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Watts, J. C.(1957–) - Congressman, Chronology, Becomes Canadian Football Star, Switches Political Parties, Elected to First Office

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Self-described “conservative, faith-based minister congressman” J. C. Watts Jr. was the first African American to serve in the House Republican leadership. He gleaned his work ethic and conservatism from years of football training, the Baptist church, and his parents who, ironically, were staunch Democrats. He counted “Mr. Conservative” himself, Newt Gingrich, among his friends, and the New York Times once ran an editorial titled “The Trouble with J. C. Watts—He Thinks for Himself.” Watts follows traditional Republican party lines on most issues: he is pro-life; believes in gun-safety reform, not gun control; and supports Social Security and welfare reform, tax relief, parental choice in education and reduction in government influence in the lives of Americans. But he does not follow his party blindly, often taking an independent stand on issues such as affirmative action and civil rights.

“Mine wasn’t a Norman Rockwell childhood,” Watts wrote in his autobiography What Color Is a Conservative? “There were too many black faces, too much poverty, and too little opportunity.” Watts’ father was J. C. “Buddy” Watts, whose family of sharecroppers and dairy farmers emigrated to Eufaula, Oklahoma from Canada and “did pretty well for a black family in that place and time,” Watts wrote in his autobiography. Like families across the United States, black or white, the Watts clan was shaken by the Great Depression.

Buddy Watts, whom his son described in What Color Is a Conservative? as a “firecracker,” was called out as a boy for his name, J. C. J. C. had to stand for something, a teacher insisted in front of his class. “And in an instant that would later determine my name, and that of my son,” Buddy explained; he “proudly said, ‘Julius Caesar!’”

Buddy quit school to work and married Helen Pierce in 1940, when he was 17. They had six children and were married until her death in 1993. J. C. Watts Jr. was the second youngest of the brood, born November 18, 1957. Buddy had an entrepreneurial spirit. He did odd jobs and sold illegal cholk beer to support his family. According to Watts in his autobiography, there was more love than money in his family. His parents, however, understood that saving and investment were their “ticket out of poverty,” Watts wrote. Though money was tight, they managed to save enough to buy a second home and rent it out. Buddy bought “fixer-uppers,” renovated them, and ultimately owned more than twenty rental houses in Eufaula. Watts counts his father, Martin Luther King Jr., and his uncle Wade, an activist, among his role models. His parents also taught him to turn the other cheek.

Buddy and Helen Watts were always willing to go where the work was. They packed up the family and picked cotton in Arizona and worked construction in California. They worked in Wichita, Kansas, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the spring and summer, the family returned to Eufaula in their old GMC farm truck. Buddy and Helen rode up front, and the kids held down the furniture in the back. By the 1960s, with the children all in school, Buddy went off on his own looking for work in the winters. Always involved in the community, Buddy Watts became the town’s first black policeman in 1969 and later became a preacher. Public policy was always a topic at the dinner table, and everyone in the Watts family was assumed to be a lifelong Democrat.

Watts credits his fiscal conservatism to his mother, who made the most of what little the family had. As a boy, she would send him to the grocery store with a list and $20. He longed to leave the store with a Hershey bar or soda bought with the change from the purchases, but his mother had the list figured to within 20 cents. As a teenager, Watts followed in his father’s footsteps, earning money as a jack-of-all-trades, mowing lawns, hauling hay, and delivering newspapers.

Like his peers, Watts grew up without health insurance. As he recalled in What Color Is a Conservative? , “Nobody saw the doctor unless they were in childbirth or at death’s door.” His mother kept the family healthy with her own home remedies.

Watts and his family attended Sulphur Springs Baptist Church, where he and his siblings sang in the choir. Looking back on his youth in the church, Watts wrote in his autobiography that he remembers singing in front of the congregation and hearing people say: “Look at that little boy. He’s going to be a preacher.” Though he left behind his dreams of becoming the next Marvin Gaye or Al Green, Watts did sing onstage with the Temptations at the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia.



Born in Eufaula, Oklahoma on November 18


Named starting quarterback for Oklahoma University Sooners


Graduates University of Oklahoma; is drafted to New York Jets; joins the Ottawa Roughriders; earns MVP award


Plays final season with Toronto Argonauts


Takes position as youth minister of Sunnylane Baptist Church; starts Ironhead Construction and Watts Energy


Switches political affiliation to Republican party


Elected to 104th Congress


Speaks at the Republican national convention; wins the Republican conference chairmanship


Chooses not to run for reelection; founds consulting firm, J. C. Watts Cos.; writes autobiography


Named chairman of FM Policy Focus

Watts’ parents had grown up in the age of Jim Crow, and Eufaula was not immune to the second-class citizenship the bigoted system reinforced. By the time Watts was young, though, things were changing. The last black man lynched in Eufaula was of his grandparents’ generation, but young Watts and a friend were the first black children to attend Eufaula’s all-white Jefferson Davis Elementary.

Watts watched three local boys earn college football scholarships and go on to some achievement in the sport. His own brothers played, too. So Watts followed their lead and joined the football team at Eufaula High. As a sophomore, the coach promoted Watts to quarterback. Some people on the team and around town objected to a black quarterback. “If Eufaula was home to a few bigots,” he wrote in What Color Is a Conservative? , “it was also home to a lot of people who didn’t care what color I was if I could get the ball across the line.” He also excelled on the basketball team and in the school chorus. Upon graduation, he was an All-State and All-American football star, showered with scholarship offers.

Watts’ dreams of a college football career nearly came crashing down in 1976, his senior year. Watts fathered two daughters with two different women. He married one of the women, Frankie Jones, and raised their daughter, and an aunt and uncle raised the other child. With the support of his family, Watts went ahead with his college plans and took a scholarship with Oklahoma University, where he played for legendary coach Barry Switzer. Watts and his wife ultimately had five children together.

His years at Oklahoma University were tough. The culture shock of leaving tiny Eufaula and having to hold his own academically and in sports, among 23,000 other students, almost got the best of him. But by 1979 he was named starting quarterback for the Oklahoma University Sooners. The achievement drew criticism from some fans who wanted to see a white player in the position. Also that year, he and Frankie had their second child, son Jerrell. Watts worked summers on road crews. The Sooners won two Orange Bowls with Watts as quarterback, and Watts was named MVP both times.

Becomes Canadian Football Star

When the 1981 NFL draft came around, Watts was picked for the New York Jets. He quickly found that he would be unable to start in his position, quarterback, and that he likely never would. He was told there was simply too much quarterback talent in the NFL. But Watts acknowledged in his autobiography that black NFL quarterbacks were few and far between at that time. So he joined the Ottawa Roughriders, a Canadian Football League (CFL), where five of the nine league teams already had black quarterbacks.

After several games with the Roughriders, Watts made an impression on his teammates, coaches, and the fans. He earned an MVP award. According to What Color Is a Conservative? , one teammate told a reporter, “You know, there’s something about J. C. He always has a way of getting it done.”

A contract argument kept the quarterback off the field during the 1982 season. He looked to the CFL Players’ Association for help, but the union refused to back him. It was his first experience in the complex arena of labor-management relations. But he was back in 1983 with a four-year contract. In 1986, he played his last season in pro football with the Toronto Argonauts.

Watts returned to Oklahoma and his family and took a position as youth minister of Sunnylane Baptist Church, on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. To his surprise, he found he did not miss football at all. Watts called on the leadership skills he had learned as a quarterback to teach and guide teenagers at Sunnyvale. His job there was to get to know the kids and help them learn how to be productive.

Switches Political Parties

As a journalism student in college, Watts covered a U.S. Senate campaign debate between a young Republican candidate named Don Nickles and Andy Coats, the Democratic mayor of Oklahoma City. “I left the hall that afternoon one confused African American,” he wrote in What Color Is a Conservative? , “because I found myself agreeing more with what the Republican had to say than the Democrat.” Watts had been raised in a 100-percent Democratic environment. He continued: “Every black I knew was a Democrat. It never crossed my mind that a black person could actually be a Republican.” Nickles values appealed to Watts; his views on issues from agriculture to government spending made sense to him. Watts voted Democratic in the 1988 presidential election, but it was the last time. “I switched my party registration to Republican,” he wrote, “and to my surprise discovered that I didn’t grow horns and a tail….” His father took the news of his son’s “defection” fairly well. Watts directs anyone trying to understand how he came by his political views to look to his childhood in Eufaula. “Rural America … raises children with dreams and the values to reach them,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Watts and his growing family were having a hard time getting by on his modest salary, so Watts tapped into his entrepreneurial spirit. While still with the ministry, he took paid speaking engagements and, with his college experience on road crews, started Ironhead Construction, a highway construction company. He also formed Watts Energy, a company that sold fuel to military bases.

The fledgling businessman came face to face with “how overregulation stifles the entrepreneurial spirit in America today,” he wrote in his autobiography. Though government regulations are established in the interests of safety and fairness, he wrote, small businesses often face as much regulation as Fortune 500 companies. He was frustrated with all the red tape he and other small business people faced. Sharing his complaints with a friend over lunch one day, Watts said offhandedly, “Maybe I ought to run for office,” and then he began to seriously consider the idea.

Elected to First Office

After many miles on the campaign trail, Watts became the first African American elected to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. In his autobiography, Watts described the experience as challenging and rewarding, but also frustrating and difficult. As he was sworn in January 1991, he wrote, “I approached my new commission responsibilities with the green enthusiasm of a novice politician.”

Watts found politics a messy business, even at the state level. The commission was the focus of an FBI corruption scandal. Even though he was new on the scene, Watts stood out as a black Republican and found himself in the national spotlight almost immediately when President George H. Bush called on Watts for a photo opportunity.

The new politician discovered that being in the spotlight also made him a target, both personally and politically. Though the FBI investigation focused on the commission for events that took place long before Watts joined, his political foes tried to associate him with the mess. It was a trying time for Watts and his family, but he had some successes during his tenure as commissioner, among them an audit of utility companies that resulted in lower rates and better service for consumers. After four years on the state commission, Watts set his sights on Washington.

Wayans, Damon (1960–) [next] [back] Watt, James

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over 5 years ago

I am writing a book of 52 Christian testimonies from people of all walks of life who have received Christ as personal Lord and Savior. I believe God wants me to write a testimony of J. C. Watts because he has had a unique history and I believe African Americans reading the book will be able to relate and this could bring many to receiving Jesus as their Savior. I want my book to bring glory to God. Please talk to J. C. Watts and see if he would be willing to give me an interview of his testimony. I am hoping to hear back from you soon.

God bless,

Adrienne Hartman

Sioux Falls, SD