Remembering Estes Kefauver


This past August (1996) marked the thirty-third anniversary of the death of Tennessee's crusading United States Senator Estes Kefauver. For many of us who are "forty something," the name Estes Kefauver triggers warm memories, due no doubt in part to Kefauver's trademark, a coonskin cap which so effectively connected him with the Davy Crockett craze of the 1950's. But for those who were fortunate enough to have known him or who are familiar with his exceptional public career as an enlightened mid-century Southern political leader who fought tirelessly for civil rights, civil liberties, antitrust enforcement, and consumer protection legislation (at a time in our history when such causes were far from popular), the fond regard goes much deeper.

Estes Kefauver was born on July 26, 1903, in the small farming community of Madisonville in East Tennessee. His roots on the family farm were, no doubt, a source of his agrarian and populist beliefs. He was introduced to politics early on. As a youngster, he accompanied his father through the rich hills and farming countryside that surrounded Madisonville on campaign jaunts on behalf of the progressive President Woodrow Wilson.

Subsequently, he attended and graduated from the University of Tennessee, where he played football, was better in track, and, during his senior year, edited the student newspaper, the Orange and White. During his undergraduate days, the tall, lanky, ruddy-complexioned youth broadened his mind and mastered the requisite social graces, but one suspects that it was at Yale Law School that he developed his wide intellectual interests and a passion for public interest, planning, labor, and antitrust law.

Rather than market his Yale law degree in the larger cities of the northeast, Kefauver returned to the largely rural eastern Tennessee of the Roaring Twenties and began the practice of law in Chattanooga. Politics, however, continued to occupy a strong place in the new lawyer's life. As a young Chattanooga attorney, for example, he was active in organizing a group of young professionals who were interested in reforming local government and, in 1935, was appointed chairman of the local planning board. In early 1939, he served as Tennessee's Commissioner of Finance and Taxation but returned to Chattanooga later that year to run, successfully, for the Third District congressional seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Sam D. McReynolds.

In the House, he became an ardent supporter of such New Deal programs as the Tennessee Valley Authority and an advocate of congressional and electoral reform. His progressive inclinations, perhaps predictably, led to frequent clashes with the dean of the Tennessee congressional delegation, Sen. Kenneth D. McKellar (the Senate's powerful president pro tempore and Appropriations Committee chairman), and were never popular with the conservative political machine led by former Memphis mayor Ed Crump that had dominated Tennessee politics for decades. Kefauver successfully challenged the powerful Crump organization by winning election to his first term in the United States Senate in 1948. It was during the Democratic primary campaign in 1948 that Crump attempted to identify Kefauver in the minds of Tennessee voters as a fellow-traveler with communists and liberals by characterizing him as an instrument of unsavory "pinkos and communists" who worked on their behalf like the stealthy, nocturnal raccoon. Kefauver responded in a speech delivered in Crump's stronghold of Memphis. Pulling on a coonskin cap, Kefauver retorted, "I may be a pet coon, but I'm not Boss Crump's pet coon." Kefauver won, and the trademark of the coonskin cap stuck with "the Keef" for the remainder of his political career as a symbol of the independent, progressive, nonconformist type of political leadership that he represented.

KEFAUVER'S UNFLAGGING INTEREST in and passion for public policy eventually led, after his election to the Senate in 1948, to his role as chairman of the Senate Crime Investigating Committee, whose partially televised investigation of organized crime in 1950-51 earned for him the nationwide recognition and support that propelled him into two unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956 and onto the Democratic ticket in 1956 as Adlai Stevenson's vice-presidential running mate.

But it was his belief in and genuine affection for what he liked to call the "little people" that was the source of the paradoxical Kefauver magic. An intellectual, he hated elitist politics; a masterful politician, he fought machine politics; an intentional lowbrow, he rejected the shallow tactics of emotionalism. He cared deeply for people and about their problems and held fast to an almost old-fashioned faith in the common wisdom of common people but was never afraid to share his insight and vision with his constituents and never shirked his responsibility to lead public opinion on complex and controversial issues.

Beginning as a young congressman, for example, he consistently opposed the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting. Moreover, he and his colleague from Tennessee, former U.S. Senator Albert Gore Sr., were the only members of the Senate from the South who categorically refused to sign the so-called Southern Manifesto in 1957, which the reactionary Southern congressional bloc issued in response to the United States Supreme Court's desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. (1) Indeed, it was the responsible leadership exhibited by Kefauver and former Senator Gore during the civil rights movement in the mid-fifties and early sixties that has been credited with having helped to divert public opinion in Tennessee away from the extremes that resulted in the outbursts of violence which occurred in several neighboring states of the deep South. The support given to unpopular civil rights legislation by Senators Gore and Kefauver, of course, resulted in strong segregationist challenges to their re-election efforts in 1958 and in 1960, respectively, but, fortunately for the sake of their constituents and the nation, both survived.

In addition, during the national hysteria generated by the mid-fifties phenomenon of McCarthyism, Kefauver was a consistent and outspoken defender of civil liberties. In what was perhaps the most courageous stand of his career, he was the only member of the Senate to vote against a measure in 1954 to make it a crime to belong to the Communist Party.

At the height of the Cold War, Kefauver was among a handful of responsible political leaders who realized that any effective battle against communism as an economic and political system must be fought, not internally with our own citizens as adversaries, but internationally with our allies along the shores of the Atlantic where legitimate American national interests lay. To this end, he became a consistent supporter of the Atlantic Union, an ambitious plan for a confederation of the Atlantic democracies. Although the organization envisioned by Kefauver never fully materialized, the North Atlantic Assembly, which still functions (e.g., the organization in 1988 adopted a resolution calling on the Reagan Administration to proceed to finalization, ratification, and implementation of a strategic arms reduction treaty), traces its origins to Kefauver's Atlantic Union.

Kefauver arguably left his most enduring legacy in the area of consumer protection. As chairman of the Senate's Antitrust & Monopoly Subcommittee in the late 1950s and early sixties, he earned the well-deserved reputation as the nation's foremost defender of the public interest. For example, he conducted several highly publicized investigations into such abuses as administered prices in the steel, electrical, and drug industries and into the inadequacies of federal drug safety regulations. One result of his efforts was the Kefauver-Harris Drug Control Act (1962), which, though weaker than the proposed legislation initially introduced by Kefauver, imposed such federal controls on the sale of dangerous drugs as requiring substantial evidence that a drug be both effective and safe as prerequisite to licensing, generic names on drug products, and mandatory disclosure to physicians of information about the effectiveness and side effects of prescription drugs.

His detractors routinely called him "too liberal for Tennessee," but Tennessee kept re-electing him to the U.S. Senate, first in 1954 and again in 1960, by wider and wider margins. It was said in 1960 that on election eve, nobody could be found who intended to vote for Kefauver and that on the day after the election, nobody could be found who would admit having voted for him; in that race, however, he swamped his opponent by garnering nearly 65% of the vote.

IT NOW HAS BEEN 33 YEARS since Estes Kefauver died -- on August 10, 1963--at the age of 60 as a result of a heart attack that he had sustained two days earlier on the Senate floor. He was, in the words of his Senate colleague Ernest Gruening of Alaska, "a battle casualty," for at the time of that fatal attack he was again engaged in a lonely battle in the public interest. He was speaking on behalf of an amendment which he and Senator Gore had offered to a NASA authorization bill that would have required the private, profit-making communications satellite corporation (Comsat) to reimburse NASA for the cost of research and development from which Comsat had benefitted. It was a fight that probably only a specialist in antitrust law and a fighter against monopolistic control of the nation's economy like Kefauver could fully understand or appreciate. It was a fight that he (and the people) lost, and it was his last.

Several days later, thousands of Kefauver's "little people"--white farmers with tieless red necks, blacks, laborers, housewives, school teachers, young people, old folk struggling on canes, Democrats and Republicans alike--converged in the narrow, stifling country streets of Madisonville, along with many of Kefauver's Senate colleagues and Vice President and Mrs. Johnson, to participate in funeral ceremonies for one of Tennessee's most beloved favorite sons. "Among those present for the simple ceremonies were political leaders who seemed suddenly altogether ordinary and life-size," Wilma Dykeman reflected a few days afterwards, "There too were neighbors, fellow Tennesseans, commonplace people who appeared somehow more dignified, a little taller than usual." (2)

Favored with dark, heavily clouded skies, they clogged all streets leading to the First Baptist Church here, where he lay in state, awaiting their chance to bid farewell to one of the few of the nation's political leaders whom they felt they had known personally. As the casket bearing his remains was transported from the church to the Kefauver farm a mile or so away, the people followed -- as always. The brief graveside service had to compete with the din of an approaching summer storm. "There was a stillness, a heaviness, almost a suspense in the air," Dykeman recalled, "as if some question remained to be asked, as if some answer waited to be called forth." (3)As his family and friends (and some political enemies) made their way from his final resting place within sight of the porch of his antebellum family home, a heavy rain began to fall, in an almost mystical sharing of grief. Then, almost as quickly as it had come, the storm subsided, and a reluctant sun broke through the overcast skies of Tennessee. (4)

The national sense of public loss occasioned by the death of Senator Kefauver was overshadowed three months later by the assassination of President Kennedy and, later still, by the succession of national tragedies that ensued over the next several decades. But Senator Kefauver's legacy and example survive, and deservedly so, not only in the numerous legislative protections which now are afforded consumers (and the public interest generally) that can trace their origins to Kefauver's efforts, but also in the example offered by the courageous and enlightened political leadership that he provided during a difficult, often ugly, but very significant time of change in the history of the nation and the South.


Brown, who practices law In Atlanta, is a former staff assistant to former US Sen. Al Gore Sr. (D. Tenn.) and is co-editor of Legal Papers of Andrew Jackson (Univ. of Tenn. Press 1987). A high school student at the time of Sen. Kefauver's death in 1963, he attended the funeral services for Sen. Kefauver. Allen serves as Administrator of Scenic Rivers, Bureau of State Parks, Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation and is a regional planner and environmental activist. As undergraduate students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, both Brown and Allen helped to organize Sen. Kefauver' s public and personal papers, which are now housed at the University' s Estes Kefauver Collection.

1. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D. Texas) is frequently also credited with having refused to sign the Southern Manifesto. As Sen. Gore reminds us in his autobiographical Let the Glory Out: My South and Its Politics (Viking Press, 1972), however, Johnson was never asked to sign the document. By virtue of his position at the time as the Senate's Majority Leader, Johnson avoided having to make the potentially embarrassing decision of whether to sign the politically charged Manifesto.

2. Wilma Dykeman, "Kefauver, a Symbol of Democracy," The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Aug. 18, 1963.

3. Ibid.

4. This description of Senator Kefauver' s funeral is based upon Powell Lindsay, "Keef Laid to Rest Near Farm Home," The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Aug. 14, 1963, sec. A, pp. 1, 2; Harry Young, "Thousands Ignore Rain, Dizzying Heat to Pay Homage to Kefauver at Simple Rites at Ancestral Homeplace," Chattanooga Daily Times, Aug. 14, 1963, sec. 1, pp. 1, 5; The Madisonville Democrat, Aug. 15, 1963, p. 1; Monroe County Citizen, Aug. 17, 1963, p. 1; and the personal recollections of Brown, who was present on that occasion.

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1996 The Progressive Populist