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January 27, 2010

“Mac” Mathias: A Civil Rights Lion

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Former Republican U.S. Senator Charles McCurdy (Mac) Mathias, a native son of Frederick, has died at the age of 87. He was living in Chevy Chase, where his family reported that he died Monday from complications of Parkinson's disease.


He was born into a politically prominent old Maryland family in Frederick on July 24, 1922, where he attended public schools and graduated from Frederick High School in 1939.


He was the son of Charles Mathias, Sr. and Theresa Trail Mathias. Several ancestors in the Mathias family served in the Maryland General Assembly.


A recent Washington Post tribute noted, “Sen. Mathias's great-grandfather served in the Maryland legislature in the 1860s, and his grandfather was a state senator who campaigned with Theodore Roosevelt. When the future senator was a boy, his father took him to the White House to meet Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.”


He graduated from Haverford College in Pennsylvania in 1944; attended Yale and Columbia University; and went on to receive a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1949


He served in the U.S. Navy, during World War II. He was stationed in the Pacific theatre of the war and later in Japan, where he personally saw the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they were destroyed by an atomic bomb.


He returned home after the war and after receiving his law degree practiced in Frederick. He served as an assistant Maryland Attorney General from 1953 to 1954 and then moved-on to serve as the legal counsel for the City of Frederick from 1954 to 1959.


It was while he served as the Frederick city attorney that he first developed a reputation as a stalwart advocate for civil rights.


Senator Mathias also served in the Maryland House of Delegates in 1959 and 1960.  While serving there he worked hard to see that Maryland finally ratified the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Maryland had not ratified the amendment, which gave African-Americans certain rights after the Civil War, almost 90 years earlier.


In 1968, according to multiple sources, including a New York Times tribute: in “his first election, to the Senate … he defeated Daniel Brewster, a Democratic incumbent who was a friend and former classmate at the University of Maryland Law School. Mr. Brewster had been an usher at Mr. Mathias’s wedding in 1958, and Mr. Mathias had been godfather to Mr. Brewster’s son.”


Senator Mathias served in the U.S. House of Representatives for the 6th Congressional District of Maryland from 1961 to 1969. Afterwards he served in the U.S. Senate until 1987.


Although he is most remembered for his decades of fervent support for civil rights; he was also know as an advocate for the Chesapeake Bay, against the war in Vietnam, and had repeated clashes with the conservative wing of the Republican Party – especially ardent supporters of the Nixon and Reagan administrations.


The New York Times tribute appropriately recognized that “Mr. Mathias … played a major role in drafting the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a subordinate to Republican leaders who provided the margin of victory in the House.”


History will be kind to Senator Mathias in spite of the dynamic that many hard-line conservatives look upon his legacy as the original “RINO,” Republican in name only.


Others fondly recall that he was man who was loyal to his convictions in an era when the Republican Party was wisely, albeit begrudgingly, tolerant of other points of view, rather than ostracize dissenters to the opposition party.


Senator Mike Mansfield, Senate majority leader from 1961 to 1977, referred to Senator Mathias as the “conscience of the Senate.”


The New York Times wrote of the accolades of former Democrat Senator Paul Sarbanes, with whom he served in the Senate for many years, who noted Monday, “that while Mr. Mathias’s ‘most intense critics were within his own party … Mac commanded enormous respect on both sides of the aisle.”


According to an August 19, 1976, article in The Washington Post by Harold J. Logan, “Mathias' Convention Role Is Low-Key,” he was presciently quoted at the time, “I've had to deal with some hard truths... People do not like to hear we have got only 18 percent of the electorate. They pretend it's not important that our following among blacks, and young people, and urban communities is not what it should be...


“But I feel it's of the greatest importance that if there's to be a Republican Party, we look these facts in the face.”


The New York Times mentioned his dry witty sense of humor – and history – when it recalled: “In a 1974 campaign speech he quoted Burke’s 1774 letter to the Electors of Bristol: ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’


“After the applause, he added wryly, ‘I would point out that Edmund Burke was defeated at the next election.’ Then he insisted, ‘But it was still the right answer.’”


The Washington Post noted that Senator Mathias described “the future of the Republican Party in a 1996 interview with The Baltimore Sun. He said: ‘I'd like to think there would be a place for Abraham Lincoln, a place for Theodore Roosevelt, a place for Dwight D. Eisenhower. If there's a place for them, I'd like to think I could find a small niche.’


“Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Ann Bradford Mathias of Chevy Chase; two sons, Charles B. Mathias and Robert F. Mathias of the District. Other survivors include a sister, Theresa M. Michel of Frederick; a brother, Edward Trail Mathias of Baltimore; and two granddaughters.”


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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