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

Truman's Civil Rights Message

Truman's NAACP speech in June 1947 (piece earlier today) was full of warm, if non-specific, words about government action to ameliorate racial problems.

Truman went further with his Message to Congress on Civil Rights of February 2 1948 (which I discussed on February 22), making ten recommendations for Congressional action - including an antilynching law and an FEPC.

(As I mentioned, Truman could not even bring himself to use the word lynching in his NAACP speech. So there was progress of a sort right there.)

Clearly, there would be no legislation passing Congress to satisfy any of his ten points in the foreseeable future. Truman was making a gesture with a view to garnering Negro votes in 1948.

McCullough confirms this by saying (p586) that Truman's message had been submitted
without conferring with his congressional leaders

Either he thought it would be a waste of time; or he wanted to poke them in the eye (shades of the Bolton nomination!). My guess is the former:

My recollection from Caro's Master of the Senate is that Alben Barkley was not much cop as Democratic Leader in the Senate. (In 1948, he was Minority Leader, of course.) But I can find nothing online to support it [1].

But Barkley could have been the entire DC Comics roster of super-heroes rolled into one and still not got an FEPC bill through the Senate!

What did Truman really think? I suspect a similarity with Lincoln: just as Lincoln distinguished abolition of slavery (which he desired) and social equality of the Negro (which he did not) - making clear that the former did not entail the latter - so Truman distinguished between civil rights and personal preference: he would want the Negro to have the right to vote and be protected against job discrimination.

But - imagine if daughter Margaret had introduced a Negro as her fiancé: I would forecast presidential conniptions!

McCullough has a story (p588) about writer Jonathan Daniels [2] who was in Missouri researching a Truman bio: Daniels
recorded in his notes that as Mary Jane [3] drove him south from Independence to Grandview one morning, she turned and said: "Harry is no more for nigger equality than any of us"...

McCullough goes on
But Mary Jane, like others, failed to understand that Truman knew how, if they did not, that as president he could not sit idly by and do nothing in the face of injustice

However, as Professor CEM Joad would say, It all depends on what you mean by equality.

He then quotes a letter that Truman wrote at the time in which he makes the distinction:
I am not asking for social equality, because no such things exist, but I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings...

The examples of present injustices that Truman goes on to give are exclusively ones of violence to Negroes.

I can't see his vision of equality of opportunity embracing diversity as a ground for affirmative action, for instance!

  1. Why isn't there a search engine that works so I can specific a person or a thing and a quality - good, bad, whatever - and pull up pages assessing the extent that that person/thing possessed that quality?

    There are a thousand verbal formulations of Barkley was a crap leader/Barkley was a great leader - leaving Mr Google floundering.

  2. Son of Josephus Daniels of North Carolina, Woodrow Wilson's Navy Secretary - to whom FDR was Assistant Secretary - and owner of the Raleigh News and Observer.

  3. Mary Jane Truman - HST's sister.


According to the Pierro thesis on Truman and civil rights (p68), the great American public were positively Dixiecrat about his ten point race plan:
A nationwide Gallop (sic) Poll taken in April found that only 6 percent of all Americans supported passage of the Truman plan, as opposed to 56 percent in opposition. Even among Negroes outside of the South, support rose no higher than 58 percent.

America says neigh to civil rights! (Oops - couldn't resist...)

Bearing in mind the modesty of the plan, these are suprising numbers. Wasn't the war supposed to have changed minds in the North? It wasn't as if Truman was broaching sensitive issues like schools desegregation...

The polling continued suprisingly bad:
A follow-up poll conducted by the Gallup organization in July found that a majority of Americans opposed a federal anti-lynching bill, and only 39 percent believed the federal government should have any involvement in guaranteeing non-discrimination in employment. Even on the question of mandated segregation in interstate transportation, opposition to such policies enjoyed only 49 percent support nationwide. Forty-two percent of all Americans continued to support separate seating on buses and trains.

I find the antilynching bill response strangest of all: you would expect a large majority to oppose lynching; and the Northern objection to an antilynching bill - essentially states rights - was a technical one. Most respondents would have been from outside the Confederacy.

Doesn't add up.

The idea of a large body of Northern resistance to an antilynching bill surviving World War 2 had not occurred to me.

You live and - occasionally - learn.


The question of greasing up Congressional leaders in advance of a controversial announcement - or not - arose when Roosevelt announced his court packing plans. He chose not to do so. (I say, to rile up a scapegoat oppositional Congress ahead of a Roosevelt Recession.)

And, with the nomination of John Roberts to SCOTUS, one sees, apparently , a shmoozefest of Democratic senators for a nomination intended to go through.

As opposed to a Bolton-style poke-in-the-eye designed not to go through, and thereby excite the base. (Or to be an each-way bet, at least.)

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