The Conversion Of Harry Truman


In a long speech on the Senate floor, Sen. James Eastland charged that the President’s program was an effort “to secure political favor from Red mongrels in the slums of the great cities of the East and Middle West” who planned to defile “the pure blood of the South.” The President’s “anti-southern measures,” he maintained, would destroy the South “beyond hope of redemption.” Indeed, he concluded: “This much is certain. If the present Democratic leadership is right, then Calhoun and Jefferson Davis were wrong. If the present Democratic leadership is right, then Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were right, and Lee, Forrest, and Wade Hampton were wrong. If the President’s civil-rights program is right, then reconstruction was right. If this program is right, the carpetbaggers were right.”


At the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners in mid-February, Truman got rude reminders of Southern hostility to his program. In Washington at the most important dinner, a table at the Mayflower Hotel reserved and paid for by Sen. Olin Johnston of South Carolina was deliberately left vacant, in a conspicuous spot near the dais. Mrs. Johnston, a vice-chair of the dinner committee, decided not to attend, she explained, “because I might be seated next to a Negro.”

Truman, shocked by the ferocity of the assault on him and recognizing that his re-election was in jeopardy, sought to placate his Southern critics, but he would not appease them by abandoning fundamental principles. After a meal at the White House with members of the Democratic National Committee, Alabama’s national committeewoman lectured the President: “I want to take a message back to the South. Can I tell them you’re not ramming miscegenation down our throats? … That you’re not for tearing up our social structure—that you’re for all the people, not just the North?” Truman reached into his pocket, whipped out a copy of the Constitution, and read her the Bill of Rights. “I stand on the Constitution,” he replied. “I take back nothing of what I proposed and make no excuses for it.”

With Truman unrepentant, the South wrote him off. When he announced formally that he would run for re-election, John Bell Williams told his congressional colleagues that the President should “quit now while he is still just 20 million votes behind.” The South and the border states were going to cast 147 electoral votes in November, said Senator Johnston, “and they won’t be for Truman. They’ll be for somebody else. He ain’t going to be re-elected. He ain’t going to be renominated.” On the floor of the House, L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina, shaking his finger, his voice trembling, cried, “Harry Truman is already a dead bird. We in the South are going to see to that.”

Sectional animosity enveloped the 1948 Democratic Convention that summer, a mood no one captured so vividly as H. L. Mencken. His dispatch of July 9 began, “With the advancing Confederate Army still below the Potomac, Philadelphia was steeped tonight in the nervous calm that fell upon it in the days before Gettysburg.” On the following day he wrote: “There was an air of confidence among the Yankee hordes already assembled … that the rebels would begin falling to fragments before they crossed the Chickahominy.” Though Mencken had no sympathy for Truman or his civil rights notions, his story a day later indicated that this confidence was justified. When the Southerners caucused in Philadelphia, they revealed that they had little strength outside a few Gulf states, he reported, adding: “After the count of bayonets … [Gov. Ben] Laney asked if there were any copperheads present.… A lone Trumanocide from Indiana then made himself known, and was politely applauded. But there were no others, and the gathering broke up in depressed spirits.”

The Southern Democrats continued to send off salvos against the President, but it did not take long for them to learn that their threat to deny him renomination was an empty one. At the Southern caucus Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina insisted, “We have been betrayed and the guilty shall not go unpunished.” When the roll was called, however, Truman easily defeated the Southern favorite, Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia. Russell swept almost the entire South, but that is about all he got. So mutinous was the South, though, that the convention chairman did not dare attempt to make Truman’s nomination unanimous, as was traditionally done to signify party harmony.


Truman’s opponents sustained an even greater setback over the platform when a determined group of liberals pushed through a strong civil rights plank cosponsored by Hubert Humphrey, the mayor of Minneapolis. “As I walked with the young mayor … out of that hall,” one liberal activist later recalled, “I actually thought he was going to be shot. … It was very tense, very tense.”