shared Rayburn's philosophy that politics is the art of compromise and his appreciation that members of Congress represent diverse constituencies with varying needs and different traditions.
Lady Bird Johnson once described her longtime friend Lindy as a significant figure in Washington's political life from the moment she hit town. She was "so suave and capable that she could get anybody to do anything simply by being so nice. You knew that she would come back and do as much or more for you sometime." During the 1964 presidential campaign, Lindy accompanied Mrs. Johnson on the Lady Bird Special train trip through the South. The following year, she helped launch Project Head Start. After Hale died in a plane crash while campaigning for a colleague in Alaska, Lindy was elected to succeed him in 1973. She represented New Orleans for eighteen years, using her considerable influence to curb discrimination against women and minorities.
Lindy was also a staunch supporter of history. She was, after all, a former U.S. history teacher. She joined the board of the Foundation for the National Archives at its creation, mindful that her prestige would give the fledgling organization credibility. She became the first woman to serve as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. She was instrumental in the creation of the House Historian's Office and the publication of the four-volume Encyclopedia of the United States Congress. It is fitting that the Congressional Women's Reading Room adjacent to the Rotunda in the Capitol bears her name.
Lindy went through life with a special blend of confidence, grace, and an extraordinary capacity to reach out to others. Her charming Southern accent and wide dimpled smile greeted everyone with genuine warmth and kindness. Her striking blue eyes focused intently on the person at hand, never straying in search of more important company. Each conversation inevitably revealed her lively but gentle wit.
My friendship with Lindy Boggs spanned more than thirty-five years. She advanced my professional endeavors at the LBJ Presidential Library and the National Archives, and she even participated in Humanities Texas's first teacher institute in 2004. I frequently encountered Lindy at social events, not only because she loved parties, but also because she knew that her presence was appreciated. She was the official gumbo taster at the Gillette family's annual Christmas party. My three sons have always remembered her special kindness to them in her home and ours.
I saw Lindy for the last time at a National Archives event on December 6, 2012. Although her steps were tentative, she made her way through the crowded reception without assistance. As we greeted each other, she playfully asked if I would marry her. My response was that of any happily married man who knew and loved her: "Yes, in a heartbeat."
M. L. G.
Upon the news of Lindy Boggs's passing, Raymond W. Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University and former historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, posted some reflections on his friendship with Lindy, including a passage of his journal from July 23, 1990, when she called him with an unusual request. The full article, "Memories of Congresswoman Lindy Boggs", is available on the Center's website.
On June 16, 2004, Lindy Boggs participated in a panel discussion on civil rights at the Humanities Texas “Institute on Congress and American History" for Texas high school history and government teachers. The following text is an excerpt from that discussion during which Lindy talked about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lady Bird Johnson, and the importance of teaching history.
I'm a child, of course, of Louisiana. I was born on the same plantation where my mother was born and my grandfather was born, and I was reared with a great many marvelous people, many of whom were black people whom I loved dearly and who really gave me the underpinnings, I think, of my desire to work with people, to be with people, to love people in every way. But the particular bill [the Voting Rights Act of 1965] that you're talking about is very interesting because Hale was in the leadership in the House. My grandmother, Florette Morrison, two of my aunts, my mother, and my two daughters were all at the house, and we were all badgering Hale on the fact that he had to make a speech for the bill the next day. And he was trying to quiet us, and he said, "Well, I'm going to vote for it, and that's about all that I can do. You can't push me into making a speech."
And then we all, again, told him how ridiculous that was, how awful that was, how dreadful it was. But at any rate, I was so disappointed that I didn't go to the House. There was no television coverage, of course, at that time. I didn't go to the House to listen to the debate because I was so disappointed that Hale wasn't going to make a speech. Suddenly, I began to get telephone calls, "Lindy, get over here. Hale's making the best speech of his life." And so he did, and it was a wonderful and a marvelous step forward. From then on, of course, we had made the leap.
So much of the trouble that we had with the Lady Bird Special [train was that] we had these groups who followed us around, and they'd appear at our various stops along the route and try to interrupt our sessions. And we got into one place—I think it was Charleston—where this man who was the leader of this group, he had a crutch, and when he put his crutch up in the air, that was the signal for everybody to start chanting and interrupting everything. And all the men on the platform got furious because this man was heckling Lady Bird. Finally she said, "Would you let me take care of this, please?" So she gets to the microphone and she says, "Alright, you've had your say. Now you let me have mine. And then when I'm finished you can start your hullabaloo again."
The men absolutely turned tail, walked away from the group. I think it was that kind of leadership that we all have to look to—Lady Bird's leadership, the leadership of many of the people who were supporting those who had to do the voting and stand up to it. But my background in the South goes back a very, very long way. We've just celebrated the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, and my ancestor, who was the youngest member ever admitted to the U.S. House of Representatives, was the first territorial governor. So, I'm a little worn out from the bicentennial year, as the only member of the family who has been in elected politics in the last few years. But it really gives you a sense of what we have to do in our country, how it has evolved, how the people in each generation have had to stand up to it, and particularly, I think, the real need for teachers who are immersed in the history of our country to lead the new generations of Americans.
I taught American history, but I was also the librarian, and they had a magnificent library that someone had given to this public school. And the enrichment of the lives of those students with the help of this magnificent library taught me that what teachers can really do is to infuse into their students this love of history, this interest in public affairs, and hopefully, taking an active part in public affairs themselves.
In the excerpt above, Lindy Boggs refers to the speech her husband Hale Boggs delivered to the U.S. House of Representatives on July 9, 1965, regarding his support of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Below is the full text of his speech, transcribed from the Congressional Record.
Mr. Chairman, I had not intended to talk at this stage of the debate. I am constrained to do so now only because of the remarks made just a moment ago by my distinguished colleague and dear friend, the gentleman from Louisiana [Joe D. Waggonner]. I love the State of Louisiana. It has been good to me beyond my due. And I love the South. I know it as well as any man in this body knows it. I am part and parcel of it, born and reared there; born in the great State of Mississippi and proud of it. I do not have to establish my southern background or ancestry. For whatever it may be worth, my great uncle—God rest his soul—surrendered the last Confederate Army in the field 6 weeks after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. And my grandfather served on the staff of Gen. Robert E. Lee throughout that bloody War Between the States.
I wish I could stand here as a man who loves my State, born and reared in the South, who has spent every year of his life in Louisiana since he was 5 years old, and say that there has not been discrimination, and agree with the gentleman from Louisiana. But unfortunately it is not so. In some areas of Louisiana, when a man has presented himself for the inviolate right to vote, he has been received as a fellow American and he has been registered to vote as he properly should be registered to vote, because to deny that right on the basis of race or creed is to deny a fundamental right of an American.
But there are other areas of Louisiana; there is one directly south of the great cosmopolitan, metropolitan city of New Orleans where out of about 3,000 Negro Americans less than 100 are registered to vote as American citizens.
There are other areas where less than 2 or 3 percent of the nonwhites are registered to vote. Can we say there has been no discrimination? Can we honestly say that from our hearts? I ask the gentleman that question. He knows it is not so.
In my congressional district—and God bless the people there—I have one parish, one county, if you will, in which over 90 percent of the Negro citizens are registered to vote, and the Negro citizenry constitutes a large percentage of the entire population. I have said to my fellow Louisianians in that parish: "Has this reduced the quality of government? Have the Negro citizens been less responsive than the white citizens? Have you had a harder time?" They have come back and they have said to me: "Congressman, we have crossed over that divide. We encouraged all of our citizens to vote and to register."
I am not being critical of anyone. I cannot be critical of my colleague from Louisiana whom I admire and who is my friend. Being born and reared a southerner, I know what these problems have been. I sympathize with them. I know what they are. I have lived with them. And I know that in the minds of many good, sincere people there has been a fear that if we made suffrage universal, as it most properly should be, there would be a decline in the caliber of our government. That fear has dominated the minds of good, God-fearing, decent Christian people. But that fear has been dissipated by experience. There are counties all over the South, in Georgia there are 37, in South Carolina there are at least 10 or more, in Alabama there are 4 or 5 where all are registered without any discrimination. As a matter of fact, Alabama is a good example. Take the county of Macon, in which the city of Tuskegee is located. There you have a situation where for some time the Negro citizens were not registered. There was stress and strain and, if my memory serves me correctly, there was talk about gerrymandering the boundaries of the city of Tuskegee, and even abandoning the county of Macon. The legislature in its wisdom did not do that. The Negro citizens were registered, and there has not been this great and terrible upheaval so many people feared.
So, Mr. Chairman, I take this rostrum really more out of sadness than anything else. I love my State. I love the South with every part of me, and I love my country.
I shall support this bill because I believe the fundamental right to vote must be a part of this great experiment in human progress under freedom which is America.