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“im A Born Optimist”
The Era of Hubert H. Humprey
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
After being named valedictorian of his class at Doland High School, Humphrey spent the next decade dropping in and out of the University of Minnesota, in concert with his own and his family’s constantly fluctuating financial condition. At length he earned a degree, magna cum laude , and a Phi Beta Kappa key. He also managed to gain a certificate from the Denver College of Pharmacy, and got his first personal glimpse of the plight of the Negro when he studied for a master’s degree in political science at Louisiana State University. He also married an attractive and sensible young woman, Muriel Buck, and the two lived in one-room flats, accepting with equanimity the notion that a nickel beer and a sack of popcorn constituted a night on the town.
These were the influences then—near-poverty, failure, defeat, dust storms, depression, liberal education, indomitable father, understanding wife—that forged one of the most innovative legislators of the twentieth century. His entry into politics was like a duck’s introduction to water. His father had been a delegate to Democratic National Conventions, and, whenever his recurring impoverishment eased, a minor officeholder. The extroverted, garrulous son, warm and engaging, irrepressibly excited about the New Deal, intelligently concerned with issues, landed a job in the early 1940’s as director of a Workers Education Program, a by-product of the WPA. This brought him into contact with local labor leaders, who in 1943 were casting about for someone to support for mayor of Minneapolis. On a Sunday walk, Humphrey bumped into a pair of labor officials and casually asked where they were headed. To a meeting, they said, one adding: “We’re trying to find a candidate for mayor.” Suddenly it occurred to them that the candidate was standing right there before them. Humphrey ran and lost that year, but learned enough to run and win in 1945 and again in 1947.
In 1948 he burst into the national consciousness for the first time. That year Mayor Humphrey was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and led the Minnesota delegation to the Democratic National Convention. There this talkative upstart-hardly known outside his own state, but already determined to correct social injustices wherever he saw them—forced a strong civil rights plank on the convention and down the throat of President Harry S Truman. Party chieftains had argued that only “party unity” could give Truman, the underdog, any chance at all against Republican Thomas E. Dewey. So the “fix” was in: a Southern “States’ rights” plank would be proposed and defeated. The same fate would befall the strong civil rights plank that Humphrey intended to introduce. Then the convention could proceed to adopt a “compromise” Truman plank that would placate the South and avert a walkout. But Humphrey, who had no black voting constituency whatsoever back home—there were hardly any blacks in Minnesota-refused to go along. His own father, a delegate from South Dakota, told him that what he was doing “may tear the party apart.” Powerful party figures warned him that the course he had charted for himself would lead him “from mayor to pip-squeak to oblivion.” But his mind was made up. When Hubert Humphrey, Sr., sensed as much, he finally told his son: “You’ve got to go with it. You can’t run away from your conscience.” Humphrey took the floor and delivered a fiery speech, full of passion and conviction. It may have been the most persuasive he ever delivered.
“The time has arrived,” he admonished the delegates, “for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of States’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas, who would not lead the parade, fell in behind Humphrey, and so did some of the big-city bosses, whose continuation in power depended in part upon black and liberal support. And so the no longer obscure mayor prevailed. From that moment he was a major national figure, reviled in the South (some of whose delegates walked out of the convention), but a hero to liberals everywhere. From 1948 until Humphrey became Lyndon Johnson’s running mate in 1964, the liberal agenda in America was Hubert Humphrey’s agenda.
In those years he compiled a record as one of the most influential senators in U.S. history:
In 1949, after many years of fruitless congressional debate, Humphrey won passage of a federal antilynching law;
He wrote the bill that set up the first federal Commission on Civil Rights;
As early as 1951, he introduced legislation setting up a Fair Employment Practices Commission;
A decade before the Freedom Riders traveled South, Humphrey introduced federal legislation prohibiting segregation in public transportation;
Also in 1951, when he was widely ridiculed as a “visionary,” Humphrey offered legislation to outlaw the poll tax in national elections;
The Peace Corps, the cornerstone of President Kennedy’s foreign policy toward the Third World, was appropriated from Humphrey-who zestfully pushed to passage the measure establishing the corps;