On the torrid afternoon of July 6, 1948, Hubert Humphrey departed one kind of inferno to plunge into another. The brash young mayor of Minneapolis was leaving a city reeling under a 100-degree heat wave that had taken two lives that very day. He was bound for Philadelphia, site of the impending Democratic National Convention, where the sweltering weather provided the fitting backdrop to a heated convention.
The Democratic convention of 1948 promised to be morose and volatile all at once. The glum mood reflected the failure of liberal insurgents in the party, Humphrey included, to oust the incumbent president, Harry Truman, from the ticket. At the same time, the party was bracing for a ferocious battle on the issue of civil rights between those liberals and the bloc of southern segregationists whom Truman wanted to appease, much as his predecessor Franklin Delano Roosevelt had.
Put in broader terms, that 1948 convention bears a striking resemblance to the political climate of today, as a battle between the forces of inclusive, expansive democracy and those espousing a narrower, hostile concept of who fully belongs to America. As in the coming campaign, the Democratic Party also had to reconcile passion for a liberal agenda with ambivalence about the incumbent president who would hoist its banner.
Just 37 years old and three years into elected office, Humphrey bore the public role of defying a sitting president and militant opposition. His speech at the Philadelphia convention, imploring delegates to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,” convinced a decisive majority of the delegates. The Southerners bolted the convention to form a third party nicknamed the Dixiecrats. And Harry Truman, left with no option but to run for re-election as a civil-rights candidate, won his upset victory over Thomas Dewey thanks to a surge of Black voters in swing states.
By proving that Democrats could win the White House without electoral votes from the “Solid South,” the 1948 election laid the groundwork for enactment of the landmark legislation — the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act — that President Lyndon Johnson pushed through with Humphrey’s vital assistance as senator and then vice president. The 1948 convention and campaign also set into motion the partisan realignment that ultimately made the Democrats a multiracial coalition and moved Southern whites en masse into the Republican Party of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
Paradoxically, however, all the historical attention paid to the civil rights movement that arose from 1948 has obscured the immense significance of that convention and campaign, and indeed of the near-decade of struggle over racial equality that preceded it. Similarly, of the main actors in the drama of July 1948 — Humphrey, Truman, the Black labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, and the organizer of the Dixiecrat movement, Gov. Fielding Wright of Mississippi — only the former president remains a front-of-mind historical figure today.
Two overarching realities prepared the political atmosphere for the conflict that played out in Philadelphia. The first was Franklin Roosevelt’s decision, politically pragmatic and morally reprehensible, to placate his party’s segregationists in order to keep their electoral votes and congressional support as part of his otherwise liberal New Deal coalition. Essentially, F.D.R. allowed New Deal legislation to be implemented and even written in ways to exclude a vast proportion of Southern Blacks from its benefits.
The second meta factor was World War II. Black G.I.s coined the concept and term of “Double V” — meaning victory over fascism abroad and then the American versions of racial superiority at home. A wave of attacks by Southern vigilantes on returning Black soldiers only magnified the gap between American rhetoric and American practice.
The inevitable and impending collision over civil rights trapped Harry Truman in the middle. Though he had represented the border state of Missouri in Congress and was descended from two slaveholding grandfathers and an uncle who fought for the Confederacy, Truman had a conscience capable of being shocked by racism. He was most affected by one particular incident, the assault in early 1946 by a white South Carolina police chief on a newly discharged sergeant named Isaac Woodard, which left the veteran blinded.
Safely past the midterm elections that November, Truman appointed a presidential Committee on Civil Rights that, in turn, produced a bold report entitled “To Secure These Rights.” It documented racial inequality with statistical evidence and recommended new laws to bar lynching, the poll tax, police brutality and restrictive covenants in housing. Truman addressed the N.A.A.C.P. at the Lincoln Memorial, declaring, “Our immediate task is to remove the last remnants of the barriers, which stand between millions of our citizens and their birthright.”
Yet as the 1948 presidential campaign drew closer, and Truman contemplated the potential fracture of F.D.R.’s New Deal coalition, he downplayed his own positions. “The strategy,” Truman aide Philleo Nash later recalled, was to “backtrack after the bang.”
Heading into the Philadelphia convention, Truman’s loyalists in the party hierarchy wrote a calculatedly equivocal plank on civil rights, similar to those from the F.D.R. years. It soon became apparent that the supposed compromise satisfied no one. The countervailing forces pressing Truman were most intensely embodied by Randolph, the Black labor leader, and Governor Wright of Mississippi.
Soon after Truman had declared his candidacy for president, Randolph informed the president in a White House meeting, “The Negroes are in the mood not to bear arms for the country unless Jim Crow in the armed forces is abolished.” When Truman refused to take that step, Randolph repeated his threat of massive Black draft resistance in testimony before Congress.
Undeterred even by the prospect of being charged with treason, Randolph led a picket line outside the Convention Hall, handing delegates leaflets charging, “The Democrats’ devotion to civil rights began and ended in words.”
Diametrically different as he was from Randolph in every ideological way, Governor Wright matched him in brinkmanship. Less than two weeks after Truman had delivered his 1948 State of the Union speech, with its appeal for civil rights, the governor declared in his inaugural address that the program, if enacted, would “wreck the South and our institutions“ and “eventually destroy this nation and all of the freedoms which we have long cherished and maintained.”
Several weeks later, Wright convened 4,000 true believers waving Confederate flags and whooping out rebel yells to begin organizing the States’ Rights Democratic Party. By the time the Philadelphia convention began, he was maneuvering on two parallel tracks. As the head of Mississippi’s delegation, he could organize opposition to both Truman’s nomination and a genuine civil-rights plank from within the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, if he lost those battles, he had already arranged for special railroad cars to transport the indignant Southerners straight to Birmingham, Ala., to convene their own breakaway Dixiecrat party.
Into the maelstrom came Humphrey, filled with idealism and trepidation. He had been warned by the party’s chairman, J. Howard McGrath, that pushing a civil-rights plank would “be the end of you.” Humphrey’s proposal — with its call for equal rights for racial and religious minorities in voting, employment, and military service — then lost in a vote by the platform-drafting committee. Only some adroit parliamentary maneuvering gave him a second, final chance to sell the plank in a speech to the full convention. It took place early in the afternoon of July 14, 1948.
Humphrey and his allies believed the Democratic platform had to match, if not exceed, the support for civil rights expressed by the Republicans at their convention several weeks earlier. A group of big-city Democratic bosses, not generally known for their liberalism, were predicting ruinous losses in down-ballot races if the party could not galvanize Black voters.
Thus fortified, Humphrey moved to the microphone. In addition to his signature aphorism about shadow and sunlight, and warnings against American hypocrisy on race amid the Cold War, the speech contained a late addition made by a Minnesota political activist named Eugenie Anderson: a sentence commending Harry Truman for his own stand on civil rights. Voting for the civil-rights plank, then, was only endorsing exactly what the president already wanted.
From the floor, delegates roared back so much praise and condemnation at Humphrey that the convention’s presiding officer ordered the lights turned off. In a roll-call vote, Humphrey’s civil-rights plank won by 651.5 to 582.5. Several dozen Southern delegates walked out of the convention’s evening session and Truman, writing in his diary in the White House, derided Humphrey’s insurgents as “crackpots.”
Yet nearly two weeks later, Truman issued executive orders desegregating the military and the federal work force. And on Election Day, even though the Dixiecrats took 39 usually Democratic electoral votes from the Deep South, Truman defeated Dewey 303 to 189. His margin of victory came from the 78 electoral votes in California, Illinois and Ohio — with a groundswell of Black voters being the decisive factor in each state.
The lessons of Humphrey’s triumph at the convention still matter, or at least still should matter, to the Democratic Party and to liberalism. He understood that success arose from the mutual reinforcement of a mass movement like Randolph’s and of political acumen on the inside. Humphrey’s alliance with the big-city bosses attested to the wisdom of making coalitions around specific issues rather than broad loyalty oaths. At the same time, he never wavered from an idealistic compass that meant driving one entire wing of his own party into exile.
Samuel G. Freedman, a former columnist for The Times, is the author of “Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights,” from which this essay is adapted.
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