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Harry Truman: The Imperatives of the Cold War and Race

Speaking in before an all-white audience in Sedalia, Missouri, Harry S. Truman, running for reelection to the Senate, openly proclaimed:

I believe in the brotherhood of man not merely the brotherhood of white men but the brotherhood of all men before law.

Declaring that “giving Negroes the rights which are theirs” is in accordance with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, Truman warned that if “any class or race can be permanently set apart from” or denied political equality, “any other class or race” may suffer the same fate when it “incur[s] the displeasure of its more powerful associates.” Warming to his theme, the Missouri Senator recounted the past decades of “lynching and mob violence, lack of schools, and countless other unfair conditions” stimulating a migration into the cities. Senator Truman told his audience than in these cities blacks were victims of unequal economic opportunity, and had been confined largely to menial occupations. Mincing no words, Truman declared, “It is our duty to see that Negroes in our locality have increased opportunity to exercise their privilege as freemen. . .”:

The majority of our Negro people find cold comfort in shanties and tenements. Surely as freemen, they are entitled to something better than this.

Harry Truman’s memorable speech at Sedalia was not an aberration; it represented the evolving politics of a politician sensitive to black voter opinion. What were the factors making a man such as this act as both a Senator and a President to loosen the historic bonds of racial discrimination? Part of the answer to this question can be found in the 130,000-plus African American voting population of Kansas City and St. Louis. This rapidly growing constituency stood poised to make Truman pay for any backsliding on equal rights. During his 1934 campaign for the Senate, had learned the value of black support, a lesson he apparently never forgot.

Senator Truman once justified his support of a 1938 bill against lynching to a Southern senator by admitting he personally opposed the bill, but that he would have to support it if the measure was voted on by the Senate. “All my sympathies are with you but the Negro vote in Kansas City and St. Louis is too important.“ Truman was undoubtedly sincere in his professions of sympathy with the plight of the south. Born in the border state of Missouri, Truman was reared in an atmosphere of the proud of the legacy of the Confederacy and intolerant of racial equality. Growing up on a six hundred acre farm near Independence, Missouri, Harry Truman had always had some contact with black people. The Independence area of Missouri carried a southern-flavor and featured a black neighborhood termed “Nigger Neck,” the capstone of a segregated local society. Descended from at least one small slaveholder, Truman shared the consensus contemporary view of the horror of Reconstruction.

Truman’s perspective is sympathetic to both the white South and the Confederacy but changed over time incorporating precisely those changes made necessary by the changing national views on race and the changes in his political constituency. Yet, his firm views on Reconstruction remained largely unchanged as he continued to harshly condemn Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens for his efforts to “put the blacks in charge” immediately following the war and Emancipation. This act “was one of the worst things that was ever done for the rehabilitation of the slaves.” President Ulysses Grant’s leadership during Reconstruction was similarly criticized by Truman. In general, however, the mature, post-presidency Truman condemned America’s treatment of both blacks and Native Americans.

Born to John Anderson and Martha Ellen Young Truman in Lamar, Missouri in 1884, the future president was raised in Grandview, and Independence, Missouri. Truman’s father, John a native Missourian, worked a variety of jobs, variously trading mules, farming and speculating on grain. Moving back to Grandview in 1906, Truman spent the next eleven years as a farmer. In 1917, he enlisted in the army as a 1st Lieutenant. Elected judge of the county court in 1922, Truman’s political career took off. Following his 1924 defeat in his bid for reelection, Truman won the race for county presiding judge in 1926. By 1934 he won a seat in the U.S. Senate aided by black votes in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Truman never hid his life-long sympathy for the cause of the Confederacy. His uncle had served in the Confederate Army, and his mother persistently condemned the Republicans for their alleged abolitionism and nourished a strong hatred for President Abraham Lincoln. Even years later when she visited the White House she refused to sleep in the Lincoln room and quipped that “Well, if there are any good Yankees, I haven’t seen one yet.” Harry Truman was steeped in an atmosphere of racial prejudice that made a lasting impression upon his personality. In a letter to his future wife Bess, written in 1911 over three decades before the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan had been made, Truman unabashedly wrote:

I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a nigger from mud, then He threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman.

Truman continued to write that his uncle hated “Chinese and Japs” commenting, “so do I.” While admitting this was “race prejudice,”this did not faze him for he believed that “Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia and white men in Europe and America.”

Truman family lore included a tale of an uncle been hanged in an effort to make him confess that he was a Confederate soldier. Truman’s feelings on this matter were charged partially by resentment stemming from his mother’s forced removal to what he termed a “concentration camp.” While she was confined to the camp northern troops looted and destroyed her family’s property, according to Truman family lore. His grandmother too, was persecuted at the hands of the Yankee soldiers. Truman remained proud of these ancestors who enslaved human beings and defended their right to do so with arms. Even late in life Truman defended Civil War era pro-slavery “hero” William Quantrill in a roundabout way.

Truman denied that he was ever a member of the KKK. Truman blamed the only an electoral defeat in his political career, a contest in 1924 for county judge, on the opposition of a Ku Klux Klan. One biographer, however, maintains that during this period Truman paid at $10 membership fee to join the KKK. During his retirement, the former president denied ever being a member.

. . . later it was claimed that I was a member, but I never was I've told you; most of the boys in Battery D were Catholics, so how could I be a member of something like the Klan? I told them to go to hell. They were a bunch of damn cowards hiding behind bedsheet.

Yet, Truman also recalled attending a Klan meeting:

. . . in 1924 I went to one of their meetings; it was in the daytime down in the eastern part of the county. I guess there must have been a thousand people there, and I knew every durned (sic) one of them.

Truman claimed that he rose to denounce the Klansmen at their daytime rally. He then left and met several of his “Democratic boys” from Independence armed with shotguns and baseball bats. Truman reportedly told them to turn around with the words, “[Y]ou don’t need to use guns. Those guys are scared when they don’t have their sheets on.” Later, in 1944, during his campaign for the vice presidency, newspapers documented Truman’s Klan membership in 1922. Truman rebutted the charge by maintaining that he never took the Klan oath.

Truman and Civil Rights

President Truman’s issuing of Executive Order 9808 establishing a Civil Rights Commission of 15 charged with formulating recommendations for legislation to strengthen and protect “the civil rights of the people of the United States” earned him much appreciation in the contemporary African American national community. President Truman received the 1949 Negro Newspapers Association Publishers (NNPA) John B. Russwurm Award for “his courageous leadership and uncompromising stand in the fight for civil rights.” The gains achieved by a sporadic civil rights movement during the war and its aftermath allowed Truman to reap considerable credit for civil rights progress. Journalist Carl Rowan interviewed Truman on the eve of the former president’s birthday in 1959. In his celebration of Truman’s accomplishments, Rowan asked, “Why would someone from Jim Crow Missouri become so concerned about civil


President Harry Truman

Harry Truman, 33nd President

April 12, 1945 to January 20, 1953

Birth: May 8, 1884, Lamar Missouri

Death: December 26, 1972

Education: Independence High School

Religion: Southern Baptist

Profession: Politician, Haberdasher, Farmer

Political Party: Democratic

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Harry S. Truman Oct 18, 1999, CSPAN



rights?” Truman replied that he battled for civil rights legislation because it was morally correct to do so, but at the same time, he indicated that it was “vitally important” to the perceived role of the United States in providing international leadership during the Cold War era.

As never before, the United States government and political establishment were sensitive to the images of United States’ society that were broadcast abroad. In a majority “colored” world, the notion that the United States, with its long history of slavery, was hostile to non-white peoples threatened to tilt the balance of international power away from the United and toward the Soviet Union. Truman and other American political leaders exhibited a new sensitivity to blatant racial discrimination, prejudice, and violence. Nevertheless, without pressure the African American national community and its pro-civil rights allies, the president would have in all likelihood chosen to remain silent.

Truman’s relatively liberal civil rights record extended back to his days as a Senator from Missouri. During World War Two Senator Truman voted for the creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), acted against the southern filibuster of the anti-poll tax law, and supported other anti-discrimination measures. These liberal positions remained well within the mainstream of contemporary politics. Truman endorsed a permanent FEPC warily. The new agency, however, was crippled from birth by the lack of funding, staff, and authority. It was powerless to cancel contracts when discrimination was found, its only power residing in launching investigations and issuing directives. Toothless, it had little bite since the authority to actually cancel the government contract resided with the contracting agency. During its five years of existence, some 14,000 discrimination complaints were filed by African Americans and only nine of the thirty-five enforcement orders issued by the FEPC were respected by employers.

One significant event in 1946 was the long-delayed release fo the Committee on Civil Rights’ report, “To Secure These Rights.” The study concluded that blacks were subject to racial bias in almost every area of national life. Detailing the contemporary forms of discrimination, the history of racial bias, and the poor conditions suffered by African Americans, the report called for the federal government to take action to secure civil rights. This report also called attention to the international significance of the black struggle for human and civil rights. The report listed several recommendations including measures to enforce existing civil rights laws; a new division within the Department of Justice to focus on civil-rights; creation of a Civil Rights Commission; desegregating the military; prohibiting segregation in interstate transportation; making the poll tax illegal; and making lynching a federal offense.

Truman bolstered his civil rights credentials by becoming the first president to address the NAACP delivering a June 29th, 1947 speech at the Lincoln Memorial to some 10,000 people. Standing next to the NAACP’s Walter White, President Truman took the risk of alienating southern voters who traditionally voted Democratic. In the shadow of the image of the Great Emancipator, Truman became the first president to completely commit the federal government to the “civil rights and human freedom” of African Americans.

Following President Truman’s special message to Congress in 1948, in which he called for more stringent measures against the poll tax, interstate transportation segregation, and, most importantly, denounced the crime of lynching, Tom Connally termed his speech “a lynching of the Constitution. Connally’s comment illustrated the nature of Truman’s political juggling act. The task of holding together a shaky Democratic coalition based on labor, African Americans, and white Southerners was key to Truman’s reelection hopes. In this respect, President Truman displayed a determination not to alienate his Southern Democratic constituency. For example, Truman’s Justice Department watched as the forces of Herman Talmadge, a candidate for governor of Georgia, engaged in the wholesale removal of blacks from the states of voting rolls. Despite the FBI’s knowledge of this no arrests or prosecution were attempted.

In the end, Truman garnered over two-thirds of the black vote, a proportion greater than that of his predecessor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, the African American voter contributed mightily to the surprise victory Truman registered in 1948, helping to perpetuate its own political momentum during the period. At the same time that no action was taken in instances of gross violations of black civil rights, the FBI expended considerable resources in the surveillance of the NAACP’s activities. In 1949, Paul Robeson criticized the appointment of Attorney General Tom Clark to the Supreme Court as a “gratuitous and outrageous insult to my people.” Robeson pointed out that Clark, in his capacity as Attorney General, had placed several civil rights organizations on the list of subversives.

The increased competition for the black vote spurred Truman to initiate a flurry of racially progressive measures, including the issuing of Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 establishing a policy of “equality of treatment and opportunity” within the United States armed forces. The latter action largely resulted from the pressure exerted by another March on Washington Movement launched by A. Phillip Randolph. Yet, it also proved key to his eventual victory at the polls. Truman’s moves were of historic importance, Sunquist notes that “the party system was plunged into its realignment crisis on the day in 1948 that President Truman sent Congress his civil rights proposals, reversing the moderate policy of his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

In a startling 11th-hour comeback Truman defeated Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 presidential election. Critical to Truman’s surprising triumph were his victories by narrow margins in California, Illinois, and Ohio, made possible by capturing the states’ black votes. Overall, Truman won two of every three African American votes nationally. The existence of a progressive force on the left—that of Henry Wallace’s candidacy, acted to push Truman to the left in his effort to maintain sufficient black support to win the election. The Democratic defeats in the 1946 elections that the Democratic coalition taught Truman’s team that they had to more actively court blacks and labor. To the very end of his administration, President Truman was pressured to satisfy the most basic black demands, and with the momentum of world history seeming to swing African Americans’ way, long-sought goals seemed within reach.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.