Charlton Heston (1923 – 2008) passed away at his home on Saturday.
I wasn’t a fan of Charlton Heston the actor. I didn’t agree with his stance on gun rights. So, frankly, I didn’t have more than a neutral regard for him — until I found out something in his past that he humbly didn’t mention, but maybe should have. That he didn’t throw it in his critics’ faces says something quite positive about his character, regardless of any of his other political positions or character traits.
Because Charlton Heston was a great American, and was willing to put his career and reputation on the line at a moment in our history when it really mattered and made a difference.
And one of those those moments occurred right here in Oklahoma.
From Chapter 9 of The History of African Americans in the West by Professor Quintard Taylor, Department of History – University of Washington:
CHARLTON HESTON MARCHES IN OKLAHOMA CITY
Today Charlton Heston is known primarily for the politically conservative causes and candidates he publicly supports. However in 1961 Heston was one of the first Hollywood celebrities to join the picket line established by Clara Luper to protest racial discrimination. Here is a brief description of his presence in Oklahoma City.
It was the last Saturday in May 1961, and Charlton Heston, Hollywood’s Oscar-winning Biblical actor, was on his way to Oklahoma City where he, Dr. Jolly West, nationally-known psychiatrist, and Dr. Chester M. Pierce, black scientist on the staff of the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, were scheduled to lead a protest march against Segregation in public accommodations in Oklahoma City.
The news had spread like wild fire and large crowds had assembled on Main Street to get a quick glimpse of the star.
Charlton Heston was met by the NAACP Youth Officers led by the president and about one-hundred black and white demonstrators, six policemen, a number of newsmen and Trudy, the black dog that took part in all the marches.
I was stationed with a large crowd of NAACP workers, friends, well-wishers and people of all ages, creeds and colors.
I have never seen anything more dramatic, more historical as those three handsome, dignified, successful men walking down the streets carrying signs that they had prepared themselves. The blue and black sign that Charlton Heston carried said, “All men are created equal–Jefferson” on the front and “Racial discrimination is Un-American” on the back.
The crowd was caught up in the unbelievable realities of the moment and when the trio reached our group, wild applause went up in the air. Oklahomans sounded like they do when the Big Red football scores against Texas or Nebraska. We waved flags, sang songs and in a military sounding voice, Dr. West issued a command. The trio marched with the crowd following. Charlton Heston stopped, shook hands, talked and marched.
A few hecklers yelled, “Go back to Hollywood, you Jew!!” “West, you are no psychiatrist, you’re a damn fool!”
But the march continued. We marched slowly by the John A. Brown' Department Store, Anna Maude’s Cafeteria and Bishop’s Restaurant–the three strongholds of Segregation. There was no violence.
Elliott Tyler, Jerry Nutt and John Fast carried anti-Heston signs which read, “Is Beverly Hills integrated?”
Charlton Heston's face was lighted with love and understanding of an oppressed people. He told the group that he sincerely believed that most Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson.
This was his first demonstration. He said that a great many of us have only paid lip service to the equality of man and this is a very bitter thing for me to do.
Every step that Heston, West and Pierce took was adding tons of Freedom vitamins to our tired bodies that had been protesting for three years.
Heston took pictures with NAACPers, car hops, and the three got into a waiting automobile after the hour’s march and went to Calvary Baptist Church where a large crowd was waiting. There he told the crowd, “I was very pleased with the march and I was prepared for some hostility at the start of the march. I’m used to taking part in marches and chariot races only when they’re fixed, but today I didn’t have a script!” he said, smiling.
He explained that as far as he knew Beverly Hills was integrated, however, he had been in Spain making a movie… The audience went wild and Charlton Heston looked as if he was enjoying every moment…
Source: Clara Luper, Behold the Walls, (Oklahoma City, 1979), pp. 134-136.
This image of the Hollywood icon taking the kind of hostility he could easily avoid should give those of us on the left who continue to fight injustice pause before criticizing the man who, in his later years, suffering from Alzheimer’s in addition to the usual pitfalls of age, was gratuitously picked on by Michael Moore (in my opinion, a scene that Bowling for Columbine could well have done without), and regularly ridiculed by leftists (including me).
People –and their political beliefs — are seldom as simple and one-sided as our society (particularly the media) try to paint them.
Charlton Heston was a man who had strong principles and put them out there publicly despite the possible negative consequences that might ensue. He did it it at the height of his career, and at its lesser ebb. He took plenty of shots for his politics, mostly from those with nothing to lose by hurling them, and stood up pretty well to those as well.
What could be more righteous, more transcendently human and, dare I say, more patriotically American than that?
[Cross posted at Blue Oklahoma, and at okimc.org. I blogged about this OKC civil rights history previously here.]
Update, 12/29/08: A New York Times Magazine retrospective of public figures that died this year includes an interesting analysis of Heston’s political transformation in the late 60s from lefty to conservative. It is accompanied by a photo of Heston marching in Oklahoma City, in front of Maude’s, as chronicled in the excerpt above.