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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

President Harry S. Truman and Civil Rights

President Harry S. Truman shared the common racial prejudices of his upbringing in Missouri. As historian David McCullough explained in his biography of Truman:

He did not favor social equality for blacks and he said so. But he wanted fairness, equality before the law. [McCullough, David, Truman , Simon and Schuster, 1992, p. 247]

Whatever his personal views, Truman believed that as President he must rise above them. On December 5, 1946, he signed Executive Order 9808 establishing the President's Committee on Civil Rights to evaluate the state of civil rights, compile a report, and make recommendations "with respect to the adoption or establishment, by legislation or otherwise, of more adequate and effective means and procedures for the protection of the civil rights of the people of the United States." Charles E. Wilson, the president of General Electric, chaired the committee. Truman's advisors, whether from the North or South, were certain he was committing political suicide by tackling the issue. [Truman , p. 570]

Even before the committee released its report, Truman addressed the NAACP. At 4:30 p.m. on June 29, 1947, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he addressed 10,000 delegates to the closing session of the 38th annual conference of the NAACP. The President talked about civil rights and human freedom:

It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our country's efforts to guarantee freedom and quality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to insure that all Americans enjoy these rights.

When I say all Americans I mean all Americans.

He summed up his view on the Nation's responsibility:

As Americans, we believe that every man should be free to live his life as he wishes. He should be limited only by his responsibility to his fellow countrymen. If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American's achievement should be his ability, his industry, and his character . . . . Our immediate task is to remove the last remnants of the barriers which stand between millions of our citizens and their birthright. There is no justifiable reason for discrimination because of ancestry, or religion, or race, or color.

He pledged his full support to ensuring these rights for every citizen:

The way ahead is not easy. We shall need all the wisdom, imagination and courage we can muster. We must and shall guarantee the civil rights of all our citizens. Never before has the need been so urgent for skillful and vigorous action to bring us closer to our ideal.

After citing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation, President Truman said:

With these noble charters to guide us, and with faith in our hearts, we shall make our land a happier home for our people, a symbol of hope for all men, and a rock of security in a troubled world.

McCullough called it "the strongest statement on civil rights heard in Washington since the time of Lincoln." He added, "That someone of his background from western Missouri could be standing at the shrine of the Great Emancipator saying such things was almost inconceivable."

Taking his seat after the speech, Truman told NAACP executive secretary White that he meant "every word of it -and I'm going to prove that I do mean it." [Truman , p. 570]

To Secure These Rights , the committee's October 1947 report, covered a range of topics, including discrimination in places of public accommodation:

Most Americans patronize restaurants, theaters, shops, and other places offering service to the public according to their individual preferences and their ability to pay. They take their right to enter such places and to be served for granted. This is not the case with other Americans. Because of their race or their color or their creed, they are barred from access to some places and given unequal service in others. In many sections of this country, some people must pause and give thought before they enter places serving the public if they wish to avoid embarrassment, arrest, or even possible violence.

The report cited the Civil Rights Act of 1875, approved by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1875. In its key provision, the legislation provided:

Be it enacted, That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.

After the Supreme Court ruled in 1883 that the act was unconstitutional, the committee's report stated, "legislation on the matter was left entirely to the states." As of the date of the report, 18 States prohibited discrimination in places of public accommodation. "Most of them prohibit discrimination in public conveyances of all types . . . ." However, 20 States "by law compel segregation in one way or another." The remaining 10 States did not have laws on the subject:

In the states with compulsory segregation laws Negroes are usually separated from whites in all forms of public transportation, and in hotels, restaurants, and places of amusement. Fourteen states require railroads to separate the races, and two authorize railroads to provide such separation. Train conductors are given power to enforce these laws. Under the Supreme Court decision in Morgan v. Virginia, such laws do not apply to passengers in interstate transportation. However, this decision does not prevent carriers from voluntarily enforcing segregation. Eight states require separate waiting rooms, 11 require separation in buses, 10 in street cars and three in steamships and ferries. Instances where completely separate facilities are provided, as in railroad coaches and waiting rooms, those set aside for the Negro are usually inferior in quality.

In States that secure the right of access, "practice does not necessarily conform to the law." The report added that, "One prominent Negro has stated that it is difficult to find a meal or a hotel room in the downtown areas of most northern cities." Signs declaring "whites only" went unchallenged. The penalties for violating public accommodation laws were usually small and the prospect of prosecution or civil suit slight. Often, the discrimination was less overt than a direct violation of the law. "Unwanted customers are discouraged from patronizing places by letting them wait indefinitely for service, charging higher prices, giving poor service, and publicly embarrassing them in various ways."

Even in interstate transportation, companies adapted to differing State laws:

For example, the Pennsylvania Railroad in its terminal in New York City segregates Negroes in coaches on through trains bound for the South, even though it does not do so on its own trains operating as far as Washington. [To Secure These Rights: The Report of The President's Committee on Civil Rights , Government Printing Office, 1947, p. 76-78]

The committee's report provided a long list of recommendations, including two under public services:

The enactment by Congress of a law prohibiting discrimination or segregation, based on race, color, creed, or national origin, in interstate transportation and all the facilities thereof, to apply against both public officers and the employees of private transportation companies.

Legislation is needed to implement and supplement the Supreme Court decision in Morgan v. Virginia . There is evidence that some state officers are continuing to enforce segregation laws against interstate passengers. Moreover, carriers are still free to segregate such passengers on their own initiative since the Morgan decision covered only segregation based on law. Congress has complete power under the Constitution to forbid all forms of segregation in interstate commerce. We believe it should make prompt use of it.

The enactment by the states of laws guaranteeing equal access to places of public accommodation, broadly defined, for persons of all races, colors, creeds, and national origins.

Since the Constitution does not guarantee equal access to places of public accommodation, it is left to the states to secure that right. In the 18 states that have already enacted statutes, we hope that enforcement will make practice more compatible with theory. The civil suit for damages and the misdemeanor penalty have proved to be inadequate sanctions to secure the observance of these laws. Additional means, such as the revocation of licenses, and the issuance of cease-and-desist orders by administrative agencies are needed to bring about wider compliance. We think that all of the states should enact such legislation, using the broadest possible definition of public accommodation. [To Secure , p. 170-171, bold in original]

For Truman, the report was a "shocking revelation," as McCullough put it. He could "no longer sit idly by and do nothing in the face of glaring injustice." The South, he was convinced, was "living eighty years behind the times and the sooner they come out of it the better it will be for the country and themselves." He was outraged by incidents of brutality that went unpunished, especially when directed at African-American veterans. As he told a friend who cautioned him to go easy on civil rights:

I am going to try to remedy it and if that ends up in my failure to be reelected, that failure will be in a good cause. [Truman , p. 588-589]

As the election year of 1948 began, President Truman delivered his State of the Union Address on January 7, before a Congress that had been controlled by Republicans since the elections of 1946. McCullough called the address "an uncompromising reaffirmation of his liberal program":

In less than an hour at the podium, Truman called again for a national health insurance program, a massive housing program, increasing support for education, increased support for farmers, the conservation of natural resources, and a raise in the minimum wage from 40 to 75 cents an hour. To compensate for rising prices, he proposed a "poor man's" tax cut, whereby each taxpayer would be allowed to deduct $40 for himself and for each dependent from his final tax bill . . . . Further, Truman announced he would be sending Congress a special message on civil rights. "Our first goal," he said, "is to secure fully the essential human rights of our citizens."

The speech "evoked little applause and little praise afterward," McCullough said:

The Republicans, as anticipated, did not like it at all, any more than did the southern Democrats . . . . The distress among southern Democrats was considerable. [Truman , p. 586]

A. Philip Randolph saw an opportunity to pursue the cause he had failed to convince President Roosevelt to adopt. Tye explained:

Randolph played hardball, launching the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, threatening to rally black draftees and veterans behind a program of civil disobedience, and capitalizing on Truman's fear of black defection to Progressive Party presidential nominee Henry A. Wallace . . . . [Rising , p, 214-215

On February 2, 1948, President Harry S. Truman sent a special message to Congress on civil rights, the first presidential message of its kind, and one he sent without consulting Democratic leaders in Congress. Drawing on the findings detailed in To Secure These Rights , he told Congress that the Nation must "strive in our constant effort to strengthen our democracy and improve the welfare of our people." Citing the high goals of the Nation's founders, he said, "We shall not . . . achieve the ideals for which this Nation was founded so long as any American suffers discrimination as a result of his race, or religion, or color, or the land of origin of his forefathers." He added:

Unfortunately, there still are examples-flagrant examples-of discrimination which are utterly contrary to our ideals. Not all groups of our population are free from the fear of violence. Not all groups are free to live and work where they please or to improve their conditions of life by their own efforts. Not all groups enjoy the full privileges of citizenship and participation in the government under which they live.

The issue was basic to democracy. "The protection of civil rights is the duty of every government which derives its powers from the consent of the people." To accomplish this goal he recommended a series of steps that would require congressional action. They included establishment of a permanent Commission on Civil Rights, Federal protection against lynching, protection of the right to vote, settling claims of Japanese-Americans who had been relocated after the attack on Pearl Harbor, statehood for Alaska and Hawaii, suffrage and self government for the District of Columbia, and "Prohibiting discrimination in interstate transportation facilities." Of the latter he said:

The channels of interstate commerce should be open to all Americans on a basis of complete equality. The Supreme Court has recently declared unconstitutional state laws requiring segregation on public carriers in interstate travel. Company regulations must not be allowed to replace unconstitutional state laws. I urge Congress to prohibit discrimination and segregation, in the use of interstate transportation facilities, by both public officers and the employees of private companies.

He concluded his message by saying:

We know that our democracy is not perfect. But we do know that it offers freer, happier life to our people than any totalitarian nation has ever offered.

If we wish to inspire the peoples of the world whose freedom is in jeopardy, if we wish to restore hope to those who have already lost their civil liberties, if we wish to fulfill the promise that is ours, we must correct the remaining imperfections in our practice of democracy.

McCullough described the speech as "a brave, revolutionary declaration, given the reality of entrenched discrimination and the prevailing attitudes of white Americans nearly everywhere in the country, but especially in the South, where the social status and legal 'place' of black citizens had advanced not at all in more than half a century." Truman believed in the specifics and the spirit of his statement. "Asked at a press conference a few days later what he had drawn on for background, he replied, 'the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.'" [Truman , p. 587]

After meeting with several southern Democrats who suggested he soften his views, Truman replied in writing. He reminded them that he came from a part of Missouri where Jim Crow still prevailed. He continued:

But my very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.

Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this.

He had been particularly affected by the experience of Isaac Woodard, the African-American sergeant who had been dragged from a bus in Batesburg, South Carolina, and beaten and blinded by police.

During the July nominating convention of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, civil rights would divide the party. On July 13, an African-American alternate delegate from St. Louis challenged the seating of the Mississippi delegation. He was overruled, but U.S. Representative William L. Dawson, an African-American from Chicago, gave a talk on civil rights. The following day, a northern delegation headed by Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey of Minneapolis demanded a stronger civil rights plank in the party platform that would endorse Truman's recommendations. When the platform committee kept the moderate plank designed to appease southern delegates, Humphrey took to the podium for a 10-minute speech that, as McCullough explained, would make history. In part Humphrey said:

There are those who say to you-we are rushing this issue of civil rights. I say we are a hundred and seventy-two years late . . . . The time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.

The speech set off demonstrations around the convention hall while southern delegates sat silently. The new plank on civil rights was approved:

The Democratic Party is responsible for the great civil rights gains made in recent years in eliminating unfair and illegal discrimination based on race, creed or color.

The Democratic Party commits itself to continuing its efforts to eradicate all racial, religious and economic discrimination.

We again state our belief that racial and religious minorities must have the right to live, the right to work, the right to vote, the full and equal protection of the laws, on a basis of equality with all citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution.

We highly commend President Harry S. Truman for his courageous stand on the issue of civil rights.

We call upon the Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental American Principles: (1) the right of full and equal political participation; (2) the right to equal opportunity of employment; (3) the right of security of person; (4) and the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation.

We pledge ourselves to legislation to admit a minimum of 400,000 displaced persons found eligible for United States citizenship without discrimination as to race or religion. We condemn the undemocratic action of the Republican 80th

Congress in passing an inadequate and bigoted bill for this purpose, which law imposes no-American restrictions [sic] based on race and religion upon such admissions.

We urge immediate statehood for Hawaii and Alaska; immediate determination by the people of Puerto Rico as to their form of government and their ultimate status with respect to the United States; and the maximum degree of local self-government for the Virgin Islands, Guam and Samoa.

We recommend to Congress the submission of a constitutional amendment on equal rights for women.

We favor the extension of the right of suffrage to the people of the District of Columbia.

The plank prompted a walkout by southern delegates who would form a rival States' Rights Party and select Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as their presidential nominee. The platform of the States' Rights Democratic Party stated:

We stand for segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race . . . .
We oppose the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation called for by the platforms adopted by the Democratic and Republican Conventions.

Truman's acceptance speech was plain-spoken, filled with pride in accomplishments and proposals, and strong in denunciation of Republicans. They were, he said, holding up progress on housing, aid to education, medical care, and civil rights:

Everybody knows that I recommended to the Congress the civil rights program. I did that because I believed it to be my duty under the Constitution. Some of the members of my own party disagree with me violently on this matter. But they stand up and do it openly. People can tell where they stand. But the Republicans all professed to be for these measures. But the Congress failed to act . . .

He would, he said, call the Congress back into session on July 26, which he said was known in Missouri as "Turnip Day," to pass legislation on inflation and the housing crisis "which they are saying they are for in their platform," and civil rights legislation "which they say they are for." (He took the phrase Turnip Dayfrom the Missouri folk saying, "On the twenty-fifth of July, sow your turnips, wet or dry." Turnip Day, July 25, was a Sunday in 1948, so the session began on July 26.) The pledge prompted cheering and stomping in the hall, so loud that he had to shout to be heard:

Now, my friends, if there is any reality behind the Republican platform, we ought to get some action from a short session of the 80th Congress. They can do this job in 15 days, if they want to do it. [Truman , p. 638-643]

When the Turnip Session opened, the President addressed Congress to a cool reception. He called for an ambitious agenda for the short session, as described by McCullough:

He called for action on an eight-point program, including civil rights-controls on consumer credit, an excess profits tax, strengthened rent control, price controls, action on housing, farm support, aid to education, an increased minimum wage, and change in the Displaced Persons Act that discriminated against Catholics and Jews-all that he had asked for before and had been denied.

Later that day, Truman surprised Congress by approving two Executive orders:

  • Executive Order 9981: Established the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, and
  • Executive Order 9980: Created a Fair Employment Board to eliminate racial bias in Federal employment.

Tye stated:

[With] Congress balking and pressure building from Randolph, the president signed a pair of executive orders that began the transformation of the armed forces from America's most segregated institution to its most integrated. [Rising , p. 214-215]

(The process, as Tye noted, was just beginning. Desegregating the military would take years, with African-Americans continuing in menial classifications for years. The final all-African-American unit was disbanded in 1954.)

Although some Republicans considered a strategy of approving a few of the measures to show voters a spirit of cooperation, they decided not to give the President any victories:

The two-week session accomplished little, as Truman had anticipated, except to make his point that a Republican Congress was the great roadblock to social progress for the country and to show the gulf between Republican promises and Republican performance. [Truman , p. 651]

Through the fall campaign, Truman repeatedly denounced the "do-nothing" Congress. On election night, he stunned observers, perhaps including himself, by defeating his favored Republican adversary, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, as well as two third-party candidates, Governor Thurmond and Progressive/American Labor nominee and former Agriculture Secretary and Vice President Henry A. Wallace:

Truman: 24,179,347 (303 electoral votes)
Dewey: 21,991,292 (189 electoral votes)
Thurmond: 1,175,930 (39 electoral votes)
Wallace: 1,157,328 (0 electoral votes)

Although many factors contributed to Truman's surprise victory, support from African-Americans was a key factor in the Electoral College votes, as McCullough discussed:

Black support for Truman had been overwhelming. He polled more than two thirds of the black vote, a percentage higher than ever attained by Franklin Roosevelt. In such crucial states as Ohio and Illinois it could be said that the black voter had been quite as decisive as anyone in bringing about a Truman victory. Speaking of Truman's civil rights programs and its impact on the election, [Senator and Democratic Party Chairman] J. Howard McGrath [of Rhode Island] called it both honest statesmanship and politically advantageous. "It lost us three Southern states, but it won us Ohio, Illinois, would have carried New York for us if it had not been for Henry Wallace, and it was a great factor in carrying California." [Truman , p. 713]

When Truman left office on January 20, 1953, he could point to success in many areas, but his record on civil rights was mixed:

He had achieved less in civil rights than he had hoped, but he had created the epoch-making Commission on Civil Rights, ordered the desegregation of the armed services and federal Civil Service, done more than any President since Lincoln to awaken American conscience to the issues of Civil Rights. [Truman , p. 915]

One of his most influential initiatives, the Housing Act of 1949, had the unintended consequence of harming the African-Americans who had shifted from the rural South to northern cities during the great migration begun in the late 1910s. The President had called for a measure to address an acute housing shortage by, in part, clearing slums and replacing them with low-rent public housing. The legislation provided funds for slum clearance as part of efforts to renew urban areas while funding construction of more than 800,000 public housing units. The slum residents who were displaced often were minorities, particularly African-Americans, giving the phrase "urban renewal" another name: "Negro removal."

(In April 1949, Truman rejected a proposal by the Federal Works Agency to focus his housing program on concepts described in Toll Roads and Free Roads and Interregional Highways . The new express highways envisioned by these reports to Congress would provide the framework for revitalized cities. Urban road building would eliminate the substandard housing, while planners coordinated the placement of Federal buildings along the expressways as part of civic center redevelopment. Housing built in conjunction with the expressways would reverse the movement of taxpayers to the suburbs. President Truman preferred to certainty of the bill at hand to the possibility that Congress would pass a bill embodying the express highway plan.)

Updated: 10/17/2013
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