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Michael R. Gardner
Author and Attorney
"Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks"
September 26 , 2003

When most historians and most people think of Harry Truman they think of him in the context of the first Cold War president, the architect of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, creation of NATO, the spectacular Berlin airlift, recognition of Israel, and even firing General McArthur, but I would suggest to you and I hope when we finish this forum today you will agree with me that the most significant Truman initiative in terms of the domestic U.S. landscape was in fact his little noted civil rights crusade. I’ll also suggest to you that that crusade which I’ve documented in my book gives readers and gives historians an opportunity to really see into the soul of this man, but before you can really appreciate this civil rights initiative by the 33rd president, you have to look at Truman in two contexts, one, the Missouri of his youth and the other is Washington, DC, April 12, 1945 when he becomes our accidental 33rd president.

Missouri of his youth - 1860 in Missouri right on the eve of the Civil War, I was astounded to find there were 114,930 slaves out of a population of 1.182 million citizens. That’s roughly 9.7% of the state of Missouri on the eve of the Civil War were indentured slaves. Harry Truman was born 19 years after the war ended, 1884. He was born to a loving, agrarian family who unfortunately were racists. Both sets of grandparents owned slaves and his mother, Martha Ellen Young who he loved dearly throughout her long life was a bitter woman in regards to Abraham Lincoln and anything Yankee. That was caused by the fact that age 11 she and her five siblings were taken off the family farm after the farm had been pillaged by Yankee soldiers, took their silver, took all their belongings, slaughtered all their animals. She and her five siblings and her mother were taken off the farm in an ox cart and incarcerated in a Union camp in Kansas City because the family were southern sympathizers.

Harry Truman attended segregated high school in Missouri. He’s our only modern American president who only enjoys a formal education up through high school. He was, however, very literate. Because he had a severe eye deficiency--he wore glasses--he could not participate in sports and spent a lot of time part-time jobs and also in the Independence library where he was a voracious reader and a great student of history, even as a young man.

Harry Truman served in a segregated military, of course. Everything was segregated then and there at the age of 34 found out for the first time he was a leader. He was assigned a group of 194 enlisted men from Kansas City, mostly Irish Catholics. Here is WASP Harry Truman in charge of this rowdy crowd. No one could discipline them, but when they got Captain Truman they in fact became a unit devoted to each other and these men in Battery 9 were almost his surrogate sons, many of them, for the rest of his life. What was important about that experience beside discovering that he was a leader was the carnage he saw at the final three months of the war and he never ever lost his deep respect and profound regard for the servicemen and women who put themselves at risk. He saw it first hand.

1922 he ran for elective office for the first time, an administrative job, county judge in eastern Jackson County. He won. He won despite the fierce opposition of the Ku Klux Klan and often when you mention the Klan in the context of Missouri, people say, well, no big deal. Well, in fact, the Klan was quite a force in Jackson County. In fact, on Saturday nights, one out of 20 citizens of Jackson County, Missouri, put on the white sheets of the Klan to attend meetings. It was a formidable force. Bottom line for Harry Truman--he grew up in a racist state, grew up the product of a racist family. He should’ve been a racist.

Fast forward to April 12, 1945, 7:09 he becomes our president. What’s Washington all about? I’m an Washingtonian. I was three-year-old youngster at that point. Washington best described was then an apartheid city. Everything was segregated--schools, public playgrounds, public pools, restaurants, hotels. Importantly, even the federal government. The federal government segregated by an earlier Democratic President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. That meant, and in my youth I saw it, but if you went to the Executive Office Building there were separate restrooms for blacks and whites, separate water fountains, separate cafeterias. Washington was thoroughly apartheid and when I was doing research for this book, I found a study that brought into sharp focus what I remembered as a youth, but I’ll share this with you.
This is a brief excerpt from a report of the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation’s Capital, 1948. This is the words of that study. “Often an alien Negro will be allowed to eat sitting down at a lunch counter if he has a diplomatic pass or some other means of proving that he is not an American Negro. Four Negro students from the British West Indies sat at a downtown lunch counter. The waitress informed them that they would have to stand to be served, but when they produced their British diplomatic passes, she apologized, remarking she didn’t realize they were `not niggers.’” This is Washington, DC in the nation’s capital, 1948.

Now, a lot of people think that segregation was dominant in the South only. I would suggest to you in 1946 the record is quite different. In fact, 30 of the 48 states of the Union had separate public accommodations laws or some form of forced segregation. In addition, many of you will remember the restrictive covenants that precluded blacks from living in certain neighborhoods. Eighty percent of Chicago was subject to a restrictive covenant in 1946. Seventy-five percent of the new housing in Long Island and Westchester County, New York, was subject to restrictive covenants, so restrictive covenants were a pervasive tool throughout much of the country together with the fact you have 30 of the 48 states with these laws that mandate segregation in some form.

What is different for Truman from LJB and JFK of the ‘60s in confronting civil rights protesting and issues? There was no Black Caucus. There were no massive national sit-ins, no protests. There was no widespread editorial concern about pervasive racism in America. There was no Martin Luther King, but in fact there was something quite dramatic going on in America. There were 12 million veterans, a little tidal wave of veterans returning home from the war in 1946 and 880,000 of those were black veterans, and what this caused was a reaction on the part of the Klan throughout the South primarily but in border states also and the Klan became re-energized and that spawned racial violence.

It’s hard to document the degree of racial violence in early 1946 because the media doesn’t pay much attention to it, but there’s a seminal meeting in regards to U.S. civil rights history that takes place September 19th, 1946 in the Oval Office and at that meeting Walter White who was Executive Director of the NAACP brought in a group of NAACP representatives. White at this point had become a friend of Harry Truman’s. Truman had met with him just 23 day after becoming President and Truman a month later supported the FEPC which Roosevelt would not support although Truman had done it as a senator. He did it writing the House Appropriation Committee, so Truman and White had established a relationship of trust by the time this September 19th meeting takes place, but this meeting I would suggest is the seminal meeting. This meeting allowed White in an unfiltered fashion to tell Truman what was going on with this re-energized Klan violence directed at black veterans and one story particularly had a profound impact on Harry Truman.
It involved a 27-year-old black Army veteran named Isaac Woodard who was discharged seven months earlier on February 12th from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and in his uniform, honorably discharged with his medals on, he boards a Greyhound bus and several hours later in Batesburg, South Carolina, Sergeant Isaac Woodard is taken off the bus by the town sheriff, a 210-pound white man named Linwood Shull. He’s arrested for disorderly conduct. The allegation is he was drinking beer on the bus with several other servicemen at the back of the bus. In none of the papers is there any suggestion there was verbal or physical violence on the part of Sergeant Woodard. It’s quite unclear what really happened. What did happen with certainty is the next morning when the sun came up, Sergeant Isaac Woodard was blind for life. He had been beaten so badly one eye was blinded and the other eye was gouged out.

When Harry Truman heard this story in the context of the state authorities of South Carolina doing nothing for seven months, he exploded. He literally said enough is enough. Walter, we’re going to do something about this and the next day, Harry Truman followed up with a letter to his Attorney General Tom Clark who ironically his father had also owned slaves, and he said to Clark, I want a federal investigation of this. This cannot go on. He also said we have to do something more. We can’t just address these ad hoc cases of violence. We must do something more.

Six days later the Attorney General of the United States indicted the police chief, starts a federal process in federal court in Columbia, South Carolina. Before the trial ends, however, on November 2nd, 1946, Harry Truman suffers the most humiliating political defeat of his life when both houses of the Congress go to the Republicans. Truman wasn’t, of course, up for re-election, but his popular rating was so low at this point that many candidates did not want him out campaigning for them. It was a real repudiation when both houses went Republican for the 80th Congress.
Three days later, however, the trial in Columbia, South Carolina, concluded after 30 minutes of deliberations by an all white jury. Not surprisingly, the police chief was found innocent despite his testimony that he had indeed used the force that blinded the sergeant for the rest of his life.

One month later on December 5, 1946, with his popularity at an all-time low Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9808 which creates the first ever presidential Civil Rights Commission. Now, young people, when you talk about the Commission, they kind of shrug. Political commissions are used all the time to take the heat and rarely do anything. This is a different Commission. This Commission is, no. 1, multi-racial. It’s 15 people, chaired by the President of General Electric, Charles Wilson, leading academics like John Sloan Dickey from Dartmouth; Franklin Roosevelt’s son and, importantly, a woman named Sadie Tanner Alexander who was an attorney for the city of Philadelphia, a black woman, a firebrand. You do not put Sadie Alexander on your committee if you want a go-along get-along type commission.

Importantly, Truman also gives it federal subpoena power because he doesn’t trust his own government in regards to the candor. He says you have a subpoena power. I want to know what’s going on. He meets with them personally in the New Year, January 15th, and he said I want from you 15 people documentation of the degree of racism in America and how we can attack it and I want a game plan. He gives them a staff at the White House, a 12-person staff. They have a mandate that they’re to get this report done before the end of the year. They agree it will October, but before they even get the report done, Harry Truman knows where he wants to take the nation and on June 29th, he addresses-- The first president to ever address the NAACP and where does he do it? The steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
The night before he makes this address he writes his sister. Now, Harry Truman was a very frugal Missourian and he could pick up the phone any time, of course, as President of the United States and call home. Not Harry. Two or three times a week he writes these long letters either to his mother or his sister and they’re wonderful letters. At the end of the letter on June 28th, the night before he’s going to speak the next day to the NAACP, he closes a letter to his sister this way, “I’ve got to make a speech to the Society for the Advancement of Colored People and I with I didn’t have to make it. Mama won’t like what I say because I end up quoting old Abe, but I believe what I say and I’m hopeful we may implement it.” Now, this is not a spin letter. This is a private letter, and he’s saying I believe what I’m going to say. He’s a 63-year-old man, but he’s still concerned about what his 94-year-old mother is going to say about this speech. There was a deep affection there.

The next day he delivers his civil rights magna carta to a nationwide primetime radio, 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. He essentially says two fundamental points in a very short speech. He says civil rights reform is a moral imperative. He’s the first president to put in the context of morality. Not political. Morality. And he said it’s my number 1 priority that must be done by the federal government. Now we’re all accustomed to the federal government now, but imagine the impact of saying that. The state rights Republicans and southern Democrats saying essentially we can’t leave it up to you to give constitutional equality to blacks because you won’t do it. In small communities in states we can’t leave it to you. We have to do it through the federal government. This is revolutionary.

Just a brief snippet from this magna carta. “It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in our country’s efforts to guarantee freedom and equality 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.” Unequivocal. Public. Across the nation. Causes an uproar.

Four months later his committee comes in with a report, 178 pages, beautifully documented. It’s the blueprint; 35 explicit recommendations. He publicly embraces them all. Doesn’t hesitate. Embraces them all. Washington Post headlines call it an explosive revolutionary report and the President just two months from the election year with a Republican Congress embraces them all. The next year he goes to his Congress, January 7th. When you start a presidential campaign year, the State of the Union is your kick-off speech. He says to the Congress, still Republican-controlled Congress, I’ve got five priorities. The no. 1 priority is civil rights reform and by the way, I’m going to tell you members of Congress more about it in the short term. Twenty-five days later, February 2nd, he sends the first ever comprehensive civil rights bill to the U.S. Congress, a proposal--10 points, everything, anti-lynching, voting rights, end of discrimination in interstate commerce, comprehensive civil rights bill. This is an election year. First ever. By the way, this legislation finally gets adopted in the heat of the civil rights upheaval in the ‘60s, but Harry Truman’s there first with the blueprint.

Not surprising, a month later Gallup conducts a poll and this is where it really does become shocking for a politician--82% of those polled by Gallup opposed Harry Truman’s civil rights proposal, 82%. And I have to read you Harry Truman on polls, because it really says it all, [were it] that more politicians felt this way. These are his words, not mine. “I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt. What would Jesus Christ have preached if he had taken a poll in Israel. Where would the Reformation have gone if Martin Luther had taken a poll? It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It’s right and wrong and leadership. Men with fortitude, honesty and a belief in right,” and by the way, at that point, obviously House member Lyndon Baines Johnson was taking polls because a month after all this happens he launches his campaign for Senate, his second and ultimately successful campaign and who is public enemy no. 1? Harry Truman’s civil rights proposal. He calls it a sham and a farce. So it was widespread political opposition to Harry Truman. This is an election year. Harry Truman is unflinching. He has no intention of backing down.

Now, before the campaign really starts, another election year thunderbolt hits the country and it comes on May 3rd, 1948, from the Vincent court. The Vincent court is headed by Fred Vincent who is not coincidentally Harry Truman’s best friend in Washington. He’s a soul mate. They’ve worked together since 1934. They played cards together two or three nights a week. They’re best friends. Truman has the fortune of putting him on the Court as Chief Justice in June of ‘46. A year earlier he had surprised all the partisans by putting a Republican Senator Harold Burton on the court, so Truman at this point, May of 1948, has two members of the Court, but importantly, his best friend, Fred Vincent, writes the opinion. It’s a 6-0 opinion in Shelly v. Kramer and in that opinion Vincent effectively throws out restrictive covenants in America. They’re over. Boom.

So, in an election year, this is another great controversy. It’s changing the lifestyle of many many Americans instantly. When I deal with young people sometimes it’s fun to say, hey, how about it being 6-0, unanimous opinion? What’s that all about? And people are, oh yeah, that’s right, Supreme Court has nine members. Well, three of them lived in restrictive covenant housing. They had to recuse themselves. They couldn’t vote on the case. We forget, but that’s how pervasive restrictive covenants were.

At this point, Harry Truman’s popularity is not increasing at all, I can assure you. The Republicans on June 24 hold their convention in Philadelphia. Come up with a dream ticket. The dream ticket for ‘48--Thomas Dewey, Governor of New York; on the other coast of the country, Earl Warren, Governor of California. There was so much concern in the Democratic leadership that Harry Truman could not be elected largely because of civil rights that a number of leading Democrats tried to recruit Dwight Eisenhower to be the nominee for the party. That finally collapsed. It’s only on July 15th a week before the Democrat convention. That convention takes place in Philadelphia like the Republican convention. It’s a free-for-all. Why? Harry Truman’s civil rights proposal. There’s a fight over the plank that is legendary. Harry Truman puts forward a plank that is constitutionally anchored and calls for legislation. The state rights Democrats respond with a regressive proposal and Mayor Hubert Humphrey from Minneapolis comes in with a very explicit plank that tracks Truman’s February 2nd proposal to Congress. It’s a fight that would shatter the party. The more explicit plank prevails by 69 votes.

The next night Harry Truman finally is the nominee of his Party, but it’s not a happy party; 947 delegates vote for Truman, 263 vote for racist Georgia Senator Richard Russell. Only 13 of the southern delegates vote for Truman and importantly, a statistic that stunned me because of the make up of the Party today, of the 1,234 delegates in Philadelphia at that convention, only 17 were African Americans. Imagine that the black leadership in the Party was so nascent and so de minimus at that point.

Harry Truman makes a great speech. He wasn’t a great orator but he outdid himself this night and he blamed all the ills of the country on the do-nothing Republican-controlled Congress. He also said Republican Congress, you want to make the country right. I’ll give you a chance. Come back to Washington. I’m calling a special session, the Turnip Day Session. Be back in un-air-conditioned Washington on July 26th. We’ll meet for two weeks and we’ll see if you can deliver on your plank. No reason you can’t. You’ve got the leadership. Before that session started, however, the party really fragmented. July 17th then South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond creates the Dixiecrat Party. Two days later Henry Wallace who had been FDR’s vice president creates the Progressive Party. Essentially the Party is shattered. Two of the three prongs that Democrats had relied on, that FDR had relied on for his four victories are gone, the Progressives, the Southern Democrats.

The Turnip Day Congress starts on July 26th, un-air-conditioned. Cruel to do that to bring everybody back when they should be running for office, and Harry Truman was relentless. The first day back in he hits them with a political 2” x 4”. He issues two Executive Orders. He doesn’t need their approval, so with one, 9981 he integrates the military of the United States and what most people don’t remember and historians overlook, he simultaneously issues Executive Order 9980 which integrates the vast federal bureaucracy. He essentially undoes what Wilson has done in 1913. The federal government is now integrated. The Turnip Day Session, of course, advances no agenda. It’s a debacle for the Republicans and he constantly reminds people and he returns to Independence, Missouri, for the month of August because campaign started mercifully after Labor Day in those days, and he goes home to Independence with his wife and daughter who he loved, and just about everybody in Washington thinks when he comes back after campaigning, he’ll be a lame duck president. No one thinks Harry Truman’s going to be elected president.

While he’s in Independence, he receives a letter from a dear friend, a man named Ernie Roberts who he grew up with in Independence. Mr. Roberts has become an industrialist, highly successful and he writes his friend. I’m going to read you just an excerpt of this letter and I want you to know these letters were not letters that we often see today written for spin purposes, leaked. These were private correspondence that took decades before they saw the light. This is Ernie Roberts’ letter early August. He gets it in Independence. “Harry, you can win the South without the equal rights bill, but you cannot win the South with it. Just why? Harry, let us let the South take care of the niggers which they’ve done and if the niggers don’t like the southern treatment, let them come to Mrs. Roosevelt.”

Now, Harry Truman could write some nasty letters when he was irritated. He took a week before he answered this letter and I must tell you, this letter to me was one of the most instructive things I found in my research. I’ll just read an excerpt of a long letter. “Dear Ernie. I’m going to send you a copy of the report on my Commission on Civil Rights and if then you still have that antebellum, pro-slavery outlook, I’ll be thoroughly disappointed in you. The main difficulty with the South is that they are living 80 years behind the time and the sooner they come out of it, the better it will for the country and themselves. When a Mayor and a City Marshall can take a Negro Sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up, put out one of his eyes and nothing is done about it by the state authorities, something is radically wrong with the system. I cannot approve of such goings on and I shall never approve it as long as I am here. As I told you before, I’m going to try to remedy it and if it ends up in my failure to be reelected, that failure will be in a good cause.”

Bottom line--I found two black leaders of the time that put it in best perspective when you look at legacy. One is Roy Wilkins, 1953, the administrator of the NAACP. “Mr. President, no chief executive in our history has spoken so plainly on this matter as yourself or acted so forthrightly. As you leave the White House, you carry with you the gratitude and affectionate regard of millions of your Negro fellow citizens who in less than a decade of your leadership, inspiration and determination have seen the old order change before their very eyes.”

And then one final touching letter comes from Mary Bethune who was the founder of the National Council of Negro Women. “God bless you, Mr. President. We stand by your philosophy and may you know that men like you never die. Like Lincoln and Gandhi, your work will ever be alive in the hearts of the people of the world.”

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