Louisiana Democrat John Richard Rarick, who served as a District Judge (1961–1965) and a member of Congress (Sixth District, 1967–1975), passed away on September 14 as a result of a brain tumor. His tenure as a judge, during the most turbulent times of desegregation, was confrontational and controversial. He resisted efforts by federal courts and the Justice Department to enforce many civil rights rules and regulations. For example, the New York Times (November 13, 1963; page 33) reported, “A state court, in defiance of federal court orders, today renewed a temporary ban against racial demonstrations by [CORE]. . . . District Judge John Rarick issued his third such order since CORE began a civil rights drive here last summer. . . . Judge Rarick assailed the circuit court’s action as interference with the operation of a state court.”
A local Louisiana newspaperman recorded resentful memories of John Rarick’s judicial service: “My father, a civil rights lawyer . . . recalls being particularly frustrated by cases . . . where an especially racist judge, John Rarick, would consistently thwart his efforts to defend civil rights demonstrators.” (“Civil Rights Lawyer Put End to Chill,” by Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 17, 2004; Metro Section, page 1.)
When he decided to run for Congress, John Rarick’s 1966 Democratic primary win (tantamount to election in Louisiana) was national news. His opponent was the powerful 24-year incumbent, Representative James Morrison. In a page-one story, the New York Times (September 25, 1966) reported that the Morrison versus Rarick race was: “one of the fiercest campaigns in Louisiana history. Mr. Rarick, 42, called Mr. Morrison an ‘LBJ rubber stamp’ and the ‘Black Power’ candidate. Mr. Morrison accused Mr. Rarick of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The election playing field was not level. Federal voter registrars in five Louisiana parishes (counties) signed-up 13,000 new voters for the 1966 campaign–“most of them negroes” according to the New York Times–and federal judges ordered that these voters be allowed to cast ballots “and ruled that illiterates among them must be helped by election commissioners.” (“Louisiana Voters go to Polls Today; Klan Issue and Court Ruling on Negroes Mark Primary,” the New York Times, August 13, 1966; page 9) Some 150 federal agents were ordered to Louisiana by the Justice Department to ensure their judicial fiats were carried out. The Washington Post (September 24, 1966; page 4) confirmed that there were some 3,000 new, federally- courted voters in Rarick’s Sixth Congressional District.
Rarick forced the incumbent into a two-man run-off election when no one in the multi-candidate primary received the required 50 percent of the vote. The run-off was an election-upset win for Rarick. Morrison called the election “the most vicious in my 24 years in Congress,” but claimed he was proud to be a “Southern moderate.”
Rarick’s career on Capitol Hill began in a style that became typical for the Louisiana politician. The New Orleans Times-Picayune (November 24, 1966; page 1) reported, “Newly-elected Congressman John R. Rarick said here Wednesday he will oppose any federal income tax increase and called for the resignation of United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren as chairman of the Warren Commission. . . .” According to the Times-Picayune Rarick maintained that much had been left out of the report, adding, “What they tried to do was to get a bunch of controlled people to shut up the investigation as quickly as possible.”
In 1967, Congressman Rarick entered the Louisiana gubernatorial election in a long-shot campaign against the popular incumbent, John McKeithen, who was running as a moderate on civil rights. Days before the election, Rarick was the target of an assassination attempt. The Washington Post (November 3, 1967, page 4), reported: “A gunman fired four quick shots in a driveway early today at Rep. John Rarick (D-La.), a candidate for governor in Saturday’s Democratic primary.” The Post quoted Rarick’s reaction: “The whole thing happened about like the flip of a finger–at first it sounded like someone threw a cherry bomb. Then I turned around and looked at this car. This fellow was pointing a gun right at me. The shots kept coming. I jumped between cars. . . . I couldn’t even tell you how many shots were fired. You don’t count when you’re looking down a gun barrel.”
A Rarick campaign aide, when asked by the New York Times (November 3, 1967, page 32) whether the assassination attempt might be linked to organized crime, answered; “It possibly could, we’ve been hitting [the issue] pretty hard.” Congressman Rarick received about 18 percent of the vote in a five-way race against Governor McKeithen, who boasted, “This is the first time that a [Louisiana] governor has won without taking a big stand as a conservative.” (New York Times, November 5, 1967; page 62)
In 1968, Rarick supported American Independent Party candidate George Wallace for president.
In 1971, the staunch conservative Democrat followed an unusual path–at the height of the Vietnam war–by joining liberal Democrats Robert Leggett (Calif.) and Parren Mitchell (Md.) in a coalition that sponsored the “People Power Over War Act,” a Constitutional Amendment to let the American people as a whole ratify any declaration of war. The Act was based on something originally known as the “Ludlow Amendment.” The prototype legislation was introduced every year from 1935 to 1941 by Congressman Louis Ludlow (D-Ind.) in opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy initiatives. The text of the “People Power Over War Act” read in part, “Except in the event of an attack or invasion the authority of Congress to declare war shall not become effective until confirmed by a majority of all votes cast thereon in a nationwide referendum.”
Rarick’s broad assault in the politically correct status quo included his indomitable stance on race and culture issues. For example, he accused Martin Luther King of being “engaged in a lifetime of subversion and immorality and exploitation.” (Congressional Record, April 23, 1968) During hearings on proposed self-government for the District of Columbia, the congressman described the nation’s capital as a “sinkhole, rat infested . . . the laughing stock of the free and Communist world. . . .” (Washington Post, February 9, 1972) The Post story quotes Congressman Charles Diggs (D-Mich.), Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, accusing his colleague of being “a leading racist in the Congress.” The unusually harsh rhetoric was contrary to the normally formal and deferential professional conduct in the House of Representatives, but was a harbinger of what was to come: the ADL cranked-up the anti-Rarick chorus by claiming Rarick was “a mouthpiece in Congress for anti-Jewish and anti-black extremists.” (“Jews Call Rarick a Costly Racist; B’nai B’rith Unit Says Public Pays to Print His Views,” New York Times, November 24, 1971; page 31)
Rarick took up a number of conservative causes including his House Resolution 1414, legislation that would withdraw U.S. membership in the UN. He also led the opposition to the original Sea Bed Treaty (a newer version of “The Law of the Sea Treaty” is still being debated in Congress today).
John Rarick’s congressional career came to an end in 1974. A U.S. News and World Report story (February 3, 1975; page 76) analyzed his defeat as follows: “In a Democratic runoff last September, Jeff LaCaze, a former television broadcaster, defeated Rep. John Rarick by a vote of 60,570 to 56,658. . . . Mr. LaCaze is a ‘liberal’ who had the support of labor leaders and the black ‘bloc vote’ in a district where blacks comprise almost a third of the total population. . . .”
In 1976, Rarick moved to the adjacent First District and ran again for Congress–this time as an independent–garnering a little more than 9 percent of the vote. Rarick siphoned off enough votes that might otherwise have gone to Republican Bob Livingston to throw the election to Democrat Richard Tonry. Tonry was forced to resign from the U.S. House in May 1977 because of allegations of electoral misconduct. Livingston won the seat in a special election in August 1977.
In 1980, Rarick was the American Independent Party nominee for president, winning 40,906 votes from the eight states where he was on the ballot.
John Richard Rarick, born in Waterford, Indiana on January 29, 1924, attended Ball State Teacher’s College in Indiana and graduated from Louisiana State University. As an infantryman during the Second World War, he won two battle stars for the Rhineland and Ardennes campaigns, as well as the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Captured by enemy forces in the Battle of the Bulge, Rarick spent four months in a German prisoner-of-war camp before making a daring escape.