Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks

Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks

by Michael Gardner

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Given his background, President Truman was an unlikely champion of civil rights. Where he grew up—the border state of Missouri—segregation was accepted and largely unquestioned. Both his maternal and paternal grandparents had owned slaves, and his mother, victimized by Yankee forces, railed against Abraham Lincoln for the remainder of her ninety-four

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Given his background, President Truman was an unlikely champion of civil rights. Where he grew up—the border state of Missouri—segregation was accepted and largely unquestioned. Both his maternal and paternal grandparents had owned slaves, and his mother, victimized by Yankee forces, railed against Abraham Lincoln for the remainder of her ninety-four years. When Truman assumed the presidency on April 12, 1945, Michael R. Gardner points out, Washington, DC, in many ways resembled Cape Town, South Africa, under apartheid rule circa 1985.

Truman’s background notwithstanding, Gardner shows that it was Harry Truman—not Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, or John F. Kennedy—who energized the modern civil rights movement, a movement that basically had stalled since Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves. Gardner recounts Truman’s public and private actions regarding black Americans. He analyzes speeches, private conversations with colleagues, the executive orders that shattered federal segregation policies, and the appointments of like-minded civil rights activists to important positions. Among those appointments was the first black federal judge in the continental United States.


One of Gardner’s essential and provocative points is that the Frederick Moore Vinson Supreme Court—a court significantly shaped by Truman—provided the legal basis for the nationwide integration that Truman could not get through the Congress. Challenging the myth that the civil rights movement began with Brown v. Board of Education under Chief Justice Earl Warren, Gardner contends that the life-altering civil rights rulings by the Vinson Court provided the necessary legal framework for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Gardner characterizes Truman’s evolution from a man who grew up in a racist household into a president willing to put his political career at mortal risk by actively supporting the interests of black Americans.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Attorney Gardner, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, crafts a persuasive brief to argue that Harry Truman was the 20th century's best president in terms of civil rights the true successor to the Great Emancipator. His provincial Missouri background notwithstanding, Truman was influenced by his World War II experiences and voracious reading to become a presidential champion of human rights. Gardner cites Truman's American human rights "firsts," among them that he was the first president to accept an invitation from the NAACP and the first to have an integrated inaugural in segregated Washington, DC. Truman sustained his human rights record throughout his seven-year presidency, naming the first African American to the federal bench, ending segregation in the armed forces and the federal civil service, opening the capital's public swimming pools to black families in 1950, and delivering the 1953 Howard University commencement address. More problematic is the author's argument that Truman's Supreme Court appointees especially Chief Justice Fred Vinson and Tom Clark laid judicial groundwork for the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision. Here, Gardner's assessment contradicts prevailing scholarly consensus. Regardless of who is right on this point, however, Gardner's first book is highly recommended for all libraries. William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ. in Shreveport Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Washington communications policy attorney Gardner celebrates the risky efforts of the first US president of the Cold War to gain more legal equality for African Americans. Much of the narrative fulcrums on major speeches he gave during his two terms in office. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From the Publisher

“Gardner, a practicing lawyer and [former] adjunct professor at Georgetown University, sets the record straight on the part that our thirty-third president played in the struggle for racial equality. His well-documented conclusions will astonish even many of those whose memories go back to the period of which he writes.”

New York Law Journal

“[A] compelling account of Truman as a civil rights advocate because it was the right—not politically expedient—position for America following World War II. . . Harry Truman—the lifelong civil rights activist—cared for and was admired by not only the common citizens but also the forgotten ones.”—ForeWord

“[A] persuasive brief to argue that Harry Truman was the 20th century’s best president in terms of civil rights—the true successor to the Great Emancipator. . . . Gardner’s first book is highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)

Harry Truman and Civil Rights is an exceptional read. This book will reaffirm Truman’s position as an important figure in the African American quest for equality.”—The Baltimore Afro-American

“This is truly a remarkable book. I doubt that anybody in the instant history business like myself fully understood that the bedrock of Harry Truman was human rights. Nuclear weapons, Greek-Turkish aid, Marshall plan, Berlin airlift were all acquired tastes, imposed on him by a world running madly at warp speed. But beneath everything, as Gardner notes, was the feeling rooted in his soul that all humans regardless of color, race, or creed deserved equal treatment.”

—Hugh Sidey, Chair and CEO of the White House Historical Association


Harry Truman and Civil Rights presents a riveting account of the little-known, yet pivotal role President Harry Truman played in the cause for civil rights. . . . President Truman’s bravery and dogged determination opened many doors and forever changed the course of history. This book is a tribute to the visionary courage displayed by this statesman who began laying the foundation to right the horrific injustices that prevailed against people of color during his time.”

—Kweisi Mfume, NAACP President and CEO

“This book tells the story of a native son of Missouri who put everything at risk to achieve a moral good. Truman’s very personal crusade for civil rights divided his party, alienated the South, and nearly cost him his presidency. His moral courage is an example for all elected officials and a lesson for all Americans.”                   —Missouri Senator Jean Carnahan

“Harry Truman’s convictions, commitment, and courage are admirably recounted by Michael Gardner. He describes the actions that flowed from them. He recalls long overlooked actions taken by the Department of Justice at Truman’s direction. He pointedly contrasts Truman’s courage with the timidity of his two immediate successors and reminds us of the belated conversion of Lyndon Johnson to the course Truman had advocated years earlier. . . .Truman had the courage. He took the risks. All of us are indebted to him.”—George M. Elsey, administrative assistant to President Truman

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Southern Illinois University Press
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Historical Background for Truman's
Civil Rights Crusade

In August 1863, a [Union] General [Thomas] Ewing issued Order Number 11 ... by which everybody in these parts [of Missouri] moved into what they called posts. There was one in Kansas City where all my family had to go. They called them posts, but what they were, they were concentration camps. —HST, reflecting on his family's Southern heritage in Miller, Plain Speaking

When Harry Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, on May 8, 1884, the Civil War had concluded less than two decades earlier. His parents personally experienced the hard lessons of that brutal war—a war in which Union soldiers "evacuated" Truman's mother, Martha Young, at age eleven, and her five siblings from their rural Missouri farm in August 1863. Truman's grandparents, as did so many working-class farm families in the border state of Missouri, depended on slave labor prior to the Civil War and utilized this form of economic servitude to make ends meet on the rugged frontier of America in the mid 1800s.

    Because of the harsh treatment of "occupying" Union soldiers toward Martha Young and countless citizens of Missouri, and because of the pervasive attitude of a master-slave way of life in Missouri even after the Civil War, Harry Truman was conditioned to be a racist. His mother's deep hatred of President Abraham Lincoln stayed with her even to the days almost a century later when this aged vestige of Civil War America visited her son in the White House. Martha YoungTruman's disdain for Lincoln, fueled by bitter memories of her forced internment as a youngster in a Kansas City Union army "post," prompted the president to label his mother an "unreconstructed rebel." Knowing his mother's still virulent Southerner's hatred for Lincoln even after her ninetieth birthday, President Truman took delight in teasing his mother by suggesting that she sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom when visiting the Truman White House—a suggestion that Martha Young Truman soundly rejected. According to Clark Clifford, who was a trusted aide to Harry Truman, the president welcomed his mother to the White House early in his presidency by saying, "Tonight, Mother, we are going to give you a special treat, a chance to sleep in the most famous room in the White House, the Lincoln Room, and in the very bed in which Abraham Lincoln slept."

    Clifford, who witnessed this incident, went on to note, "There was quiet in the group for a minute, and [the senior] Mrs. Truman—brought up on the myths of the Old Confederacy by parents who had owned slaves—looked at her daughter-in-law and said, 'Bess, if you'll get my bags packed, I'll be going home this evening.'" As humorous as this incident was to the president, it illustrates the degree of unyielding anti-Union anger that permeated the Truman family eight decades after Harry Truman's grandparents were forced to alter their slave-dependent farm life.

    Another revealing insight into Martha Young Truman's strong Confederate feelings is offered by Alonzo Fields in his memoirs of his twenty-one years as chief White House butler.

For her age, she was most charming and refreshing. She would not have anything to do with the Lincoln Room.... To me the funniest thing she said was one night at dinner with Mr. Joseph Davies, the former ambassador to Russia. During the conversation between the President and the former ambassador a name was mentioned which attracted Mother Truman's interest. She remarked, "Isn't he a Yankee?"

Miss Mary Jane Truman, the President's sister, said, "Now, Mother—"

"Well, isn't he?" she insisted.

The President spoke up and said, "Yes, Mother, but you know there are good Yankees as well as bad and good Rebels."

Mother Truman retorted, "Well, if there are any good Yankees, I haven't seen one yet."

    While there were no Yankee soldiers lingering in the Missouri of Harry Truman's youth, the racism that had been a core element of the Civil War remained. Segregated schools and neighborhoods were commonplace in post-Civil War Missouri. Truman also heard about lynchings that were rarely publicized but were well known to Missourians—particularly Missourians who were former slaves and their children, who lived as freedmen in the ever-present fear of a KKK party arriving at their front yard. Young Harry Truman saw firsthand the potency of the KKK, and years later, in the Senate and the White House, he spoke with certainty about the racial intimidation and discrimination that was an accepted way of life in the Missouri of his youth.

    Predictably, within his immediate family, racism was a reality. Not only had the Youngs owned slaves, Grandfather Anderson Truman also was a slave owner who apparently inherited his slaves from his wife's family. For families like the Trumans who relied on this form of human chattel, the use of the term nigger was acceptable, and while the Young and Truman families seem to have been committed Christians, racial equality was not part of their Judeo-Christian ethic.

    Despite the racist culture that permeated Missouri in the post-Civil War environment of his youth, Truman evolved into a man who was not put off by a person's lesser economic status or skin color. During his early, life-defining experiences as a frail student devouring Roman classics, then as a young firmer stoically laboring a dozen hours a day on the family's farm, and later as an army captain leading the rowdy Battery D during the final months of World War I, Truman grew to understand and enjoy his fellow man. He was as comfortable with farmhands and brawling Irish American laborers as he was with the reserved no-nonsense teetotalers of Independence's best churches. He simply liked people, and as a veteran of World War I, he appreciated the enormity of the sacrifice that each soldier and sailor was prepared to make to preserve the democratic way of life guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. That same Constitution became Truman's solid anchor when he entered politics in the early 1920s. And from that point forward—throughout Truman's life, both private and public—it was his Constitution-grounded belief in the equality of opportunity and civil rights for all Americans that shaped Truman's words and actions.

    When thirty-eight-year-old Harry Truman first sought elective office as a Jackson County judge in 1922, he was schooled not only in the Constitution but in the dogged ways of the KKK—a revitalized Klan that had a formidable presence in Independence and throughout Jackson County, Missouri. As Truman campaigned in the summer of 1922 for the position of county judge—a largely non-legal job that included the management of Jackson County's road construction program—the Klan in Missouri was flexing its political muscle. The Jackson Examiner of July 14, 1922, focused on the newfound potency of the Klan, reporting in a front-page story that

within three miles of Independence just off one of the main roads toward the south was held Thursday night a Ku Klux Klan meeting. It is said that a class of 200 mostly from Independence was initiated.

The meeting was on a country lawn. Cars, most of them from Kansas City, lined the roads leading to the farm. Guards in white caps and white wraps stopped every machine seeking entrance. Only those properly identified were permitted to pass. The guards remained on duty during the proceedings. A number present by invitation got their first ideas of the order and many familiar faces from Independence were in the crowd.

An address was made to the entire audience by "Mr. Jones." The speaker stated that this was the first open air meeting held in Jackson County. He told of the purposes of the order and explained the objects of the Klan. Then all those who did not care to join were asked to retire and the class was initiated.

The crowd present was estimated at 2,000 and until late at night the roads leading to the place of meeting were lined with cars. It is said that with the 200 initiated last night there are approximately 600 members in and near Independence.

The Klan's opposition to Truman's candidacy for the county judgeship was later confirmed by the Independence Examiner of November 6, 1922, which reported that

men stood Sunday morning at the doors of several protestant Churches in Independence as the people were leaving after the service and passed out pink "Sample Ballots." When asked what it meant the answer was "100 Per Cent" American: It sounded like Andy Gump's great slogan, "I wear no man's collar." It was the Ku Klux Klan ballot.

On the county ticket on this ballot only one Democratic nominee is endorsed. Judge O. A. Lucas for circuit judge. Opposite each name on the ticket is a paragraph which purports to give the religious affiliation of the candidate. Opposite the name of Judge Lucas is printed "Church affiliation, protestant, Record Good." ...

Opposite the name of Harry Truman the Democratic nominee for County Judge appears "Church affiliation, protestant, endorsed by Tom and Joe." ...

"The Tom and Joe referred to are two Roman Catholic Political-Bosses who dominate and control political affairs and Government of Kansas City and Jackson County."

This would indicate that no candidate is endorsed who has the support of "Tom and Joe." ... Harry Truman is the one man on the ticket who was not endorsed by the fifty-fifty agreement, was bitterly opposed at the primary by the Shannon faction and only supported by the Pendergast faction after he had been out campaigning for some months....

An advertisement appears on the front page of this paper ... which announces, "Klansmen, special meeting tonight. Independence Klan."

    While the Klan failed to defeat Truman in his first campaign in 1922, their power to intimidate blacks in Jackson County was a reality that Truman experienced firsthand in his first campaign for elective office, and it was a lesson in racism that stayed with Truman as he progressed from county judge to U.S. senator to vice president serving under the frail President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Pervasive racism remained largely unchallenged in America as Truman evolved into a major political force in the United States; through the Great Depression that dominated the 1930s, and during the first half of the 1940s when winning World War II was the nation's top priority, there was little focus on the Klan or on the racism that the KKK sympathizers fomented throughout the South and border states. During that challenging time when he was elected four times, President Roosevelt was a skilled and inspirational president who had more pressing priorities than taking controversial actions on behalf of one minority segment of the American family. Nonetheless, FDR became the nation's beloved father figure—a man who was revered by all types of Americans who had survived the horrendous depression and were close to victory against Hitler in April 1945.

    On April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry Truman's life changed dramatically with President Roosevelt's death. Not only was Truman stunned, but the nation, still at war in Europe and the Pacific, was traumatized with grief. With FDR's death, the nation lost far more than a president who had led the nation for thirteen years. For many Americans, including African Americans, the nation lost a comforting and articulate father. In his place was a little-noticed politician from Missouri—a border state automatically viewed with suspicion by many black Americans who, like Truman, knew of the Klan's longtime presence in Missouri.

    To many Americans, high school-educated Truman was a pathetic successor to the unflappable, erudite Roosevelt. By contrast to FDR, Harry Truman was barely known to American voters—except those living in Missouri or in the nation's capital—in 1945. Based on the contrasting public images of the legendary Roosevelt and the unimpressive Truman, it was not surprising that, in the traumatic days immediately following President Roosevelt's death, many in the press and troubled citizens throughout the United States wondered, How could this little man from Missouri provide the intellectual and moral leadership for a nation that was still at war in April 1945?

    The public's concerns were addressed quickly as the nation watched their new president take bold, yet measured actions—actions that confirmed how quietly resolute Truman was. Ending the war in Europe on May 8, 1945; launching the United Nations on June 26, 1945; confronting the legendary Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at Potsdam just ninety-four days after he became president; dropping the atomic bomb on Japan on August 6, 1945, to expedite the end of World War II in the Pacific theater—these were among the more important and well-known actions taken by President Truman in the first months of his presidency—a profound presidency that was soon confronted at home with the unprecedented challenge of absorbing twelve million returning veterans into a fractured post-World War II domestic economy.

    As the new president faced the complex challenges attendant to the tidal wave of victorious veterans returning to both coasts of the United States, Truman simultaneously confronted, with increasing clarity, the reality of an aggressive Stalin tenaciously committed to expanding the Soviets' global footprint. The Soviet menace gained momentum in the months following the war's end, requiring prompt and creative presidential responses as Stalin's Communism was forced on millions of war-weary survivors throughout Eastern and Central Europe. In this chaotic environment, Truman—with virtually no preparation for the presidency—became the necessary architect of a global strategy that included the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—programs that would successfully shape the foreign policy of the United States for the next four and one-half decades, until the Soviet threat finally dissipated.

    While addressing these complex and interrelated domestic and international postwar challenges facing the United States, Truman's presidency remained largely free of the overwhelming civil rights pressures that began to burden the presidency after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision—a decision that finally ended the judicially protected separate-but-equal doctrine established by the Supreme Court in its notorious Plessy v. Ferguson holding of 1896. Plessy v. Ferguson, decided on May 18, 1896, by a divided Supreme Court, effectively neutralized the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by ruling in favor of a Louisiana statute that mandated separate, segregated public carriers for blacks and whites: "The object of the [Fourteenth] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either."

    In sharp opposition to the majority in Plessy, Justice John Marshall Harlan entered a vigorous dissent that argued, "Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens." Notwithstanding Harlan's dissent, the Court's majority view that separate but equal was constitutionally sound became the solid legal foundation for segregation throughout the United States for much of the next half century. Simply put, after the Court's Plessy ruling in 1896, state-enforced segregation was generally a Court-protected right—a right that Truman's four appointees to the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Fred Vinson, would challenge and ultimately alter through a series of controversial rulings handed down by the Vinson Court in the years before Brown became law.


Excerpted from HARRY TRUMAN AND CIVIL RIGHTS by Michael R. Gardner. Copyright © 2002 by Michael R. Gardner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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