Today’s post comes from Tammy Williams, archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library
President Harry S. Truman spent his entire young adulthood in Missouri, a border state during the Civil War. Both of his sets of grandparents owned slaves. Many voters and politicians believed that Truman would carry his region’s prejudices to the White House and would do comparatively little to advance the cause of civil rights. And so Truman’s decision to issue Executive Order 9981 to provide for equality of treatment and opportunity in the military surprised many people.
What led President Truman to this decision? As African American soldiers returned to the United States from fighting overseas in World War II, they hoped to return to a more equitable society. However, many soldiers experienced openly hostile reactions from white Southerners as they wore their uniforms in their hometowns.
Two such cases made national headlines. In Aiken, South Carolina, a bus driver kicked Sergeant Isaac Woodward off a bus for allegedly being disruptive, and a police officer beat him and gouged out his eyes, blinding him. In Monroe, Georgia, a group of white men dragged two soldiers and their wives from a car and shot them.
In September 1946, shortly after the Isaac Woodward incident, President Truman wrote to Attorney General Tom Clark, asking him to set up a Commission on Civil Rights that could devise recommendations for action. As Truman wrote to David Niles, one of his administrative assistants, “I am very much in earnest on this thing and I’d like very much to have you push it with everything you have.” Truman established the President’s Commission on Civil Rights by Executive Order on December 5, 1946.
In June of 1947, President Harry S. Truman spoke at the final conference session of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the first sitting President to do so. In his speech, he said
As Americans, we believe that every man should be free to live his life as he wishes. He should be limited only by his responsibility to his fellow countrymen. If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American’s achievement should be his ability, his industry, and his character. These rewards for his effort should be determined only by those truly relevant qualities.
At the end of his speech, he quoted Abraham Lincoln. In a letter to his sister the day before, he stated that he knew his mother, a staunch Southerner, wouldn’t approve of his quote from Lincoln, and that he wished he didn’t have to make the speech. But this did not change his belief in what he said.
The Commission submitted its report on October 29, 1947, and, President Truman delivered his civil rights message to Congress on February 2, 1948. Truman wrote:
Unfortunately, there still are examples—flagrant example—of discrimination which are utterly contrary to our ideals. Not all groups of our population are free from the fear of violence. Not all groups are free to live and work where they please or to improve their conditions of life by their own efforts. Not all groups enjoy the full privileges of citizenship and participation in the government under which they live.
While the Civil Rights Commission, and Truman’s speech, dealt with a number of different ethnic groups and issues (such as statehood for Alaska and Hawaii, and compensation for Japanese-Americans interned in camps during World War II), the bulk of his program concerned issues important to African Americans—anit-lynching legislation, voting rights, and discrimination in interstate transportation (buses and trains). Congress refused to pass any of Truman’s civil rights proposals.
The specter of President Truman’s speech before the NAACP and his civil rights message hung over the Democratic National Convention. Most delegates from Southern states refused to support President Truman, and many left the convention after the inclusion of a civil rights plank in the party platform.
Shortly after the Democratic National Convention in July 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, calling for equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed forces of the United States, as well as Executive Order 9980, eliminating racial discrimination in the Federal bureaucracy.
Notice that the order does not have the word “desegregate” anywhere in it. While President Truman felt strongly that everyone should have an equal chance to advance in the military, or obtain a job with the Federal government, he did not agree with the concept of social equality. Desegregation implied a different set of ideas, ones that made Truman, fundamentally a Southerner, uncomfortable. Years later, during the sit-ins at lunch counters and other civil rights protests, former President Truman spoke out against the young people participating in that movement, implying they were inspired by Communists.
Many insist that Truman could and should have gone further than he did with civil rights. The Justice Department should have worked harder to prosecute potential civil rights cases. The Federal Housing Administration, in order to minimize loan risk, actively employed redlining and restrictive covenants to prevent African American incursions into white neighborhoods. Others maintain that Truman put forth his civil rights agenda for political purposes, in order to gain African American votes, or to improve our standing in developing nations and gain their support over the Soviet Union.
But in reading Truman’s personal writings and public speeches, it is clear that Truman made his decision out of an innate sense of right and a desire to see that the promise of the Declaration of Independence—the idea that all men are created equal—be carried out.
Many years later, General Colin Powell would credit Truman with the change. “The military was the only institution in all of America—because of Harry Truman—where a young black kid, now twenty-one years old, could dream the dream he dared not think about at age eleven. It was the one place where the only thing that counted was courage, where the color of your guts and the color of your blood was more important than the color of your skin.”