Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hero of the Democratic Left: Hubert Humphrey

"1948" One veteran of the new left and new politics recently recounted that in 1968 he was mystified that African Americans were unreceptive to his petition to not support Hubert Humphrey in the fall election. Finally, he asked one gentleman why and the man simply replied "1948." In a Huffington Post column, Chris Weigant rightly identifies the 1948 convention as a pivotal event in American political history and as the year--and not 1964-- in which the Democrats lost the South. It is also the year which marked the re-alignment of American parties into more or less coherent ideological parties.

No figure was more critical in the 1948 events than Hubert Humphrey, the young reformist and pro-labor mayor of Minneapolis. Humphrey was running for the Senate and could have easily played it safe, but he chose instead, with the support of liberals like Illinois Senator Paul Douglass, and big city machines to push for a strong civil platform.

President Harry Truman wanted party unity and a bland civil rights platform, even though he had earlier that year been the first President to address the NAACP and even though his administration had issued a detailed 10-point Civil Rights Program calling for aggressive federal action on the issue of civil rights. Immense pressure was brought on Humphrey and his allies not to press the issue.

On the morning of July 14, 1948, the Minneapolis Morning Tribune reported on Humphrey’s intention to address civil rights on the convention floor: “Such an action would be an embarrassing blow to a party already faced with an uphill fight, be held against Humphrey and thus become a dangerous stumbling block to the young man whose ambition goes far beyond the mayoralty of Minneapolis. Early today there were indications Humphrey would carry his fight to the floor – despite the consequences.”

Humphrey's 10-minute speech for the minority civil rights plank is rightly called one of America's great speeches. Here are the concluding paragraphs

There are those who say to you - we are rushing this issue of civil rights. I say we are 172 years late.
There are those who say - this issue of civil rights is an infringement on states rights. The time has arrived for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of state's rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.
People - human beings - this is the issue of the 20th century. People - all kinds and sorts of people - look to America for leadership - for help - for guidance.
My friends - my fellow Democrats - I ask you for a calm consideration of our historic opportunity. Let us forget the evil passions, the blindness of the past. In these times of world economic, political and spiritual - above all, spiritual crisis, we cannot - we must not, turn from the path so plainly before us.
That path has already led us through many valleys of the shadow of death. Now is the time to recall those who were left on that path of American freedom.
For all of us here, for the millions who have sent us, for the whole two billion members of the human family - our land is now, more than ever, the last best hope on earth. I know that we can - I know that we shall - begin here the fuller and richer realization of that hope - that promise of a land where all men are free and equal, and each man uses his freedom and equality wisely and well.
(The entire speech can be found here, the audio here, and a video clip here.)

The pro-civil-rights plank was narrowly adopted. The Mississippi and half of the Alabama delegation walked out of the hall. They formed the Dixiecrat Party and nominated their own presidential candidate, Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. The goal of the Dixiecrats was to take several Southern states away from Truman and thus cause his defeat. The Southern Democrats reasoned that after such a defeat the national Democratic Party would never again aggressively pursue a pro-civil rights agenda. This strategy failed.

John D 'Emilio in his biography of Bayard Rustin (Lost Prophet) adds an intriguing detail to the 1948 story. The night before the Democratic convention began, A. Philip Randolph had addressed a rally calling for opposition to Jim Crow in the military.

The next morning, outside the convention, Rustin organized a picket line of several dozen supports of the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience. After he, Randolph, and others had marched for several hours, Rustin recalled, finally a white man comes out and joins us, and none of us know who he is." He introduced himself as Hubert Humphrey...Randolph encouraged Humphrey to to "take the platform tonight or tomorrow and tell the world about civil rights." (p. 154)
Humphrey was, of course, elected to the Senate in 1948. Despite abiding hostility from the Dixiecrat Senators, he rose in influence. He continued to be a liberal stalwart and was the Senate manager of the 1964 Civil Rights Act over a Dixiecrat filibuster. At the time, it took a 2/3 vote to break a filibuster.

Humphrey's political career was not without controversy. He was sometimes criticized by liberals and the democratic left, sometimes justly, and sometimes not. But for his role in the civil rights revolution, he was truly a hero.

Shortly before his death, a poll named Humphrey--by a wide margin--the greatest Senator of the 20th century.


The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights gives an annual Humphrey Award

For more about Humphrey

Minnesota Public Radio program on the 60th anniversary of Humphrey's 1948 speech

Wikipedia entry
Gary W. Reichard "Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey" Minnesota History Summer 1998 (Volume 56, number 2 Pages 50-67)
Iric Nathanson "Political warfare: Looking back at early DFL caucuses" (a short article discussing Humphrey's role in forming the Democratic Farmer Labor Party and the successful fight of the liberals to defeat the Communist DFL faction.)
Carl Solbert, Hubert Humphrey: A Biography. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003.

John Earl Haynes, Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota's DFL Party

Ted Gittinger and Allen Fisher, "LBJ Champions the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Part 2"

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