Claude Denson Pepper (1900-1989) was one of the most prominent southern liberal politicians of the twentieth century. As a Democratic senator representing Florida from 1936 to 1951, he was a national leader in health, labor, and education reform and led the fight to pass the Lend-Lease Act to support the Allied forces during World War II. He was one of few senators subsequently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where from 1963 until his death in 1989 he was the leading spokesman for the elderly.
Claude Pepper was born on a farm near Dudleyville, Tallapoosa County, on September 8, 1900, to Joseph Wheeler Pepper and Lena Talbot. Claude was the oldest of four children, with brothers Joseph B. Pepper and Frank W. Pepper and sister Sarah E. Pepper. After graduating from high school in Camp Hill, he taught school in Dothan and worked in a steel mill in Ensley. As a college student during World War I, Pepper served in the Students Army Training Corps. He graduated from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 1921 and received a law degree from Harvard University in 1924. After teaching law at the University of Arkansas for a year, he was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1925 and set up a practice in Perry, Florida, with the goal of entering politics. His practice prospered, and he helped his parents send his brothers and sister to college.
Pepper was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1929. Two years later, he was appointed to the state board of public welfare at the beginning of the Great Depression. He met his future wife, Mildred Webster, outside the Florida governor's office in Tallahassee in 1931, and they were married in St. Petersburg on December 29, 1936. The couple had no children. When Florida's senior senator, Duncan Fletcher, died in office in 1936, Pepper was elected to his seat. Pepper became the Senate's leading southern liberal when his friend and colleague Hugo Black of Alabama stepped down to join the Supreme Court. Black and Pepper, along with Alabama senator Lister Hill, who won Black's Senate seat, shaped Alabama and the South for decades to come. Together, they fought to persuade their anti-New Deal colleagues that the region's future depended on massive economic and social redevelopment that would only be possible with federal aid. By 1940, Pepper was among President Franklin D. Roosevelt's most loyal allies in the Senate and was being considered as a vice presidential nominee. Pepper began his rise to national prominence in 1940, when his passionate oratory convinced conservative isolationists to pass the Lend-Lease Act and begin U.S. involvement in World War II.
After the U.S. entered the war, Pepper promoted federal aid for health programs as vital to the war effort and went on to champion health care for the poor and medically underserved throughout his political career. In 1942 he collaborated with Surgeon General Thomas Parran to amend the Lanham Public War Housing Act to create a wartime health program and the following year responded to the high number of draft rejects by organizing the Subcommittee on Wartime Health and Education, which highlighted the nation's health needs. Pepper made health reform the centerpiece of proposals for massive federal aid to uplift the South. As a national leader of health reform, Pepper authored or co-sponsored numerous measures that increased funding for disabled children, maternal and infant health, medical research on cancer and heart disease (including the first and subsequent National Institutes of Health), medical education, hospital construction, and a variety of sanitation and public health programs. He was, however, best known for his tireless advocacy of national health insurance, which the American Medical Association opposed as "socialized medicine."
Pepper's new brand of liberalism bridged the New Deal and Cold War eras by emphasizing national defense and economic security as a rationale for social spending. He fought for legislation to establish a minimum wage and an eight-hour workday for workers, abolish the poll tax law to end discrimination against poor and African American voters, and mandate equal pay for women. In 1946 Pepper appeared frequently in the national press and began to eye the 1948 presidential race. He considered running with his close friend and fellow liberal, Vice President Henry Wallace, with whom he was active in the Southern Conference for Human Welfare.
During the postwar years however, Pepper's popularity declined as a result of his public support for Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his continued advocacy for organized labor and a variety of federal programs that many considered "radical." Labeled "Pink Pepper" by the Saturday Evening Post and "Red Pepper" by his enemies, his involvement in a campaign to nominate General Dwight D. Eisenhower over President Harry Truman just before the 1948 Democratic convention diminished his party standing, and he lost his re-election bid in 1950 to Democrat George Smathers. One factor in Pepper's defeat was his unpopular stance on civil rights issues. He was alone among Southern members of Congress in supporting Truman's civil rights program, but declared that it was false to say Truman proposed abolishing segregation in the South. After leaving the Senate in 1951, Pepper practiced law in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee and Miami, Florida.
In 1962, Pepper was elected to the House of Representatives, where he helped pass the 1963 Health Professions Training Act, which provided the first large-scale direct federal aid for medical education. He also chaired the House select committees on aging and rules, and established the House Select Committee on Crime in 1969, which he presided over for six years. The committee held hearings and introduced legislation to fight illegal drugs, organized crime, securities fraud, and prison disturbances. Pepper also introduced and pushed through Congress a bill in 1970 authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration to install metal detectors at all commercial airports in order to prevent hijackings.
Whereas Pepper championed the South as a senator, he turned his attention to the elderly as a congressman. He fought passionately to stop abuse and fraud against older Americans and introduced measures to end involuntary retirement and age discrimination in the workplace. He also led efforts to strengthen Social Security and Medicare. His amendment to the 1988 Medicare Catastrophic Protection Act created the Bipartisan Commission on Comprehensive Health Care, which he chaired.
Pepper died May 30, 1989, in Washington, D.C. He was honored by lying in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and was buried
at the Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee, Florida. In five decades of public service from the Roosevelt to the George H.W. Bush
administrations, Claude Pepper remained one of the most stalwart and influential New Deal liberals, and, along with Hugo Black
and Lister Hill, represented the South's political legacy of progressivism.
Danese, Tracy E. Claude Pepper and Ed Ball: Politics, Purpose, and Power. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.
Pepper, Claude, with Hays Gorey. Pepper: Eyewitness to a Century. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.
Karen Kruse Thomas
Florida State University
Published January 22, 2008
Last updated July 7, 2010