When President Franklin Roosevelt died in the closing months of WW2, his Vice-President of only 82 days Harry Truman assumed the office and went on to win another term in 1948. A Democrat from Missouri, Truman’s Southern origins made him ostensibly racist. But, by late 1946 he had come to embrace civil rights. This was no small achievement. The American South—broadly those states that had formed the Confederacy in 1861—were the same states that resisted implementation of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of 1870 that abolished slavery and the discrimination of anyone on the basis of race. Segregation remained standard and states were run by whites who voted solidly Democrat because they would not support Republicans, as thy were the party of Lincoln, who had defeated the Confederacy and freed the slaves. After Roosevelt’s progressive approach to racial issues, southern Democrats were pleased one of their own was now in charge.
In 1952, Truman made a speech in the predominately black borough of Harlem, New York, explaining what had changed his mind.
“Right after World War II, religious and racial intolerance began to show up just as it did in 1919, there were a good many incidents of violence and friction, but two of them in particular made a very deep impression on me. One was when a Negro veteran, still wearing this country’s uniform, was arrested, and beaten and blinded.”
“I hold it the duty of the State and local government to prevent such tragedies. The federal government must show the way. We need not only protection of the people against the Government, but protection of the people by the Government.”
As an example, he cited the case of Sergeant Isaac Woodard, who was heading home on a bus in 1946, when he told a bus driver he felt disrespecting him that “I’m a man, just like you.” The driver called the police, two of whom took Woodard off the bus and out of view up a back alley and beat him, before putting him in jail. There, the police chief himself continued the beating with a night stick (US truncheon), which permanently blinded Woodard. Thereupon, a local judge found Woodard guilty of disorderly conduct and fined him $50. The state declined to prosecute the police chief. When the federal government tried the police chief (who openly admitted he had blinded the sergeant), people attending the trial applauded when the jury acquitted him.
Truman also related how, in that same year, all-white primary elections were declared unconstitutional, and black people in Georgia prepared to vote in the primary there. Days before the election, a mob of white men halted a car in which two black couples were traveling on a back road, dragged them out, tied them to trees and shot all four.
Their murders were never solved because nobody was willing to talk to FBI agents that Truman sent to investigate . They reported: “the whites were extremely clannish, not well educated and highly sensitive to outside criticism, while the blacks were terrified that would be lynched if they talked.” They did, however, suspect a virulently racist candidate running in the primary had encouraged the murders, sure it would encourage voters to choose him. He even accused one of his opponents of being soft on racial issues and that, of white men took action against blacks, he would personally commit to getting them pardoned. He won.
When an old friend wrote to Truman to beg him to stop pushing a federal law to protect equal rights, Truman wrote back: “I know you haven’t thought this thing through and that you do not know the facts. I am happy, however, that you wrote me because it gives me a chance to tell you what the facts are.”
“When the mob gangs can take four people out and shoot them in the back, and everybody in the country is acquainted with who did the shooting and nothing is done about it, that country is in pretty bad fix from a law enforcement standpoint.”
Truman’s Damascene conversion to the cause of racial equality came early in the Civil Rights Movement. It had its roots in the Civil War, but its modern foundation came in the aftermath of WW2. Truman was part of that foundation. He recognised that a one-party, such as the white-only southern Democrats of his roots cannot reflect true democracy. It must not enable and legitimise abuse and force an entire segment of the population to live in fear. As he put it:
“The Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws clearly place on the Federal Government the duty to act when state or local authorities abridge or fail to protect these Constitutional rights.”
By the 1960’s, things were changing: Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat to a white man; Martin Luther King had led the march on Selma; black, as well as white soldiers were coming home from Vietnam in body bags. It was a time of change that neither furtive remnants of the Ku Klux Klan, nor Governor Wallace of Alabama could halt. The 15th Amendment was being adhered to in both law and spirit. It seemed the struggle was over when Colin Powell became Secretary of State and Barack Obama President.
Unfortunately, the clouds of discrimination are gathering again. The first gloom happened in 2013, when a Supreme Court with a majority of Republican appointees gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had given federal oversight to ensure individual states could not pass election legislation that was discriminatory. This was a harbinger of what was to come. In 2016, Trump bought and bullied his way into the Republican nomination and used the resulting presidency to drive a coach and horses through convention, sided by a pliant and reactionary Republican majority in the Senate, led by Sen. Mitch McConnel.
Trump’s defeat in 2020 threw Republican-controlled states into a tizz, not least because Trump (and most of their colleagues) claimed the election had been stolen. The reaction in those states was a flurry of legislation—now permitted by the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that flouted the principle of the 1965 Act and made it hard for mostly Democratic voters to register and vote. This disproportionately affects non-whites. The devices include closing polling stations in poor districts, making voting registration difficult, restricting postal ballots and similar hurdles to overcome.
The irony, bordering on tragedy, is: the state governments undermining democracy are not Democratic heirs to their reactionary forebears of a century ago, but Republicans—from the same party that Abraham Lincoln led to victory after four years of bloody civil war to free black people from the dispossession of slavery in the first place.
As The Who sang in Won’t Get Fooled Again around the time Civil Rights were in full cry: “Meet the new boss: same as the old boss.”
Those interested in background on the above are welcome to trawl a myriad of books on the subject of slavery and civil rights. But films, while neither scholarly nor analytical, do offer easier access and flavour for those unfamiliar with US southern states and their distinctive culture. Some suggestions, which also excellent films:
- On slavery itself: Twelve Years a Slave (2013, Dir: Steve McQueen)
- On FBI attempts to end racism: Mississippi Burning (1988, Dir: Alan Parker)
- On small-town policing: In the Heat of the Night (1967, Dir: Norman Jewson)
- On rural southern culture: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991, Dir: John Avnet)