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‘Into the bright sunshine’ — Hubert Humphrey’s civil-rights agenda

Hubert H. Humphrey was born on May 27, 1911. As his 100th birthday approaches, MinnPost will examine significant aspects of his public life.

Editor’s note: Hubert H. Humphrey was born on May 27, 1911. As his 100th birthday approaches, MinnPost will examine significant aspects of his public life.

First in a series
Nell Dobson Russell was quite impressed with Minneapolis’ newly elected mayor.

“In the matter of inter-race relations, Hubert Humphrey is sincere, frank and determined,” Dobson observed in her July 1945 column for the Minneapolis Spokesman, the city’s African- American weekly. “(He) publicly expressed his opinions on the question of Negro rights long before he ever ran for public office. He is familiar with the problems Negroes face and he is ready to help solve them, if he can get the cooperation he wants.”
Ethnic and racial minorities had long faced rampant discrimination in Minnesota’s largest city, but that issue had never been of much concern in City Hall before Humphrey moved in to the mayor’s office.

In Minneapolis’s Near North Side, the city’s small African-American and Jewish communities had lived in adjoining neighborhoods. Jews and blacks were both shut out of jobs by many of the city’s largest employers, and both groups found that certain residential neighborhoods were off limits to them. But while housing discrimination against Jews was subtle and often unspoken, discrimination against blacks was direct and overt. In neighborhoods throughout the city, real-estate deeds, as a matter of course, included covenants that made the property off limits to African-Americans.

Now, in his first inaugural address as mayor, Humphrey faced the issue of human rights head on. Declaring that “government can no longer ignore displays of bigotry, violence and discrimination,” the city’s 34-year-old chief executive called for passage of a local fair-employment ordinance to combat job discrimination faced by Jews, African-Americans and American Indians.

In his 1945 address, as he would do throughout his career, Humphrey used soaring rhetoric to promote his policy agenda. But Humphrey soon found that soaring rhetoric was not enough to get his policies adopted. When his initial plan was presented to a City Council committee, it was rejected by a vote of 3 to 2. The vote showed Humphrey that he needed to establish a base of support for civil rights if he was going to make a real difference in City Hall. Soon after the Council rejection, he started building that base by creating a semi-official advisory group known as the Mayor’s Committee on Human Relations.  

With political adroitness, the Minneapolis mayor persuaded the noted Lutheran minister, the Rev. Reuben Youngdahl, to head the committee. Youngdahl was the pastor of the city’s largest Lutheran church and the brother of Judge Luther Youngdahl, the Republican who would be elected governor of Minnesota in 1946. With Humphrey’s enthusiastic backing, the committee began laying the groundwork for a public response to the issue of racial and religious discrimination in Minneapolis. Humphrey and the Rev. Youngdahl were able to attract important local business leaders to this new civic effort aimed at breaking down the city’s social barriers. During the prewar era in Minneapolis, the need to break down barriers had not been of much concern to the city’s social and economic elite; but now, in the mid-1940s, Humphrey’s human-rights initiative would mark the beginning of a new, more progressive outlook by key elements in the city’s leadership group.

Mayor Hubert Humphrey displays the Pledge for American Unity.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Mayor Hubert Humphrey displays the Pledge for American Unity.

Soon after it was established, the Mayor’s Committee undertook an ambitious effort to assess the level of racial and religious discrimination in Minneapolis. The effort, which attracted 500 volunteers, was known as the Self Survey. Humphrey’s biographer, Carl Solberg, would later write that “Blacks and Jews walked side by side with Yankee housewives and Scandinavian farmers’ sons to check out discriminatory practices in specific areas — offices, factories, schools and churches.”

The Mayor’s Committee received enthusiastic support from the city’s Jewish community, which had long faced endemic patterns of anti-Semitism in broad areas of civic life. In 1946, noted American journalist Carey McWilliams, writing for the monthly magazine Common Ground, had called Minneapolis the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.

By 1947, Humphrey was beginning to see some tangible results from his efforts to create a base of support for his human-rights agenda. In January, with strong backing from the Youngdahl committee, the young mayor was able to win passage of his fair-employment ordinance when the City Council voted 21 to 3 to ban employment discrimination in Minneapolis. The ordinance also established a five member commission to investigate discrimination complaints and to pursue remedial actions. The locally based American Jewish World applauded the city action, noting that the employment measure was “the most comprehensive and aggressive measure adopted by any city thus far in the field of human rights. The city which only a few months ago was branded ‘the capital of anti-Semitism’ is now officially occupying the most forward position in anti-bias legislation,” the Jewish World declared.

A broader political agenda
In these efforts Humphrey was motivated by a sincere desire to remedy social injustice. At the same time, he was keenly aware of the political ramifications of civil rights and its usefulness in achieving his political ends.

In 1944, prior to his election as mayor of Minneapolis, Humphrey had helped bring about a merger of Minnesota’s faltering Farmer Labor Party with the state’s political also-rans, the Democrats. In the postwar period, as Humphrey struggled to build the newly merged Democratic Farmer Labor Party into an effective political force, he had to fend off opponents from the left — who would later defect to Henry Wallace and his Progressives — and those on the right, the old-line patronage-based Democrats, who viewed the crusading young mayor with suspicion. By 1948, Humphrey would be plunged into a battle to oust the Communist-infiltrated left-wingers from positions of influence in the newly created DFL.

Civil rights gave Humphrey an issue he could use to blunt attacks from the progressives on the left who were suspicious of his anti-Communist slant and his close ties to certain downtown businessmen. Civil rights would also help Humphrey remake the image of the Democratic Party, which had long been closely tied to the white supremacists in the South and their supporters in Congress who had blocked civil-rights legislation in Washington for decades. Humphrey knew that a forthright civil-rights agenda would enable the Democratic Party to attract the growing black vote in northern states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York with large electoral votes.

After his landslide win for a second mayoral term in 1947, as he set his sights on higher office, the young Minneapolis mayor was starting to attract admirers in national political circles who were impressed with Humphrey’s intelligence and energy. Already he was being included in planning meetings for a new national organization, the Americans for Democratic Action, established to carry on the New Deal liberalism of the Roosevelt era, but from an anti-Communist perspective.

Humphrey’s national connections helped win him a place on the Platform Committee at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. There, he became a key advocate for a minority plank that set forth a strong civil-rights agenda for the Democratic Party. The party’s more senior leaders and political operatives from the Truman White House wanted the platform to merely espouse some bland generalities about human rights, as it had done on the past, which would not arouse the wrath of the party’s segregationist southern wing. Those bland generalities were included in the majority report approved by the Platform Committee. But Humphrey and his allies pushed ahead with their activist agenda in their minority report.
                                                                                                                                             On the convention floor, Humphrey, speaking in support of the minority report, would deliver his landmark address calling on the Democratic Party “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Humphrey’s impassioned floor speech helped move the delegates to adopt the minority report and precipitated a convention walk-out by the party’s southern segregationists, led by South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond.

The speech also helped establish Hubert Humphrey as a national civil-rights leader, a role he would continue to play when he was elected to the U.S. Senate later that year.

In the Senate, a huge roadblock
When he moved on to the national scene, Humphrey would again work to generate a broad, bipartisan base of support for civil rights. But in the Senate, he encountered a huge roadblock that had prevented any real progress on that front for generations. That roadblock was the filibuster — a procedure that enabled a small minority of Senate members to kill legislation they did not support by talking the measure to death.

Under the rule in effect during Humphrey’s early terms in the Senate, two-thirds of the senators present and voting on a particular issue needed to vote to curtail debate through a procedure known as cloture.

“Without the votes for cloture, in theory, it was possible to hold the Senate in session around the clock, exhausting the filibustering senators, and thus breaking the filibuster,” Humphrey would later write. “But this tactic, in fact, didn’t work. … Inevitably, non-filibustering senators always wore out first.’

By Humphrey’s third term in the Senate, protests over entrenched patterns of racial segregation were escalating and the nation’s attention was riveted on events in places like Birmingham, where police turned dogs and fire hoses on the protesters. In 1963, a mass movement to promote civil rights culminated with the August March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech

That year, President John F. Kennedy proposed a far-reaching civil-rights measure to combat discrimination and vote suppression faced by African-Americans, mainly in the South. Kennedy was assassinated before he was able to move the legislation forward in Congress.

In early 1964, after Lyndon Johnson had move up to the White House, the civil-rights bill passed the House and move on to the Senate, where it faced bedrock opposition from a group of southern senators, who were prepared to use any weapon at their disposal to block the legislation.

Assigned to be floor leader for civil-rights bill
In the greatest legislative test of his career, Humphrey was assigned to be floor leader for the Senate civil-rights bill. Humphrey knew that he would not be able to move the bill forward without the two-thirds vote for cloture. “Since 18 of the 59 Democrats were bitter-end segregationists, he knew he could not put together the 67 votes needed unless he could co-opt the Republican opposition, most of whom had never before voted for cloture,” noted Humphrey’s biographer, Carl Solberg. “Nor, as he knew from personal experience, could he expect to assemble that many votes in the showdown unless he could hold the notoriously fractious liberal Democrats together.”

Humphrey soon realized that the Senate Republican minority leader, Illinois’ Everett Dirksen, held the key to any successful strategy to overcome the southern filibuster. “From the start, Humphrey cultivated Dirksen, praising him on television, predicting he would place country above party and support a good rights bill,” Solberg wrote. “Angelic choirs could not have sounded sweeter than Humphrey as he sang the praises of the senator from Illinois.”

Humphrey was able to engage Dirksen, but the Republican leader wanted his own imprint on the legislation, so the Democratic floor leader was forced to negotiate on a long list of amendments to the bill. Finally in early summer, 1964, after weeks of arduous negotiations, the civil-rights bill was ready for floor action. With Dirksen’s support, Humphrey was able to round up 71 votes for cloture, four more than he needed.

The ‘supreme moment’
“Humphrey’s supreme moment of personal triumph came … on the evening of June 19, as the Senate approved by the Civil Rights Act by a vote of 73 to 27 and he walked out of the Capitol into the soft summer twilight to be greeted by cries of “good job” and “God bless you” from several hundred people waiting to hear the outcome of the vote,” wrote Al Eisele, one of Humphrey’s biographers.

The next year, Humphrey, as vice president, stood at Lyndon Johnson’s side as the president signed into law the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Johnson’ loyal lieutenant had been the administration’s chief advocate for its ambitious Great Society agenda, which included voting rights as a key priority.

Hubert Humphrey had been there in the beginning, when, as an unknown Midwestern mayor, he won passage of the Minneapolis’s Fair Employment Practices law. He would be there 18 years later when this country finally extended the franchise to millions of African-Americans who had been denied the right to vote for countless generations.

Monday: ‘Into the bright sunshine’ — Hubert Humphrey’s civil-rights agenda
Tuesday: Loyal lieutenant: On the ticket with LBJ
Wednesday: Two favorite sons: the Humphrey-McCarthy battle of 1968
Thursday: The final chapter: Hubert Humphrey returns to public life