James Garner’s legacy: A commitment to civil rights and political activism

 

When actor James Garner decided to help organize and attend the March on Washington in 1963, he wasn’t just listening to his conscience. He and other actors who attended may have been embarking on Hollywood’s first large-scale political act since the days of McCarthyism and Hollywood’s anti-Communist blacklist.

Actor James Garner, "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files" star, is found dead at his Los Angeles home at age 86. (Reuters)

After years of viewing the government with suspicion, many felt emboldened to participate, joining forces with black actors such as Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Diahann Carroll. Garner and other celebrities in attendance, including Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, openly defied J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was keen to stop the march. In “Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington,” Charles Euchner wrote:

The FBI attempted to exploit fears about violence and Communist infiltration of the civil rights movement — fears that were partly the result of J. Edgar Hoover’s long campaign against the movement. FBI agents made last-minute calls to celebrities. Do you know, the agents asked, that many of the march’s leaders are Communists? Do you know that Communists and other leftists could create chaos at the march? Do you know that it’s not too late to pull out of the march? Stay away!

While celebrity presence at the March on Washington didn’t seem to have much impact on actors’ box-office takes, the fight for social justice was not always without consequence. As George Takei reminded the audience on “Real Time with Bill Maher” this weekend, when “Star Trek” dared to air an interracial kiss between Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in the 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Southern NBC affiliates blacked out of the show and ratings dropped.

Garner’s involvement was part of a long career of political activism. He told people he met his wife, Lois Clarke, at party for Adlai Stevenson, the liberal Democratic Party presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956. (Clarke gently corrected him in an appendix to his memoir, “The Garner Files” — they actually met at an earlier party, she said.) Though he believed in supporting causes political and environmental, Garner was staunchly against actors holding office for the most part. In “The Garner Files,” the self-identified “bleeding-heart liberal” wrote:

Too many actors have run for office. There’s one difference between me and them: I know I’m not qualified. In my opinion, Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t qualified to be governor of California. Ronald Reagan wasn’t qualified to be governor, let alone president. I was a vice president of the Screen Actors Guild when he was its president. My duties consisted of attending meetings and voting. The only thing I remember is that Ronnie never had an original thought and that we had to tell him what to say. That’s no way to run a union, let along a state or a country.

Garner also wrote of how Republicans approached him to run for office in 1962. He said they didn’t care when he informed them he was a Democrat; they thought he was a winner. Garner visited troops in Vietnam in 1967, was a supporter of the National Support Committee of the Native American Rights Fund and a supporter of the National Museum of the American Indian.

GOD, THE DEVIL AND BOB -- NBC Midseason Series -- Pictured: God (voice of James Garner) -- Animation: Carsey-Werner Animation, LLC ORG XMIT: ; 70 Pictured: God, as voiced by James Garner. Animation: (Carsey-Werner Animation)

Garner’s unwavering support of the principles he cared about certainly sets him apart from some of today’s celebrity set. Maybe that — along with his wit — was what made him an ideal choice as the laidback hippie voice of God in the short-lived animated series “God, the Devil and Bob.”

Below, a clip of Garner doing what he did best, making it look easy, as he falls for Julie Andrews’ character in “Victor/Victoria.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.

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