The Conversion Of Harry Truman

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The era marked the end of the Solid South. Not until LBJ’s day would the most serious cleavage appear, but Truman opened a fissure that would never be mended.

Journalists and the Southern delegates alike agreed that, as Time recounted, “the South had been kicked in the pants, turned around and kicked in the stomach.” Sen. Walter George of Georgia, in what one writer has called “a splendid Catherine wheel of mixed metaphors,” expostulated: “The South is not only over a barrel—it is pilloried! We are in the stocks!” Having sustained severe losses, “the defeated army,” Mencken concluded, “retired … to a prepared position on the swamps bordering the Swanee River.”

After the civil rights plank was adopted, thirteen Alabama delegates (one of them was Birmingham’s police commissioner, Eugene ["Bull"] Connor) and all of the Mississippi delegation stalked out of the hall. The rebels reconvened in Birmingham to organize a States’ Rights party with the intent of defeating Truman and his program by gaining enough electoral votes to throw the contest into the House of Representatives, where the South would have substantial bargaining power. To lead them in the forthcoming campaign, the States’ Rights party, or Dixiecrats as they were commonly known, chose Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate and Mississippi’s governor, Fielding Wright, as his running mate. Thurmond told seven thousand cheering, stomping delegates: “There are not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to admit the Negroes into our theaters, swimming pools, and homes. … We have been stabbed in the back by a President who has betrayed every principle of the Democratic party in his desire to win at any cost.”

The Dixiecrats constituted a serious threat to Truman’s bid for re-election. He already faced a formidable challenge from the Republican nominee, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, and the left wing of his party had broken away to back the Progressive nominee, Henry Wallace. Truman’s chances, slim at best, seemed negligible if he could not hold the South. But in Alabama the Dixiecrats kept the name of the President of the United States off the ballot altogether. In Mississippi and South Carolina, state Democratic committees selected Thurmond as their presidential nominee. Summing up the situation in the aftermath of the Philadelphia convention, the Chattanooga Free Press wrote: “This should be a day of mourning for Southern Democrats. Their only consolation is the grim satisfaction that President Truman and his unfaithful cohorts are going down in ignominious defeat.”

Truman, though, held firm to his commitment to bolster the constitutional rights of blacks. When an Army buddy advised him, from the perspective of a Southerner, not to press on civil rights, the President responded, “The main difficulty with the South is that they are living eighty years behind the times and the sooner they come out of it the better it will be for the country and for themselves.” He added: “When the mob gangs can take four people out and shoot them in the back, and everybody in the country is acquainted with who did the shooting and nothing is done about it, that country is in a pretty bad fix from a law enforcement standpoint.” Truman concluded by saying, "1 can’t approve of such goings on, and ... I am going to try to remedy it and if that ends up in my failure to be elected, that failure will be in a good cause.”

 

Truman meant what he said. On July 26 he issued two Executive orders. One, drawing upon his authority as Commander in Chief, affirmed the principle of equality of treatment in the armed forces without respect to race. The other directive forbade discrimination in the federal civil service. On October 29 he became the first President ever to solicit votes in Harlem.

Well before the Harlem speech, analysts gave Truman little chance of carrying the South. It came as no surprise, then, when in November he lost four Deep South states to Governor Thurmond. Louisiana gave Thurmond more than 49 percent of its votes, Truman less than 33 percent. In some northern parishes Truman ran third—behind both Thurmond and Dewey. He fared still worse in other states. In South Carolina Thurmond got 72 percent, Truman 24 percent; in Mississippi Thurmond received 87 percent to Truman’s miserable 10 percent. Alabama, of course, registered no votes at all for Truman.

Thurmond, though, gained no states beyond these four, as Truman astonished prognosticators by sweeping all the rest of the South and winning reelection. Most Southern Democrats could not bring themselves to bolt the party of their fathers to join the Dixiecrats, and they felt even less comfortable with switching to the Republicans, the party of Reconstruction.