A moral crusade born of threats and expedience

Harry Truman and Civil Rights
September 12, 2003

Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt's successor, inherited not only the White House but also the support of African-Americans who had already switched their allegiance to the party of the New Deal.

As a Democratic senator from Missouri, Truman supported (if unenthusiastically) the passage of legislation to outlaw the poll tax and lynching, and to increase appropriations for the Committee on Fair Employment Practices (FEPC). He was the first president to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in 1948 addressed a joint session of congress on civil rights issues. Truman also created a Committee on Civil Rights. Its report, To Secure These Rights (1947), urged greater federal involvement in the cause of racial equality, and was endorsed by the president.

Again, Truman issued executive orders that were intended to abolish discrimination in both the federal bureaucracy and the military. In 1948, with decisive black support, he won an unexpected victory over his rivals: the Republican Thomas Dewey, and the Progressive Henry Wallace. A jubilant Truman invited Lena Horne and Lionel Hampton to perform at his integrated inaugural celebrations.

Yet Michael Gardner, a communications policy attorney in Washington, DC, believes that Truman's "civil rights crusade" has been "grossly underestimated". Truman's actions, beliefs and statements concerning African-Americans are presented not as signs of his political astuteness but rather as evidence of his "moral courage and political recklessness".

Gardner also suggests that unlike presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, Truman "did not need political pressure to do what he felt was morally right and constitutionally mandated for black Americans". Warming to this theme, Gardner romantically and repetitively depicts Truman as a "pro-active" president convinced that "civil rights reform was a battle worth losing the White House over if necessary".

In fact, Truman was a consummate politician who realised the importance of the urban African-American vote and increasing black militancy and addressed civil rights issues only under pressure. Gardner fails to mention that one of the reasons Truman issued his order banning Jim Crow practices in the armed forces was the threat by black trade unionist A. Philip Randolph to stage a massive campaign of civil disobedience and draft resistance if he did not act. Gardner too readily accepts Truman's failure to secure substantive legislative reforms that would have benefited blacks as the fault of a conservative Congress.

Anxious to appease the white South, and more concerned with the developing cold war and the threat of internal subversion, Truman chose not to introduce any controversial civil rights measures. His "commitment" to civil rights lagged behind that of the liberal wing of the Democratic party, led by Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey.

Gardner is more informed (and convincing) on the landmark decisions of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Fred Vinson, Truman's friend and appointee. In striking down restrictive covenants in residential areas, and integrating graduate and law schools, the court anticipated the Brown decision of 1954, which finally overturned the fiction of "separate but equal" treatment for African-Americans in public schools and, implicitly, in all areas of public life.

Truman has already received more judicious scholarly assessments of his largely symbolic espousal of civil rights. Gardner's panegyric serves only to inflate and distort his motives, methods and achievements.

John White is emeritus reader in American history, University of Hull.

Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks

Author - Michael R. Gardner
ISBN - 0 8093 2425 3 and 2550 0
Publisher - Southern Illinois University Press
Price - £28.50 and £16.50
Pages - 6

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