“Our goal should be the protection and security that can be given all our people under a civil rights program designed to meet the needs of our times.”.
Harry S. Truman was the first President of the United States in the 20th century to take action on civil rights because of moral imperative. In 1946, he named a President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which in late 1947 presented him with a report that was radical for its time. Truman embraced,...
Harry S. Truman was the first President of the United States in the 20th century to take action on civil rights because of moral imperative. In 1946, he named a President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which in late 1947 presented him with a report that was radical for its time. Truman embraced, rather than shyed away from, its contents. Just a few months later, in February 1948, in an election year when his position would surely cost him more votes than he could hope to gain, Truman sent the first Special Message to Congress to deal specifically with civil rights. He wrote Congress that his first goal “is to secure fully our essential human rights. I am now presenting to the Congress my recommendations for legislation to carry us forward toward that goal…We shall not, however, finally achieve the ideals for which this Nation was founded so long as any American suffers discrimination as a result of his race, or religion, or color, or the land of origin of his forefathers…We cannot be satisfied until all our people have equal opportunities for jobs, for homes, for education, for health, and for political expression, and until all our people have equal protection under the law.” A Gallup poll indicated that a majority of the American people opposed Truman’s civil rights proposals. This was especially so in the South, where opposition arose that resulted in Strom Thurmond running for President as a Dixiecrat, with the aim of taking enough votes from Truman to make the south the swing bloc and be in a position to dictate civil rights policy. Congress balked at passing the measures Truman sought.
On July 26, 1948, after forcing a pro-civil rights platform on a hesitating Democratic National Convention, Truman issued executive orders desegregating the armed forces and ending discrimination in the Federal work force. This was a major victory for civil rights advocates. In the election in November, Truman won but barely avoided finding the Dixiecrats as kingmakers, which would have derailed hopes for civil rights at the time. After his inauguration in 1949, Truman remained dedicated to his civil rights program; but while he could issue executive orders and make discrimination-free appointments (naming the first black Federal judge, William Hastie, that year), he was unable to get Congress to pass civil rights legislation. He began looking for support everywhere he could.
Typed Letter Signed as President, Washington, March 20, 1949, to New York State Supreme Court judge Meier Steinbrink, chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. That organization had taken a strong civil rights stand and given Truman an award for promoting democracy. “I am sincerely grateful to have been selected as the recipient of the America’s Democratic Legacy Award, given annually by your distinguished organization…I am aware of the vigorous educational program and the practical efforts by your organization to foster an understanding of democratic rights and responsibilities. Your definition of America’s democratic legacy is admirable. It is indeed a force in the hearts and minds of the people. Our goal should be the protection and security that can be given all our people under a civil rights program designed to meet the needs of our times. Such a program I have placed before Congress…In the effort to have it translated into law, I shall look forward to the support of organizations such as yours.”
Truman never did manage to get a civil rights program through Congress, though his Supreme Court appointees began making important rulings finding that the “separate but equal” premise of segregation was a farce and thus chipping away at segregation itself. Shortly before leaving office, Truman’s Justice Department filed an amicus brief in Brown vs Board of Education, advocating an end to segregation in schools. A year after he left office, the Supreme Court supported that position by forcing desegregation, in one of the most important cases it ever adjudicated. It would take until 1964 for Congress to act.
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