The Democratic Party is holding its convention in Philadelphia for the first time since 1948. At that convention, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey implored his party and nation to “walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” It was a legendary speech that placed Humphrey squarely in the public eye, infuriated southern Democrats, and further propelled the prospect of congressional civil-rights legislation into the American conversation.
Philadelphia in 1948 was a crossroads for President Harry Truman’s emerging persona, Hubert Humphrey’s experimentation in Minneapolis, and the first stirrings of the possible 20th-century reality of African-American participation in the South’s political life.
Truman, in the summer of 1948, was increasingly carving out his own governance identity even as his chance of defeating Republican Gov. Thomas Dewey seemed to be growing dimmer. A product of Confederate-sympathetic Independence, Missouri – which was occasionally reflected in private conversation – Truman acceded to the presidency vowing to honor the legacy of President Franklin Roosevelt and complete his fourth term. In the process, he became president in his own right and on his own terms.
Truman began by reshaping his Cabinet with the exit of Henry Morgenthau, Francis Perkins, and Francis Biddle. He made the decision to use the atomic bombs against Japan and effectively end the Pacific war and World War ll. As Admiral Ernest King – Chief of Naval Operations and a man of spare praise – noted to Britain’s Lord Moran: “Watch the president. This is all new to him, but he can take it. He is a more typical American than Roosevelt, and he will do a good job, not only for the United States but for the whole word.”
‘I am here to make decisions’
Although Truman was subject to often biting criticism from Republicans and some Democrats, 1948 reflected his self-imposed job description as related to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden: “I am here to make decisions, and whether they prove right or wrong, I am going to make them.”
Truman had plenty of opportunities to exercise his prerogative to decide:
- Over 1 million African-American soldiers served in the United States armed forces in World War ll. Truman desegregated the armed forces by executive order in 1947.
- Stalin’s bellicosity towards the United States and the West included his refusal to honor the promises he made at Yalta. Truman faced him down with the Berlin airlift of 1948 as Germany became ground zero for the Cold War.
- Struggling with the State Department over the direction of U.S. policy toward Palestine at the end of the British mandate, Truman recognized Israel de facto shortly after Israel declared its independence. While certain American Zionist leaders exasperated him, the plight of Holocaust survivors in Europe deeply moved him, as did the historic figure of Chaim Weizmann.
Truman’s ability to make decisions, though, fell outside the scope of the approaching fight within the Democratic Party over civil rights – at least initially. According to Truman biographer David McCullough, Truman initially thought of Humphrey and his followers as “crackpots” on the issue of civil rights.
Meanwhile, if Truman saw Humphrey as overzealous, perhaps reflecting the split between north and south in his party, the Republicans were united on the issue of civil rights at least by word. The GOP platform obliquely referenced the Civil War and supported federal legislation for equal rights based upon “race, religion, color or country of origin.”
Underdog and upstart
The political fates of the two Midwestern Democrats were grounded on a ballot in which Truman would appear as the underdog Democratic presidential candidate and Humphrey as the upstart Democratic Farmer Labor candidate for Senate – for a party only four years old.
Humphrey’s path to the Philadelphia convention took him through his boyhood in Depression-era South Dakota; college studies at the University of Minnesota and a graduate program at Louisiana State University; and an unsuccessful run for mayor of Minneapolis in 1943 before winning in 1945.
Minneapolis was a combination of Stockholm, London, and Deadwood with a feel of Gentlemen’s Agreement at war’s end. Entrepreneurs of Scandinavian and Anglo heritage had developed the powerful milling and mercantile firms of the city, bringing employment and opportunity to thousands and wealth to Minneapolis. Simultaneously – dating back to the 1920s and 1930s – there was a brawling and gangster tinge to the city (see Near v. Minnesota 283 U.S. 697 ) amid often radical labor politics and strikes ferociously resisted by the Citizens Alliance. Meanwhile, there was profound social exclusion of Jews, African-Americans, and Japanese-Americans from the civic life of Minneapolis.
Humphrey was elected mayor with this mélange as his backdrop. Humphrey believed the racial and religious exclusion of Minneapolis was a form of segregation. He saw it as morally wrong and retarding the economic development of the city. Working with city’s leaders across business, political, ethnic, geographical, and social lines, Humphrey guided these various interests toward the City Council’s passage of among the country’s first open-housing and anti-job-discrimination ordinances. The City Council established a Fair Employment Practices Commission.
Experiences as mayor of Minneapolis
Difficulties of discrimination continue to this day, but Humphrey’s experiences as mayor of Minneapolis were among the building blocks of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Humphrey and Minneapolis were the embodiment of the belief of Justice Louis Brandeis and the states as laboratories of democracy (New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann 285 U.S. 262 ). Humphrey’s national reputation was on the rise as Democrats headed to Philadelphia for their convention in July 1948.
Also ascending was greater confidence within the growing African-American civil rights movement to advocate for national legislation to vindicate the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. Slavery may have been outlawed and citizenship guaranteed (repudiating the Dred Scott decision) but Plessy v. Ferguson vitiated the reach of the equal-protection clause. The “badges of slavery” remained in many parts of the country and in the minds of many Americans.
Despite the discrimination faced, African-Americans – like Japanese Americans and Native Americans – served their country with great distinction and large numbers in the United States military during World War ll. After Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order of June 1941 abolishing racial discrimination in the national defense industry, African-Americans along with women worked in large numbers in defense plants.
The United States was changing in the aftermath of the war, but vicious racism continued. It is moving to read the poignant letters – in the Hubert Humphrey archive at the Minnesota Historical Society – received from African-American leaders across the country as the 1948 convention approached. Sixty-eight years later the words of Harry T. Moore remain fresh and powerful.
Moore was the executive secretary of the Progressive Voters League of Florida. The League represented 80,000 “registered Negro voters” in Florida. (There are now 1.6 million registered African-American voters in Florida.) Writing July 8, 1948, Moore commended Humphrey for his willingness to “fight” for a democratic platform containing anti-lynching, anti-poll tax, and federal fair-employment legislation. He then hammered home the point in context:
‘At the crossroads’
“We are now at the crossroads. Either we must face the facts and work earnestly for a practical application of these democratic ideals that we have preached to the rest of the world, or we must shamefully admit that our American democracy is little more than a ‘sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.’ ” (Moore was quoting 1 Corinthians 13:1 reminding us of the important role of religion in the civil-rights movement in asserting secular rights.)
Perhaps Moore’s words were echoing in the mind of Humphrey as he approached the podium of the Democratic National Convention on July 14, 1948. In the next 10 minutes, he would challenge his party and nation – at a crossroads – to embrace modernity via his proposed civil-rights plank to the Democratic platform.
A Minnesota delegation including Eugenie Anderson, Orville Freeman, and Arthur Naftalin watched and listened. (I’m uncertain from the roster of the Minnesota delegation if there were any African American delegates. Nellie Stone Johnson was not listed.) Hubert Humphrey’s father – the chair of the South Dakota delegation – watched and listened.
As David Pietrusza chronicled in 1948, Humphrey was nervous as he sat on the platform. Wearing a Truman button, he commented to a close Truman ally and party boss of the Bronx, Ed Flynn, about the need to make the fight. Flynn told him: “You kids are right. You know what you are doing.”
Soon a majority of the convention supported the minority report by a margin of 651.5 to 582.5. The Dixiecrats bolted the party. Much of the New Deal coalition – with the addition of a strong Midwestern farm vote – stayed home with the Democrats.
The hopes of Harry Moore were affirmed, as columnist Holmes Alexander wrote: “The appeal sounded through the Convention Hall like a trumpet.”
Harry Truman was elected president in his own right. (David McCullough opines: “Hubert Humphrey had done more to reelect Truman than would anyone at the Convention other than Truman himself.”)
Hubert Humphrey was elected to the United States Senate. We are a nation that continues to struggle fundamentally with civil rights a half century after the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act and after the election of an African-American president.
Yet, 68 years ago in the home of the Constitution and the Liberty Bell inscribed with the Biblical phrase – “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” – the road less traveled became the road more traveled for the long journey ahead.
Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.)