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 NAACP speech - again


I've read on in McCullough's account (my piece earlier today).

First of all, a question arises over Truman's choice of words: McCullough (p570) says Truman
called for state and federal action against lynching and the poll tax, an end to inequality in education, employment, the whole caste system based on color.

But the Public Papers version of the speech does not include the words lynching or poll tax. You have to decode: to get the first, you go to the reference to
the threat of physical injury and mob violence
And, for the second,
the right to an equal share in making the public decisions through the ballot

I infer that, in 1947, lynching and poll tax are taboo words for a president to use.

I'm not inclined to dispute McCullough's parsing of HST's runes. But he does veer a tad uncomfortably towards the purple prose:
That someone of his background from western Missouri could be standing at the shrine of the Great Emancipator saying such things was almost inconceivable.

My hypothesis would be that Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, had uttered similarly warm words. (Not at the Lincoln Memorial, though.)

But, from what he quotes, NAACP Secretary Walter White was equally euphoric:
As he listened, [White] thought of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. "I did not believe that Truman's speech possessed the literary qualities of Lincoln's speech," he later wrote, "but in some respects it had been a more courageous one in its specific condemnation of evils based on race prejudice...and its call for immediate action against them."

Uh oh.

As we've discovered, a hallmark of Truman's speech was that it was non-specific. The - specific - word lynching came to Truman's lips as easily as Sorry came to those of the Fonz!

And White knew as well as Truman that
  1. legislative action would be barred for the foreseeable future by the Senate; and

  2. executive action could already have been taken had Truman had the will.

Since it hadn't been taken, he clearly hadn't.

Was Truman being completely cynical? I suspect not: he's in a bad spot poll-wise [1] and needs to maximise his Negro vote in '48. But he genuinely wants to help the Negroes, I'm sure. And perhaps he thinks that, with changed conditions, the legislative logjam might somehow be broken.

He is channelling Mr Micawber, probably [2].

According to McCullough,
Taking his seat again after the speech, Truman turned to White and said he meant "every word of it - and I'm going to prove I mean it."

It is just possible that someone of his background being applauded by ten thousand Negro enthusiasts for his message might have left him a little euphoric.

  1. I'm not even looking for a fav/unfav polling series on Truman: he had been in bad shape, and would be again. I have no information how his numbers were looking on June 29 1947.

  2. What action could Truman have taken by executive order in 1947? Desegregate the military, no doubt.

    What about the Federal administration? Surely, just as Woodrow Wilson Jim Crowed Federal offices in Washington by fiat, Truman could have desegregated in the same way. In DC and the border states first, perhaps.

    Perhaps he could have given the Justice Department's Civil Rights Section (created by FDR in 1939) more resources and a wider mandate (caveat: I have no idea how the way DOJ appropriations were allocated would have affected this).

    He could, like Glendower, call spirits from the vasty deep - but how could he have enforced such changes? Wouldn't massive resistance merely have happened a few years earlier than it did?



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