Conventional Ignorance: Belva Davis Confronts Violent Racism at the 1964 RNC

Editor’s note: At the very outset of what would become an award-winning career as a TV journalist, Belva Davis confronted violent racism at the 1964 Republican National Convention, at which conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was nominated for the presidency.

Below, her memory of that daunting experience—excerpted from her 2011 memoir “Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism“—reminds us that we’ve been through change followed by backlash before.

This story originally appeared in the Ms. winter issue of 2011.

republican national convention: Belva Davis's Confrontation with Violent Racism at the 1964 RNC
From “Never in My Wildest Dreams” © 2011 by Belva Davis with Vicki Haddock. Reprinted with permission from PoliPointPress, LLC, Sausalito, Calif.

I could feel the hostility rising like steam off a cauldron of vitriol: Floor delegates and gallery spectators at the Republican National Convention were erupting in catcalls aimed at the press. South of San Francisco, people were sweltering inside the cavernous Cow Palace, which typically hosted rodeos.

In July of 1964, it offered ringside seats for the breech birth of a right-wing revolution.

republican national convention: Belva Davis's Confrontation with Violent Racism at the 1964 RNC
1964 Republican National Convention Platform Committee. (Wikimedia Commons)

My radio news director, Louis Freeman, and I lacked credentials for the press box—actually we knew that some whites at this convention would find our mere presence offensive. Although Louis was brilliant and had a deep baritone voice and a journalism degree, his first boss had warned Louis he might never become a radio reporter because Negro lips were “too thick to pronounce polysyllabic words.” But Louis, whose enunciation was flawless, eventually landed an on-the-hour news slot on KDIA-AM, the Bay Area’s premier soul-gospel-jazz station, and he was determined to cover the convention.

It was said that the national press was flocking to the GOP confab to “report Armageddon.” Louis wanted to be at the crux of the story, relaying to our Black listeners all the news that white reporters might deem insignificant. I was the station’s intrepid ad traffic manager, a 31-year-old divorced mother of two, who had no journalism training.

No question Louis would have preferred a more formidable companion: I’m delicately boned and stand merely 5 foot 1 in stockings. But I was an eager volunteer. More to the point, I was his only volunteer. And I was, in his words, “a moxie little thing.” He had finagled two spectator passes from one of the Black delegates—they made up less than 1 percent of convention participants.

So there we were, perched in the shadows under the rafters, scribbling notes and recording speeches, mistakenly presuming we had found the safest spot to be.

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Day one of the convention had been tense but orderly. GOP organizers had strictly instructed delegates to be on their best behavior for the television cameras, and they had complied.

Day two would be different. Day two was starting to spin out of control.

Indeed, the “Party of Lincoln” was ripping apart before our eyes. Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, a flinty firebrand whose ruggedly chiseled face would have rested easy on Mount Rushmore, had tapped into a mother lode of voter anxiety about Communism, crime and especially civil rights. His followers came prepared to jettison the party’s moderate wing and they were spurred on by Goldwater’s fantasy of sawing off the Eastern Seaboard to let it float out to sea.

republican national convention: Belva Davis's Confrontation with Violent Racism at the 1964 RNC
A group of “Goldwater Girls” at 1964 Republican National Convention Platform Committee. (Wikimedia Commons)

The press noted that he could win the nomination by coalescing the right and attracting fringe groups such as the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan, and reporters were openly questioning whether the party was on the verge of being taken over by extremists.

So when former president Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped into the spotlight at the podium, I leaned forward intently, hoping the avuncular Ike would provide a soothing balm of rationality.

Indeed his speechwriters had crafted a temperate address that gave nods to free enterprise, a denunciation of violent radicals on the left or right, and even benign praise about America’s progress on civil rights.

But Eisenhower had personally and uncharacteristically inserted a couple of poison-tipped arrows into his script, and he let the first fly straight at the press:

“Let us particularly scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family—including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators—because my friends I assure you, these are people who couldn’t care less about the good of our party.”

republican national convention: Belva Davis's Confrontation with Violent Racism at the 1964 RNC
Eisenhower presidential campaign, Baltimore, Maryland, September 1952. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Cow Palace erupted in jeers, boos and catcalls. Fists shot up in the air and shook angrily in the direction of the press box and broadcast anchor booths. The convention’s contempt for even the most respected reporters of the day was palpable—when professorial John Chancellor of NBC News refused to surrender his floor spot to the dancing “Goldwater Girls,” security guards brusquely carted him out, prompting him to wryly sign off with “This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody.”

Eisenhower, meanwhile, wasn’t finished. He bellowed:

“Let us not be guilty of maudlin sympathy for the criminal who, roaming the streets with the switchblade knife and illegal firearm, seeking a helpless prey, suddenly becomes, upon apprehension, a poor, underprivileged person who counts upon the compassion of our society and the laxness or weakness of too many courts to forgive his offense.”

Without actually uttering the word Negroes, the former president spoke in a code that needed no translation for those white Americans who regarded Black people as an encroaching threat. Eisenhower, whether he realized it or not, seemed to be granting permission to the whites’ prejudice and hatred. I suspect he was unprepared for the deafening applause, cheers, shouts and honked Klaxons that ensued.

Louis and I warily locked eyes, neither of us willing to outwardly betray a hint of alarm. Next on the agenda were controversial platform amendments on civil rights. We had a job to do.

The satirist H. L. Mencken once observed that a national political convention often is as fascinating as a revival, or a hanging:

“One sits through long sessions wishing heartily that all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell—and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous, that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour.”

Mencken, of course, had the luxury of being white. We did not. For Louis and me, the next hour would indeed feel like a year, but a grotesque one.

First, the entire Republican platform was read aloud—a tedious ploy to delay any ugly debate over amendments until the prime-time viewing hour would be past.

At 10 p.m. the first amendment was offered, condemning radical zealots such as the KKK and the Birchers. Liberal establishment icon New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, whom Goldwater had defeated for the nomination, rose to speak in the amendment’s favor.

“These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror,” he said, as a cacophony of boos began to rise from the crowd. “They encourage disunity. These people have nothing in common with Americans. The Republican Party must repudiate these people!”

Enraged at him, the Goldwater crowd interrupted Rockefeller 22 times in 5 minutes, drowning him out with shrieks, noisemakers, a bass drum and the rebuking cry, “We want Barry! We want Barry!”

While the Goldwater organization tried to keep its delegates in check on the floor of the Cow Palace, snarling Goldwater fans in the galleries around us were off the leash. The mood turned unmistakably menacing. Even eminent campaign historian Theodore White abandoned the arena for the relative sanity of the trailers outside; he would later write that although no one in the Goldwater organization and few on the delegate floor remotely qualified as kooks, “the kooks dominated the galleries, hating and screaming and reveling in their own frenzy.”

Suddenly Louis and I heard a voice yell, “Hey, look at those two up there!” The accuser pointed us out, and several spectators swarmed beneath us. “Hey niggers!” they yelled. “What the hell are you niggers doing in here?”

I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck as I looked into faces turned scarlet and sweaty by heat and hostility. Louis, in suit and tie and perpetually dignified, turned to me and said with all the nonchalance he could muster, “Well, I think that’s enough for today.”

Methodically we began wrapping up the cords to our bulky tape recorder and packing it and the rest of our equipment into suitcases. As we began our descent down the ramps of the Cow Palace, a self-appointed posse dangled over the railings, taunting. “Niggers!” “Get out of here, boy!” “You too, nigger bitch.” “Go on, get out!” “I’m gonna kill your ass.”

I stared straight ahead, putting one foot in front of the other like a soldier who would not be deterred from a mission. The throng began tossing garbage at us: wadded up convention programs, mustard-soaked hot dogs, half-eaten Snickers bars. My goal was to appear deceptively serene, mastering the mask of dispassion I had perfected since childhood to steel myself against any insults the outside world hurled my way.

Then a glass soda bottle whizzed within inches of my skull. I heard it whack against the concrete and shatter. I didn’t look back, but I glanced sideways at Louis and felt my lower lip begin to quiver. He was determined we would give our tormentors no satisfaction.

“If you start to cry,” he muttered, “I’ll break your leg.”

It took an eternity for us to wend our way through the gauntlet, from the nosebleed rows of the arena down to the sea of well-coiffed whites on the ground floor. Security guards popped into my peripheral vision, but I knew better than to expect them to rescue us—that wasn’t a realistic expectation for any African American in 1964.

Louis and I pushed through the exit doors and into the darkness of the parking lot, dreading that our antagonists might trail us. When at last we made it to our car, we clambered inside, locked the doors—and exhaled.

Later I would learn that the smattering of other Blacks inside the Cow Palace suffered their own indignities. San Francisco dentist Henry Lucas was ejected twice from his seat. Oakland real estate entrepreneur Charles J. Patterson, then vice president of the Alameda County Republican Central Committee, was denied his rightful place at a luncheon and discovered that none of the white Republicans there would even meet his gaze.

“There was no one to complain to,” he would say. “The major press seemed scared of the Goldwater people.”

The Tennessee delegation cited race as its reason for refusing to grant a vote to its sole Black delegate. And another Black delegate walked out with holes singed in his best suit after a bigot sloshed him with acid.

Jackie Robinson, who had attended as a special delegate for Rockefeller, almost came to blows with a white delegate—whose wife held him back to stop him from attacking the baseball legend. “Turn him loose, lady, turn him loose,” Robinson shouted, ready for retaliation himself.

The next night, Goldwater would accept the GOP nomination and proclaim his signature line: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Although ample evidence exists to show that Goldwater personally was not racist, he had allied himself with those who were. And he would go down to defeat in a landslide, carrying only six states: Aside from his home state of Arizona, all were in the Deep South.

His campaign, however, set in motion an electoral realignment because a huge number of Southern whites abandoned the Democratic Party for the GOP. His campaign also laid the foundation on which actor Ronald Reagan, having charmed the 1964 convention with a passionate speech on Goldwater’s behalf, constructed a conservative “Reagan Era” that would dominate the 1980s and beyond.

As for Jackie Robinson, he would always recall the GOP Convention of 1964 as one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of his life, writing:

“A new breed of Republican had taken over the GOP. As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

That night, as Louis and I drove back to our station—our hearts still thumping and our ears ringing with echoes of the pandemonium—I was lost in thought.

I contemplated the loss of President John F. Kennedy, who had been the first real hope for Black people until he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.

I recalled how only two weeks before, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act to prohibit racial discrimination.

I thought about James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three idealistic civil-rights workers who had vanished in Mississippi that summer; their murdered bodies would later be found buried in an earthen dam.

And I thought about how much easier it was to change federal policy than it would be to change the hearts and minds of America.

republican national convention: Belva Davis's Confrontation with Violent Racism at the 1964 RNC
Belva Davis on Sep. 12, 2012, at the University of San Francisco. (Shawn / Flickr)

All too many white Americans refused to believe the harsh truth about race relations in their own country. Too many turned a blind eye to the prejudices great and small that polluted the air African Americans had to breathe every day. Hatred was a powerful force. But I wondered: Could it ultimately withstand the power of the press?

Journalists were beginning to bring the stories of Black Americans out of the shadows of the rafters and the alleys and the backwoods, out of the sharecropper plots and the inner-city ghettos, and into the light of day. They were reporting on the cross burnings and water hosings, the beatings and lynchings, in vivid details that the public could no longer ignore.

I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to broadcast the reality of my community to those who could not otherwise imagine it, to fill in that missing perspective. I wanted to do work that mattered. I wanted to tell stories that changed the world.

And if it was then inconceivable for a petite, soft-spoken Black woman to ever become a journalist—much less an Emmy-winning television reporter and anchor—well, chalk that up as just one more thing in the world that was about to change.

This excerpt from “Never in My Wildest Dreams(2011) by Belva Davis with Vicki Haddock appeared in the fall 2011 issue of Ms. Reprinted with permission from PoliPointPress, LLC, Sausalito, Calif.


Belva Davis is an American television and radio journalist. She is the first African American woman to become a television reporter on the U.S. West Coast. She has won eight Emmy Awards and been recognized by the American Women in Radio and Television and National Association of Black Journalists.