This Day In History: Keeping It In The Family

August 20, 2009 at 11:12 am | Posted in Historical, senate | Leave a comment
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Black successor takes oath. Washington, D.C., Aug. 20. Vice President Garner administering the oath to Mrs. Bibb Graves, wife of the Governor of Alabama, who was yesterday named U.S. Senator from Alabama to succeed Hugo L. Black, newly appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. In the photograph, left to right: Vice President Garner, Governor Bibb Graves, Mrs. Graves, and Senator John H. Bankhead, 2nd Senior Senator from Alabama, 8/20/37 (Library of Congress)

Black successor takes oath. Washington, D.C., Aug. 20. Vice President Garner administering the oath to Mrs. Bibb Graves, wife of the Governor of Alabama, who was yesterday named U.S. Senator from Alabama to succeed Hugo L. Black, newly appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. In the photograph, left to right: Vice President Garner, Governor Bibb Graves, Mrs. Graves, and Senator John H. Bankhead, 2nd Senior Senator from Alabama, 8/20/37 (Library of Congress)

Dixie Graves stepped into the national spotlight in August 1937, during her husband’s second term as governor of Alabama. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had appointed Alabama U.S. senator Hugo L. Black to the Supreme Court that month, setting the stage for an historical event in Alabama, the appointment of a new junior senator. Following Black’s departure from the Senate, Governor Graves was empowered to appoint an interim senator until a special election could be held. Graves had numerous possible candidates, most of whom were political supporters from previous elections. But Graves was an astute politician and strategist and made a decision to favor none of the possible candidates over any other. He appointed his wife Dixie, thus solving his difficulties in choosing one ally over another, which could have led to a loss of support for his programs. Also, with the Democrat Graves in the Senate, the president would have a loyal supporter voting for his progressive New Deal legislation. After the appointment was announced, Alabama newspapers and citizens wasted no time in expressing their views. Some were very pleased and thought she would do a better job as senator than her husband was doing as governor. Others denounced the appointment as a political move by the governor to control events not only in the capitol building and the state legislature, but also the U.S. Senate.

During her first week in Washington, Senator Graves proposed a “Peace Bill,” which called for drafting both women and men in time of war. Graves’s resolution stated that when war exists or is imminent, men, women, money, and materials should be available for unlimited use and service and without profit, but the bill was not approved. That same week, the Senate debated an anti-lynching bill, which southern senators filibustered in opposition, prompting an impassioned speech by Graves. Her response was notable because it was the first time that a woman gave a speech on the floor of the Senate and attracted much attention. Lawmakers returned to their seats and other attendees filled the gallery to listen intently to her words. Stating that she abhorred the practice, Graves nevertheless opposed the bill because it would force states to surrender some measure of their sovereignty, or rights.

Dixie Bibb Graves was born on a plantation near Montgomery, Montgomery County, Alabama on July 26, 1882, and died in Montgomery, Alabama on January 21, 1965. She was the first married female to sit as a US senator. The three female US senators who preceded her were widows appointed to temporarily fill vacant senate seats.

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