- Historic Sites
The Conversion Of Harry Truman
November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
Nonetheless, entering the United States Senate in 1935, Truman immediately gravitated toward the Southerners. They, in turn, accepted him as one of their own. Months before the 1944 campaign some Southerners had come to view Truman as a feasible vice-presidential nominee, and at the 1944 Democratic National Convention Southerners helped conspicuously in putting him across. Afterward Gov. Chauncey Sparks of Alabama said, “The South has won a substantial victory. … In the matter of race relations Senator Truman told me he is the son of an unreconstructed rebel mother.”
When Franklin Roosevelt’s death, on April 12, 1945, catapulted Truman into the White House, the white South felt confident that Truman would find its racial customs congenial. On the funeral train carrying FDR’s body, the Democratic senator from South Carolina Burnet Maybank assured a Southern friend, “Everything’s going to be all right—the new President knows how to handle the niggers.”
But on December 5, 1946, Truman demolished these comfortable assumptions by announcing the creation of a President’s Committee on Civil Rights. He had been moved to act after a delegation had called on him to protest outrages against blacks. He was appalled especially by an incident in Aiken, South Carolina, where, only three hours after a black sergeant had received his separation papers from the United States Army, policemen gouged out his eyes. In Georgia, Truman heard, the only black to have voted in his area was murdered by four whites in his front yard. In another Georgia county two black men were gunned down by a white gang, and when one of their wives recognized one of the killers, both the wives were shot to death too. On being told at a meeting with the National Emergency Committee Against Mob Violence of the blinding of the black sergeant, the President, his face “pale with horror,” rose and said, “My God. I had no idea it was as terrible as that. We’ve got to do something!”
The very next day he wrote his Attorney General, “I know you have been looking into the … lynchings … but I think it is going to take something more than the handling of each individual case after it happens—it is going to require the inauguration of some sort of policy to prevent such happenings.” On December 5 Truman signed an order creating a President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which he directed to look into not merely racial violence but the entire universe of civil rights. To carry out this huge assignment, he appointed fifteen prominent citizens under the chairmanship of the president of General Electric, Charles E. Wilson. Only two of the fifteen were from the South, and both of them were conspicuous liberals.
In October 1947 the committee issued its historic report, “To Secure These Rights.” It found that a gaping disparity between the country’s ideal of equality and its behavior had resulted in “a kind of moral dry rot which eats away at the emotional and rational bases of democratic beliefs.” Furthermore, it said, with an eye toward the Cold War, the United States “is not so strong, the final triumph of the democratic ideal is not so inevitable, that we can ignore what the world thinks of us or our record.”
The committee came forth with nearly three dozen recommendations, including expanding the civil rights section of the Justice Department, creating a permanent Commission on Civil Rights, enacting an anti-lynching statute and a law punishing police brutality, expanding the suffrage by banning the poll tax and safeguarding the right to cast ballots in primaries and general elections, and outlawing discrimination in private employment. It also favored “renewed court attack, with intervention by the Department of Justice,” on racially restrictive covenants in housing and ending “immediately” discrimination in the armed services and in federal agencies. Most controversial, it opposed not only racial discrimination but segregation. In particular, it advocated denying federal money to any public or private program that persisted in Jim Crow practices and making the District of Columbia a model for the nation by integrating all its facilities, including its public schools.
The publication of “To Secure These Rights” aroused a storm of criticism. The chairman of the Democratic committee in Danville, Virginia, wired Truman, “I really believe that you have ruined the Democratic Party in the South,” and a Baptist minister in Jacksonville, Florida, informed him: “If that report is carried out, you won’t be elected dogcatcher in 1948. The South today is the South of 1861.”
In one respect the shock expressed by the South is surprising, for Truman had built a sturdy record on behalf of civil rights as early as 1937. As senator he had twice cooperated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in signing petitions to break filibusters over antilynching legislation, and less than two months after he took office as President he had written a public letter asking the House Rules Committee to advance legislation for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).