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The Conversion Of Harry Truman
November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
The Truman era, however, proved to be the end of the Solid South, at least of a South solid for the Democrats. (To be sure, not until the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson pushed through farreaching civil rights legislation, would the most serious cleavage occur, but Truman is the one who opened the fissure that would never be mended.) In 1948 four Deep South states had broken away to the Dixiecrats; in the next election, four more Southern states defected to the Republicans. So by 1952 eight of the former Confederate states had abandoned the Democrats. As one scholar has said: “The significant fact is that a Democratic President proposed to Congress the enactment of laws to improve the status of the Negro. This was heresy; the whole logic of the South’s loyalty to the Democratic party was the assumption that the party was pledged to leave race relations in the hands of the states. When the Democratic party ceased to be the party of white supremacy, the deepest basis of Southern solidarity had been destroyed.”
In one respect, his opponents in the South misperceived Truman, for he never wholly abandoned the racist view he had absorbed from his family or his sympathy for the Southern tradition of localism. Even after blacks hailed him as their champion, he continued to sprinkle his private conversation with terms such as nigger . He not only opposed the 1960s sit-ins but thought they might well be Communist-inspired. In 1961 he told reporters that Northerners who went south on Freedom Rides were meddling outsiders bent on stirring up mischief where they did not belong, and in 1965 he called the Selma to Montgomery march “silly” and Martin Luther King, Jr., a “troublemaker.”
Yet Truman’s foes had good reason for thinking him their nemesis, because if he had a Confederate lineage he also felt intense loyalty to the Constitution and the Union. He especially revered the memory of Andrew Jackson, a Southerner but a nationalist. Eventually he was even able, despite his family background, to bring himself to cherish the Great Emancipator.
Shortly after departing the White House, Truman reflected: “Old Abe Lincoln is … a president I admire tremendously. In a way, it’s surprising … because I was born and raised in the South … and a lot of southerners still don’t feel that way about him at all. And that included the Truman family, all of whom were against him. Some of them even thought it was a fine thing that he got assassinated.
“I realized even as a child that was pretty extreme thinking or worse; let’s just call it dumb thinking, or no thinking at all. But it still took me a while to realize what a good man Lincoln really was, with a great brain and even greater heart, a man who really cared about people and educated himself to the point where he knew how government should work and tried his best to make ours work that way. I felt just the opposite of the rest of the Truman family after I studied the history of the country and realized what Lincoln did to save the Union. That’s when I came to my present conclusion, and that was a long, long time ago.… Lincoln was a great and wonderful man in every way.”
Truman’s reading in history and in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights had led him to question the assumptions on which he was raised. He acted as he did not because he believed in the social equality of the races, not because he was “anti-South,” but because he took solemnly the oath he had sworn to sustain the Constitution.
As a border-state Democrat Truman carried within him the conflicts that divided not only Missouri but the country. He had been nurtured on the valor of Robert E. Lee, the iniquity of the Union raiders, the melancholia of the Lost Cause. Only someone who understood himself to be a Southerner could have felt such empathy for the traditions of the South. Yet he also had a schoolboy’s love of the history not of a section but of a nation, took pride in having been a doughboy in the Army of the United States of America, and viewed the Constitution as sacred text. That nationalist theme, a minor one when he was a child, was the one that prevailed in the end. As a consequence Truman permanently altered the character of Southern politics. For the first time since Reconstruction, he made civil rights a proper concern for the national government, and for the first time ever the Democratic party became the main protagonist for the rights of blacks. The South, and the nation, would never be the same again.