By the time I first met John Buchanan, he had finished his eight terms in the U.S. Congress as a Republican representing Birmingham, Alabama. This third generation Baptist minister was long past the time when he was targeted for defeat in 1980 by the Moral Majority. He was even past his term as the founding chairman of the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way. When I met John and his wife Betty in the 1990s, they were the loving and selfless grandparents to a granddaughter who was in a youth group with our twins. However, their intellect, courage, sense of public service, and generous spirit were still very much in evidence in everything they touched.
Betty died in 2011, and I was thinking about our connections and their lives after I heard the news of John’s passing on March 5th at the age of 89. John had the courage to change his mind, even at the cost of his political future. First elected in the Republican wave of 1964, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, John began as a conventional Southern conservative. But Ellie Silverman’s obituary in the Washington Post described the changes that took place in John over time.
“At first, Mr. Buchanan had a conservative record and voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but his experience at the biracial Riverside Baptist Church in Southwest Washington led to a shift in his views.
‘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.’”
As he moved away from his traditional political orthodoxy on civil rights issues, John supported landmark legislation such as Title IX, which required equality for women in college and university programs, including sports, and he called for full voting rights for residents of Washington, D.C. The irony of having this Baptist minister — the son and grandson of Baptist ministers — successfully targeted for defeat by the Moral Majority was not lost on many who knew him.
I’ve quoted the writer Maria Popova before, who suggested that we should allow ourselves the uncomfortable luxury of changing our mind. In John’s case, changing his mind was more than an uncomfortable luxury. It was courageous and — because he acted on his convictions — it came with consequences. However, as with many difficult decisions which are based on the stories we tell of our American past and how we treat our fellow citizens, the effect can be liberating. Silverman describes the effect on John in her obituary.
“’I’ve become more emancipated as I’ve gone along,’ Mr. Buchanan said in 1976, describing the evolution of his political views. ‘I’m at the point in my political career where I’d rather lose . . . than fail to do what I think is right. I won’t compromise on civil rights any more. I can’t do it, I will not do it.’”
All of us face our own challenges in work and life. It is good to be reminded that we can follow the example of those who have gone before and have the courage to change our minds when that’s the right thing to do.
Rest in Peace, John H. Buchanan, Jr.
Image: The Honorable John H. Buchanan, Jr. (Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)