Kearns and Sons RS Aesthetics

Remembering Senator Lee Metcalf


By Evan D. Barrett, Director of Business & Community Outreach, Highlands College of Montana Tech

Political anniversaries – it’s been 50 years since the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Had a Dream” speech; 45 years since both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; 45 years since the riots in Chicago during the ’68 Democratic National Convention. These events shaped the political conscience of many, including me. But a special anniversary date for all Montanans was January 12th, the 35th anniversary of Montana Senator Lee Metcalf’s death.

That moment in 1978 is seared into my memory — my friend Michael and I were driving near Bozeman, working on Pat Williams’ Door-to-Door for Congress campaign. Suddenly a radio voice declared that Senator Lee Metcalf had passed away. I pulled the car to the side of the road. We sat in stunned silence. How could it be?  This giant was only 66 years old! Who could possibly replace him as the people’s champion? Perhaps Pat Williams, but there was a huge pair of empty political shoes to be filled.

Who is Montana’s Lee Metcalf? More than a name on the annual Democratic Mansfield/Metcalf dinner, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness or the Metcalf Wildlife Refuge, Lee Metcalf had a record of remarkable achievement — measured by the people he fought for … and those he fought against. In the Montana populist tradition, Lee Metcalf fought FOR the little people … and AGAINST the big and the powerful.

His record of accomplishment is clear. Lee Metcalf was a giant for workers and for organized labor… for kids and education…for clean air, safe water, free-flowing streams… for public lands and for wilderness.  Montana’s Lee Metcalf was a giant for Native Americans and for health care, for consumer rights, women’s rights and for civil rights.

A Stevensville native, Metcalf, after a brief stop at UM, graduated from Stanford University.  After UM Law School, he was elected to the Montana Legislature at age 25. Following his distinguished World War II service, Montana’s Lee Metcalf was elected to the state Supreme Court at age 35, to Congress at 41 and to the US Senate at 49.

And through it all, Montana’s Lee Metcalf was fighting.  As a Legislator he fought FOR the little guy and AGAINST the powerful when he took on the giant Anaconda Copper Company to make them pay miners for the actual time they were under ground in the mines, not just until the shift whistle blew.  And this champion for the powerless took that Montana populist fighting spirit and commitment to justice with him to the US House and Senate.

For a perspective of this remarkable man, go to YouTube, enter “Remembering Lee Metcalf” to see a short biographical film I produced in 1996.

Among other things, the film tells of the critical, but little known, role Metcalf played in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

One of Lee Metcalf’s partners in the Senate was Hubert Humphrey and over the years they formed a close friendship and a nearly unbeatable political partnership. Their greatest triumph was the Civil Rights Bill.  As Senate progressives, led by Humphrey, readied the bill for an expected very close floor vote in the Senate, a group of intransigent senators, mostly Southerners, planned a series of parliamentary maneuvers to kill the Civil Rights Bill.  Earlier Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana had Lee temporary president pro tem of the Senate.  That put Lee in the chair for the floor debate over the Civil Rights Bill.  As expected, the conservatives threw up parliamentary roadblock after roadblock, but Lee, from his position in the chair, judiciously steered the debate around every attempted delay.  The historic bill passed and became one of America’s most important laws.  “Metcalf has stripped us of any parliamentary strategy,” said one frustrated opposition senator.  “That man was the Civil Rights Bill’s secret weapon.”

So this year, when we think of political anniversaries, of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and of civil rights, we can also remember a strong-willed Montanan who made a real difference for millions of little people who had a just cause, but little political power.  A Montana fighting populist to the core.



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