It was April 17, 1968 – two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It also had been only a week since the future president, then Houston’s first Republican congressman, had voted for the Fair Housing Act, Lyndon Johnson’s landmark bill barring racial discrimination in housing.
There were death threats. Nobody recognized this former Harris County GOP chairman, once a Barry Goldwater Republican who had pledged to vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the name of states’ rights.
It was a vow that still weighed on Bush’s heart. Earlier that year, he had seen African-American troops in Vietnam. He had heard the calls of the civil rights leaders who marched in Selma, Ala., and Washington.
It was a milestone for Bush and the city of Houston, his adopted home after striking it rich in the West Texas oil fields. It had all been such a stark detour from his genteel upbringing in the upper crust of New England society.
Peter Roussel, his longtime press aide, still remembers the booing and hissing in the Houston school auditorium. “I’m not sure he expected it to be as hostile as it was,” he said.
Bush, a Yale graduate and son of moderate Connecticut U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush, quoted the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke. “I voted from conviction,” he said, “not out of intimidation or fear, but because of a feeling deep in my heart that this was the right thing for me to do.”
By the end of the night, Roussel recalled, Bush had won over the crowd. “It was one of the finest moments of his entire career.”