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Hubert Humphrey, Harry Truman, Henry Wallace and the Forgotten Civil Rights Landmarks of 1948

10/11/2014 10:58 GMT | Updated 08/01/2015 10:59 GMT

If asked to name the key year in the history of American civil rights, most people would likely pick 1863, 1868, 1963 or 1964, due to the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th Amendment, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the Civil Rights Act, respectively. There's no questioning that these were the defining moments of the movement, and yet there are several other years in which leaders laid vital stepping stones on the path to racial equality. One of these is 1948.

In December 1946, President Harry Truman established the Committee on Civil Rights to investigate inequality in all areas of American life, including housing, the military and voters' rights. A year later, the bipartisan committee delivered its findings in a 178-page civil rights manifesto entitled "To Secure These Rights." Among many far-reaching recommendations, the committee members called on the federal government to end segregation, ensure elections took place without voter intimidation and abolish the poll tax - which, far different from the British policy of the same name, disenfranchised voting poor black Southerners as part of the 'Jim Crow' system of "separate but [un]equal".

If Truman had been given the opportunity to pass the report mandate chapter and verse, he would have taken it. But 1948 was an election year and his back was up against the wall. Or, in fact, several walls. In June, the Republicans had put Thomas E. Dewey and Earl Warren on a "dream ticket" that put them way ahead of Truman in the polls and garnered laudatory editorials across the country. Henry Wallace marched his "Gideon's Army" of discontented liberals to the left, as they called for nationalized industries and other big government measures that would've made FDR blush at home and lambasted Truman's hard line with Moscow abroad. And speaking of Moscow, Truman also had to contend with the Communist takeover of China and the knife-edge scenario of the Berlin Blockade. To many Democrats, he was still the accidental President, an unworthy successor to Roosevelt who many wanted to step aside if they could only convince Dwight Eisenhower to take his place on the ticket.

So Truman could ill afford to lose any voting bloc that may even possibly lend its support come Election Day, let alone the so-called "Solid South." The precariousness of his position had been exacerbated when he tried to push a bold reform program through in February 1948. Southern reaction was even stronger than expected, with the Kentucky New Era front page blaring, "50 Southern Congressman Declare War on Truman's Civil Rights Plan." This brewing revolt placed Truman in one of those quandaries that all leaders face, trapped between political expediency and principle. Someone had to make up his mind which direction to choose.

That someone was Hubert Humphrey. At the Democratic National convention in July 1948, the increasingly important Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) were trying to push for a more radical platform than many of Truman's advisors wanted. They'd failed to convince Eisenhower to throw his hat into the ring, so their only remaining option was to get Truman to be more ambitious in several key policy areas, with civil rights number one on the list. They cornered rising party star Humphrey, who had served for three years as the Mayor of Minneapolis and had given several stirring speeches on civil rights. The 37-year-old was facing a quandary of his own. If he gave into the ADA's urging and issued a clarion call to the delegates, he would be following his convictions. But in giving such an address, he was risking political suicide. Finally, he announced, "I'll do it. If there's one thing I believe in this crazy business, it's civil rights."

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With sweat glistening around his fast receding hairline, Humphrey ignored whistles and hollering from irate Southern delegates as he called for "equal opportunity of employment," "security of person" and "equal treatment in the service and defense of this nation." He then asserted that Lincoln's promise remained unfulfilled, declaring, "There are those who say to you that we are rushing...civil rights. I say we are 172 years too late." With his supporters cheers blending with opponents' jeers, Humphrey delivered his most memorable line: "The time has now arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." As delegates from California and New York paraded jubilantly down the aisles of the convention hall, the apoplectic Southern delegates lodged a protest motion, fearing "dissolution of the Democratic Party in the South." This was struck down, and Humphrey's minority motion passed. With his nomination as the Democratic candidate, Truman was now the standard bearer for civil rights.

Still, the President knew - particularly after the February false start - that he would never get an ambitious civil rights program through the House and Senate. So he looked for another way to get some meaningful changes through the Washington gridlock, and in the summer of 1948 issued two executive orders. The first, #9981, ordered desegregation of the US Armed Forces, a cause dear to a President who had seen segregation first hand as a soldier in World War I and was horrified by the bad treatment of black veterans in the South after this conflict and World War II. Truman's second executive order demanded equal pay, working conditions and hiring practices for all federal government branches.

The Solid South was now a quagmire. Richard Russell, who had won 263 votes as the South's protest candidate at the Democratic convention, quoted Churchill as he told reporters that the south would "never surrender." Neither would Truman, even as J. Strom Thurmond carried southern support to his breakaway States' Rights Party. The President, who had become the first Chief Executive to address the NAACP the previous year, continued to boldly beat the civil rights drum. He did so most effectively in his Harlem speech in October, in which he said, "Our determination is to attain the goal of equal rights and equal opportunity...I intend to keep moving toward this goal with every ounce of strength and determination that I have." Truman's team further incensed the Dixiecrats when they welcomed Alice Dunnigan onto the campaign train, making her the first African American reporter to travel on a Presidential tour.

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Truman and Humphrey were not the only American politicians putting their careers on the line for civil rights that year. As Truman risked the Presidency, his Progressive Party rival Henry Wallace risked his personal safety when he addressed integrated audiences across the South, getting pelted with food and receiving death threats for his trouble. Wallace failed in his bid for the White House, but Truman succeeded. And though he was unable to pass his bold civil rights plan before making way for Eisenhower in November 1952, the Man from Missouri had laid the foundation for Lyndon Johnson and the reformers who followed to finally rid the United States of segregation, and to, as Humphrey put it, "walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri show that there are sometimes still clouds in the sky, but without the efforts of Wallace, Humphrey and Truman in 1948, it would've taken far longer for daylight to break through.