The Conversion Of Harry Truman

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The Florida State Association of County Commissioners found the President’s program “odious, detestable, loathsome, repulsive, revolting and humiliating.”

Yet until 1947 Southern politicians had tolerated such actions because they thought them merely expedient. They assumed that since, as senator, he came from a state with 130,000 black voters, he had to make a show of going along with civil rights bills that were doomed to defeat anyway. Even while supporting such measures, Truman had made a point of announcing that he did not question Jim Crow. In 1940 he told the National Colored Democratic Association of Chicago: “I wish to make it clear that I am not appealing for social equality of the Negro. The Negro himself knows better than that.”

His performance as President had also been ambivalent. He had asked for an FEPC bill, for instance, but then had run away from the fight to get it enacted.

Yet the white South had good reason to conclude that by 1947 Truman had changed. He had done so, in part, for political reasons. In World War II Southern blacks had migrated in large numbers to states, such as Michigan and California, with big blocs of electoral votes, and in the 1946 elections, dismayed by Southern racist demagogues, they had given evidence of drifting away from the Democrats. Even in the South black voters promised to be an increasing presence following a 1944 Supreme Court decision outlawing the white primary. Truman was motivated too by foreign policy concerns. Discrimination against people of color was proving an embarrassment to the government as it vied with the Soviet Union for the allegiance of Third World nations. Probably most important, though, was Truman’s outrage against the mistreatment of blacks. Truman had never been willing to condone denying to citizens, black or white, their fundamental rights, and as President he was expanding his awareness of the need to use federal power to secure to all Americans the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. What Southern politicians thought could be explained only as self-interested bids for black votes actually represented both long-held beliefs and maturing convictions.

Once Truman set out on this new course, he would not relent. When Democratic leaders asked him to back down from his strong stand on civil rights, he replied: “My forebears were Confederates.… Every factor and influence in my background—and in my wife’s for that matter—would foster the personal belief that you are right.

“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.”

On February 2, 1948, Truman, undaunted by Southern criticism, sent a special message to Congress asking it to enact a number of the recommendations of his committee. Never before had a President dispatched a special message on civil rights. He called for an anti-poll tax statute, a permanent FEPC, an anti-lynching law, and creation of a Commission on Civil Rights. To end intimidation at the polls, he asked for legislation banning interference by either public officials or private citizens with the free exercise of the suffrage. He did not embrace his committee’s recommendation to deprive states of federal grants if they did not abandon Jim Crow, but in keeping with recent Supreme Court decisions, he did call upon Congress to forbid segregation in interstate travel. “As a Presidential paper,” the historian Irwin Ross has written, “it was remarkable for its scope and audacity.”

Once again the white South reacted with rage. A Georgia congressman said his section had been “kicked in the teeth” by Truman, the Nashville Banner denounced his proposals as “vicious,” and in Florida the State Association of County Commissioners declared that “all true Democrats” found the President’s program “obnoxious, repugnant, odious, detestable, loathsome, repulsive, revolting and humiliating.”

No state exceeded Mississippi in the fury of its rhetoric. “Not since the first gun was fired on Fort Sumter, resulting as it did in the greatest fratricidal strife in the history of the world, has any message of any President of these glorious United States … resulted in the driving of a schism in the ranks of our people, as did President Truman’s so-called civil rights message,” asserted Rep. William M. Colmer. Truman, agreed Rep. John Bell Williams, “has … run a political dagger into our backs and now he is trying to drink our blood.”