The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Lincoln Memorial: Truman beat King to it!

Continuing my personal Ripley's series on Harry Truman, courtesy of David McCullough's bio, I see (p579) that Truman had the smart idea to address the NAACP from the Lincoln Memorial.

On June 29 1947, shortly after having seen his veto of the Taft-Hartley Act handily overridden thanks to renegade Dems, gave a short address at the end of the NAACP annual conference [1].

The veto - doomed to fail and further cement the conservative coalition - was designed to woo the unions after a year of massive industrial strife and confrontation between unions and Administration.

The NAACP speech was a similar constitutency-goosing exercise. The Negro vote, from a small base, was coming on like a train. Because of the migration north and the SCOTUS ruling in Smith v Allwright outlawing the white primary, to name but two factors.

The sentiments are all very laudable; and, no doubt, the fact that a US president would actually voice them was some progress (and a Democrat linking arms with Lincoln, too!) [2].

But there were clearly limits:
We must strive to advance civil rights wherever it lies within our power. For example, I have asked the Congress to pass legislation extending basic civil rights to the people of Guam and American Samoa so that these people can share our ideals of freedom and self-government. This step, with others which will follow, is evidence to the rest of the world of our confidence in the ability of all men to build free institutions.

Civics 101 teaches that legislative and constitutional changes do not lie in the President's power! He has to ask Congress.

And how many of his audience had the slightest interest in Guam and American Samoa? The mere mention strikes me as something of an insult.

At the end, he passes the buck to the Almighty - with a Lincoln quote:
if it shall please the Divine Being who determines the destinies of nations, we shall remain a united people...

The fact was, as speaker and audience well knew, that Congress was an immovable block on reforms needing legislative sanction [3].

And, as for those needing mere executive action - like military desegregation, for instance - there'd not been much doing.

  1. At the top of the speech, he namechecks Eleanor Roosevelt and Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon.

    ER during the 1930s gave her name to the notorious, fictitious Eleanor Clubs

    for black maids who promised to get out of white people's houses and go somewhere else to work. "Whenever you see a Negro wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a feather in it," they said, "you know it's a sign of the Eleanor Club." There were warnings of "Eleanor Tuesdays," when black women were supposed to bump into white women on the street in honor of Eleanor.
    The FBI seemed to think that these clubs actually existed. They were the equivalent of the Swift Boat Veterans' tales of John Kerry's Vietnam cowardice.

    How did the roorback start? Perhaps it was J Edgar Hoover himself - who hated Eleanor: it seems he suspected a touch of the tar-brush - which was a rumour customarily spread about opposing candidates in US elections! On whether the tar-brush rumour was spread about ER, I have no information.

    I wasn't aware that Morse (fascinating career - for another time) was an early adopter of the civil rights issue: not hunting where the ducks are for his lily white home state. The 1940 Census showed that Oregon had 2,565 Negroes - I learn from this excellent historical census page.

    The lack of a Negro constituency in the West allowed the famous Hells Canyon deal that Lyndon Johnson engineered at one stage in trying to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957: Morse was of the party, it seems. Chapter 4 of Keith Finley's thesis has the (deliciously technical) detail.

  2. McCullough calls it
    the strongest statement on civil rights heard in Washington since the time of Lincoln
    which is surely a stretcher. But, he says, it was
    the first speech ever by a president to the NAACP
    which is more interesting. Because it would make the commonplace lefty jibe that
    President Bush [is] the first president since Herbert Hoover to not address the NAACP...
    a lie!

    And - lo and behold! - I find confirmation (DOC) that it's a lie from an impeccable source: Julian Bond, Chairman of the NAACP. In a 2004 speech, Bond says

    Harry Truman became the first president to speak to an NAACP audience.
    Now That's what I call a slam dunk!

  3. Even the 79th Congress had made mincemeat of the proposal to set up an FEPC (several earlier pieces).

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