In 1948, Democrats Weathered Civil Rights Divide

The 1948 Democratic convention was divisive and chaotic. And unlike today's highly scripted affairs, the delegates did far more than just wave signs and cheer. Sixty years ago, they played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement in America.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. When Democrats nominate an African American for president this week, they will continue a process that started 60 years ago. At their 1948 convention, a group of Democrats first adopted a civil rights plank in their party's platform. They were led by a young politician named Hubert Humphrey.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. HUBERT HUMPHREY: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states' rights and to walk right forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.

INSKEEP: That's Hubert Humphrey in 1948. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving is our guide through a convention not quite as choreographed as the ones we're seeing this year.

RON ELVING: Oh, no. No. In those days the only scripting that was done was done by each individual speaker. And this was not a matter of hitting a particular time coordinate so that television could capture you just right. Now, there were television cameras there in 1948, but there weren't that many television sets around the country. And so that really did not drive the timing and schedule of the convention.

INSKEEP: But people were listening on the radio and people were in the room and had come to argue. They'd come to debate a point.

ELVING: They came to decide all the important questions, including who would be the presidential nominee, who would be the vice presidential nominee. Oftentimes that was an open question when the conventions began in those days. Not so much in 1948 on the presidential level, because they had an incumbent Democratic president in Harry Truman.

But the platform was an enormously open issue. And among other things, the liberals - the mostly northern liberals like Hubert Humphrey and some others - were pushing hard to have a meaningful plank about civil rights.

Harry Truman actually had a fairly aggressive program for pursuing the issue of segregation in the country, but he knew that at the convention in the summer of 1948 there would not be a lot of support for that. And he wanted as peaceful a convention as possible. He wanted to try to hold the party together. So he opposed the minority plank through his surrogates at the convention.

INSKEEP: He wanted to have the nice, calm convention...

ELVING: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...where everybody's singing from the same songbook.

ELVING: The nominee always wants to have as calm a convention, as unified a convention as possible, so that there's a consensus and a strong force going forward from the convention.

But in this particular instance, young firebrands like Hubert Humphrey, who was then the mayor of Minneapolis and running for the Senate in Minnesota, really wanted this to be the moment when the party came out, as we just heard him say. An extraordinary speech, a powerful speech. Even watching it on old scratchy film, it's really an amazingly galvanizing speech 60 years later.

INSKEEP: What was happening in American history at that time that made it important for people to confront civil rights at that moment as opposed to a few years before or a few years after?

ELVING: Of course it could've been years before. In fact, one of the things Hubert Humphrey said was people say I'm rushing this issue. I say we're 172 years too late. And he was referring back, of course, to 1776. It was the post-war period, the late 1940s. A lot of people felt it was time to go after the issue of civil rights, segregation in the South.

The platform plank they were pushing included things like an anti-lynching law. They were also pushing to oppose school segregation, which was essentially the way of life, not only in the South but all over the country. They wanted to try to end job discrimination and access to public facilities on the basis of race. Got done in the 1960s, but in 1948 that was a very hot topic.

INSKEEP: So what happened when these liberal Democrats tried to push this civil rights plank on a convention that included a whole bunch of Southern Democrats who were segregationists?

ELVING: A huge floor fight happened. And in the end, by a very narrow vote, that 1948 Democratic convention adopted Hubert Humphrey's minority plank. And the hardest rocks on the far side of the party from the Deep South literally walked out. The Mississippi delegation walked out in its entirety, about half of the Alabama delegation. About three dozen delegates in toto walked out of the convention and vowed to nominate their own Dixiecrat candidate for president, Strom Thurmond from South Carolina, which they did.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to one of those delegates who gave this speech on his way out, Handy Ellis of Alabama.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. HANDY ELLIS (Democratic Delegate, Alabama): The South is no longer going to be the whipping boy of the Democratic Party. And you know that without the votes of the South you cannot elect the president of the United States.

(Soundbite of cheering)

INSKEEP: And I want to listen, Ron Elving, to the president of the United States who was trying to get reelected after this awkward convention, to say the least. Harry Truman said this.

(Soundbite of recording)

President HARRY TRUMAN: There have been differences of opinion, and that's the Democratic way. Those differences have been settled by a majority vote as they should be. Now it's time for us to get together and beat the common enemy.

(Soundbite of cheering)

INSKEEP: OK. So how did this messy convention affect Truman's chances for reelection?

ELVING: It appeared to doom them. It looked like Harry had no chance. He was going to lose a lot of the South. He was going to lose New York. But in the end what happened, and it shocked everyone, was that by the narrowest of margins - well under 1 percent in both cases - Ohio and Illinois with big African American votes in Cleveland and Chicago actually went for Truman. And because of that vote, Harry Truman survived. He got just over 300 electoral votes. The overall national vote was very close. But Harry Truman survived because he got a good strong turnout among black people in Cleveland and Chicago.

INSKEEP: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

Ron, thanks very much.

ELVING: My pleasure, Steve.

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