National News

John H. Buchanan Jr., Deep South Centrist, Dies at 89

Posted March 12, 2018 6:59 p.m. EDT

In 1964, John H. Buchanan Jr., a Southern Baptist minister and Goldwater Republican, was elected to Congress as part of the Deep South’s backlash to the civil rights agenda of the Johnson administration. He was one of the first five Republicans, all elected that year, to be sent by Alabama to the House of Representatives in the 20th century.

When he got to Washington, he supported the Vietnam War and school prayer. He voted against Medicare and the Voting Rights Act.

But by the late 1960s, the climate in the nation’s capital was changing faster than that in his hometown, Birmingham, where resistance to desegregation was not only respectable but legal. After Buchanan joined the integrated Riverside Baptist Church in Washington, his perspective began to broaden.

“When you’re deeply involved in a biracial entity, you think of people as brothers and sisters,” he told The Washington Post in 1976. “Then the denial of rights of my brothers and sisters becomes an infringement of my rights as well.”

In Congress, he helped lead an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan. He supported statehood for the predominantly black District of Columbia and equal rights for women.

But by 1980, Buchanan had left his constituents so far behind that he lost the Republican primary. He was denied renomination for a ninth term in Congress by a former John Birch Society member whose evangelical supporters had been galvanized by the rise of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.

Buchanan never returned to Alabama to live. He morphed politically into a spokesman for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way — the Moral Majority’s antithesis — which television producer Norman Lear founded in 1981.

Buchanan was chairman of the organization’s board from 1982 to 1990. He later formally became a Democrat.

He died on March 5 in Rockville, Maryland, at 89. His daughter Lynn Buchanan said the cause was complications of dementia.

John Hall Buchanan Jr. was born on March 19, 1928, in Paris, Tennessee, about 100 miles west of Nashville. He grew up in Arkansas and then in Birmingham, where in 1937 his father became the minister of the Southside Baptist Church. His mother was the former Ruth Lowrey.

He served in the Navy in 1945 and 1946 as a hospital corpsman, graduated from Howard College (now Samford University) in Alabama in 1949 and earned a master of divinity degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

His wife, the former Elizabeth Moore, died in 2011 at 77. In addition to his daughter Lynn, he is survived by another daughter, Elizabeth Buchanan, and three granddaughters.

After serving as a pastor in Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama, Buchanan ran for Congress in 1962. He lost. He was the finance director for the state’s newly stoked state Republican Party and, in 1964, ran again and beat the five-term Democratic incumbent, George Huddleston Jr., a segregationist and states’ rights advocate — and one of his congregants — by a whopping 21-point margin.

In the 1964 presidential race, Sen. Barry Goldwater carried the state against President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was the first Republican to do so since Reconstruction.

In his first term, Buchanan joined Rep. Charles L. Weltner, D-Ga., and three other members of Congress on a special panel of the House Committee on Un-American Activities that produced contempt citations against seven Ku Klux Klan officials. The investigation was credited with crippling the Klan in Georgia, Mississippi and elsewhere.

It was the first time since the committee was created in the late 1930s that it had expanded its purview of subversion beyond communism and, occasionally, fascism.

Buchanan began racially integrating his congressional staff. He was the first member of the Alabama congressional delegation to nominate black candidates to the military service academies. He championed the cause of oppressed black majorities in Rhodesia and South Africa.

And he strayed from conservative Republican ranks, first to support Title IX of the 1972 Education Act, which required that colleges and universities give women equal opportunities in educational and sports programs, and then to favor extending the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. He lobbied for gender equality in the Foreign Service.

Still, Goldwater loyally campaigned for Buchanan into the late 1970s as a “fine progressive Republican.”

Buchanan was also a vocal defender of Christians and Jews who were being persecuted in the Soviet Union and its satellites.

In 1980, the conservative tide that swept Ronald Reagan to the presidency and Adm. Jeremiah Denton Jr. to the Senate from Alabama finally swept away Republican centrists like Buchanan. He lost the nomination by 10 points to Albert Lee Smith Jr., a standard-bearer of the religious right.

“To contend that there is only one ‘Christian’ position on complex political issues,” Buchanan said, “is a violation of both the Christian and the democratic traditions.”

Lynn Buchanan recalled that when her father was a young man, “to be a Republican was to be progressive, but over the years he really did not relate to what we think of as Republicans now.”

After the 1980 race, George Seaborne, Buchanan’s campaign manager, told The New York Times that to evangelical congregants a preacher’s words are considered gospel.

“If the preacher says John Buchanan has an immoral record,” Seaborne said, “not many are going to get hold of a copy of the Congressional Record to see what the vote was.”

Buchanan later recalled engaging evangelical constituents in a discussion of biblical imperatives during that campaign. He reminded them that Jesus had challenged his own followers to care for the poor.

“God has laid that burden on me,” Buchanan said.

“They seemed to respond warmly at the time,” he was quoted as saying. “Then they went back home and beat my brains out.”