PHOTOS COURTESY OF DINA TITUS
Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Editor's note: The formative years of the two candidates for the 3rd Congressional District are examined in these stories. Future stories will examine their political and legislative histories.
When Dina Titus was in high school in Tifton, Ga., she had one black classmate. This was 1966, the end of the Jim Crow South, and the School Board had just begun the process of integration.
The young man was a football star, but the cheerleaders, all of them white, didn’t escort him onto the field as they did all the white players. It would have been unthinkable.
“I remember it clearly,” Titus said recently. “I thought it was terrible.”
Las Vegas residents know Titus well for her sharp and tart wit, her liberal (for Nevada) agenda and her love of political combat. But what they probably recognize more than anything is her deep Southern drawl.
To some it’s endearing, to others grating.
But behind it lies one woman’s small role in the great and painful American drama of racism and sexism, migration and liberation.
State Sen. Dina Titus, 58, is a Democrat challenging Rep. Jon Porter in the 3rd Congressional District. Residents of Tifton might have been shocked — maybe even scandalized — to hear that one of their own, a girl born to the Titus family in 1950, could be elected to Congress in what was then a dusty mob town called Las Vegas.
For those who really knew Titus, though, it would not surprise at all. She was known for being wickedly smart and ambitious.
No one expected her to stick around Tifton, 200 miles south of Atlanta. The town now has more than 15,000 residents. When Interstate 75 was built through the region, said John Morris, a friend of Titus’ late father, “that put us on the map.”
Eunice Mixon taught Titus eighth grade science before getting active in politics and becoming a political power broker in Georgia. “I never had a sister or a daughter, but every year there was a little girl, who, if I had a sister or daughter, I’d want her to be like that little girl,” Mixon recalls. “That was Dina.”
Mixon speaks in charming Southern aphorisms — “I know she was, pardon the expression, raised right!” She said Tifton was a caring town where everyone knew everyone, and their business, too. The Titus clan were community-minded folks, she said.
Betty Lankford, a friend of Titus’, said Titus’ father bought her a Model A Ford with a rumble seat. “The girls would get together and ride around, circling the town, hoping to run into boys we liked.”
Sounds simple and idyllic, but of course it was a bit more complicated: Like most other communities in the Jim Crow South, it was segregated to the point of apartheid. And like nearly everywhere else in America, Tifton expected women to be teachers, nurses, secretaries or housewives.
Jamie Cater, Tifton’s mayor, recalls from the early 1960s watching police stop a car of black residents because they were on the wrong side of town.
“That always bothered me,” Cater recalled. “What was wrong with them being over here?” Cater, a Republican, was the first Tifton mayor to march in a Martin Luther King Jr. parade.
Titus’ father was a small-business man. He owned a motor coach, as it was known then, a small roadside motel.
“It was the white part of town, so I think it was a white motor coach,” Titus said. “I can’t imagine Daddy ever not letting someone rent a room, but I don’t think a black person ever tried,” she said. That’s just the way it was.
Civil rights champion Hubert Humphrey came to town in 1968, Titus recalled. “He spoke at the football stadium. Daddy took me. Most of the crowd was black. It was a very divided city. But it’s not like I wasn’t used to dealing with black people. They worked for my daddy. It was just two different worlds.”
The Tituses supported Humphrey, putting them in the minority of white Southerners, who to this day have abandoned Democrats because of the likes of Humphrey.
“It was a tumultuous time,” she said.
By all accounts, though, Tifton was fairly progressive in its move toward integration. “We all knew about the school ruling,” Mixon said, referring to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared the system of “separate but equal” schools for the races unconstitutional.
The School Board foresaw that it would lead to mandatory integration and believed “it’s the right thing to do, so let’s set about doing it peaceably,” Mixon said.
Mixon credited enlightened leaders: “Most of them were regular people who believed in treating people as they themselves would like to be treated.”
She told the story of black residents going into the white library. “The little librarian, a sweet little lady, she knows the law and calls the Sheriff. She told the Sheriff that colored people, as they were then called, were in the library. She asked what she should do. The Sheriff said, ‘Check them out a book.’ And she did.”
Roosevelt Russell Sr. was the first black elected to the Tifton City Council. That was in 1998. (The city is nearly one-fourth black.) His son was the first black student at what he called a “regular school.”
Russell confirmed the accounts of white residents. “There was opposition, and still is, but the school was integrated without a big disturbance.”
Although there was racial strife in nearby Albany, where King marched, Russell explained, “Here it may be we had some people who could see farther about what tomorrow will bring.”
Tifton is still not free of racism, he said. He didn’t know Titus, but said that “she wouldn’t be a bad girl, growing up here.”
And while blacks such as Russell had to overcome racial prejudice, Titus had to overcome the still prevalent attitudes about women being fragile or unfit for the serious jobs held by men.
“It was bridge club and tea parties,” Titus quipped.
The names of Titus and her sister Rho Hudson are derived from a family name, but they’re named after family men.
Still, Titus and Hudson credited their parents with instilling good values. The rules: no prejudice, and get an education. “I was taught I had the opportunity to make the choice” to be a career-minded woman, Titus said.
They took trips around the country. “I had a sense there was more out there.”
Her father promised the Oldsmobile dealer in town, who was also on the School Board, that he would buy an Oldsmobile if the dealer/School Board member would get Titus her high school diploma early. No one saw much point in the young whiz kid staying in high school any longer. “He bought that Olds. I never got the diploma,” Titus said.
Titus skipped her senior year and went to a little Bible college in 1967 for a year before transferring to the place she’d planned to go all along, the prestigious College of William & Mary in Virginia. And so there she was, in the Sir Christopher Wren building, where Thomas Jefferson studied.
But just as the South was grudgingly accepting equality for blacks and women, America found itself again bitterly divided, now over the Vietnam War. In college, Titus said, “I remember hearing them call the numbers on the radio,” referring to the military draft lottery. She graduated in 1970 and at 25 earned a Ph.D. in political science from Florida State University. Like so many of her generation, she would heed Horace Greeley’s words and go west, becoming a young professor at UNLV.
To this day, she misses Georgia — the slow pace, the way everyone knows everyone and helps everyone. And the boiled peanuts, or, as it sounds with the Titus drawl, “balled peanuts.”
But she never considered returning to Georgia. “I could never have accomplished there what I’ve accomplished here.”