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Lessons from a happy warrior for social justice

On Aug. 4, Hubert Humphrey will be memorialized in a Minnesota ceremony at the state Capitol.

Eric P. Schwartz
Eric P. Schwartz

On Aug. 4, a civil-rights champion will be memorialized in a Minnesota ceremony that merits the attention of anyone who cares about civil rights, social justice, and the future of our country.

On that date, a bronze statue of “the Happy Warrior,” former Mayor, Sen. and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, will be unveiled at Minnesota’s State Capitol in St. Paul.

As it happens, the dedication ceremony will occur shortly after the July 15 anniversary of then-Mayor Humphrey’s appeal for civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. In that historic and courageous speech in Philadelphia, Humphrey successfully urged the Democrats to adopt a landmark civil-rights plank, calling on the Party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

The adopted language was followed by a convention walk-out of southern Democrats and the “Dixiecrat” candidacy of segregationist Strom Thurmond. Far more importantly, it pushed the Democratic Party in the right direction and communicated solidarity with those Americans victimized by racism.

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Later, in the Senate, when Humphrey worked with Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen to break a filibuster and secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he demonstrated both his understanding of politics as the art of the possible and his steadfast commitment to keeping faith with disenfranchised and disadvantaged populations.

Decency, grace, compassion

In short, this Minnesota politician from small-town South Dakota was imbued with a remarkable sense of decency, grace and compassion that compelled him to action in the face of inequality and injustice, and that fostered a reservoir of goodwill with minority communities in general and the African American community in particular. In fact, nearly four decades ago, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights honored the former vice president by establishing the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Award. Today, it stands among the civil-rights community’s highest honors.

Humphrey was distinguished by his profound belief in both the human spirit and the obligation of government to promote the conditions for prosperity and well-being for all. He said, “I believe that each of us can make a difference, that what is wrong can be made right, that people possess the basic wisdom and goodness to govern themselves without conflict.” He also declared that while “it is easy for a society to measure itself against some abstract philosophical principle or political slogan … in the end, there must remain the question: What kind of life is our society providing to the people who live in it?”

As we prepare to honor Hubert Humphrey here in Minnesota, it is worth reflecting on how he might view the state of progress and dialogue on social justice in the United States.

Income and wealth gaps are persistent

I think he’d be worried — in particular, by the fact that our increasing diversity as a nation coexists with substantial and persistent income and wealth gaps between minority and non-minority communities, and by the implications of this situation for our future social and economic well-being.

Minorities now constitute more than one-third of all our citizens, and, within the next three decades, America is likely to become a “majority minority” country, where minority racial and ethnic groups make up more than half our overall population. But if current trends reflecting economic disparities continue — including a recent widening of the wealth gap between communities of color and white Americans — much of the new majority is likely to face a very dismal economic future.

These numbers are more ominous in light of recent research identifying significant obstacles to upward mobility for Americans of modest means. Hubert Humphrey would have been particularly alarmed by these barriers, especially in light of his own comment that “you cannot tell a poor boy from a small country town from the plains of South Dakota who has had the opportunity to be a teacher, a mayor, a senator and a vice president, that America is not a nation of promise.”

Debate on inequality mobility is a welcome sign

These critical issues have hardly been absent from the political debate in this election season. While President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have very different ideas about how to promote progress for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the fact that prominent Democrats and Republicans are now debating inequality and social mobility is a welcome sign.

It may be far too much to expect that this debate will yield more light than heat during the current presidential campaign. But after November, Democrats and Republicans should reach across the political aisle to engage a national conversation on economic opportunity and social mobility in a rapidly changing America.

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They should take a page from the playbook of Humphrey, whose willingness to work with political adversaries was key to the most important social progress of his generation. That would be a fitting tribute to the memory of this extraordinary American hero.

Eric P. Schwartz is dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. A version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post.


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