Michael R. Gardner.
Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks.
Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002. xx
+ 276 pp. Photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN
Peter M. Carrozzo , independent scholar.
and Civil Rights
Which twentieth-century president was the first to propose
and champion a broad and coherent civil-rights program on the national
stage? The correct answer is neither of the century's great liberal
champions and most inspiring orators--Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F.
Kennedy--but rather Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third president of the
United States. Even in this era of Trumanphilia, ushered in by David
McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, the contributions of the
unassuming man from Independence in the field of civil rights go mostly
Michael R. Gardner, a communications policy attorney in
Washington, D.C., and a veteran of several presidential commissions, seeks
to correct this oversight. In Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral
Courage and Political Risks, Gardner argues that Truman had a greater
commitment to civil rights than any president since Lincoln--and most
subsequent presidents as well.
Although Gardner is an enthusiastic champion of President
Truman and is correct in his assessment of Truman as a man who did what he
believed was morally right, his book's narrow focus on Truman's moral
beliefs as the driving force behind his activism produces a
Gardner wrongly deems
politics irrelevant to Truman in regard to civil rights when history shows
otherwise. In depicting Truman as a simple man who genuinely believed in
the cause, and for that reason, acted on it, Gardner unfortunately ignores
Truman's complexity--a quality central to the biographies by McCullough
and Alonzo Hamby. The conventional portrait of Truman on which Gardner
bases his book--that of the failed haberdasher who accidentally finds
himself in the White House, where he performs with unexpected
success--does not give him the credit he deserves. Further, Gardner
excludes evidence that would strengthen his thesis. Also, he disregards
the times when Truman did not act as a champion of civil rights due to
pragmatism or political expediency. His failure to address these occasions
not only leaves his book incomplete but also invites unfair criticism of
central thesis is that Truman championed civil rights at a time when the
movement was still in its infancy because of his "personal repugnance" at
the brutal and deadly racist discrimination confronting returning black
World War II veterans.
describes the horrific violence being committed by a recently active Ku
Klux Klan and devotes most of his book to depicting Truman's historic,
multifaceted civil rights program.
Addressing Truman's background,
accurately depicts it as an unlikely preamble to his civil rights program.
Truman was born and raised as a Missourian from a racist rural background,
whose grandparents owned slaves and whose family still remembered their
brutal treatment by Jayhawkers and Union soldiers during the Civil War. An
anecdote from the book best illustrates this point. On
1947, President Truman stood before the Lincoln Memorial and delivered a
courageous speech calling for immediate state and federal action in the
area of civil rights. With unprecedented resolve, he demanded that all
Americans be afforded equal treatment under the law. "When I say all
Americans, I mean all Americans." No American President before Truman
had addressed the NAACP, and no President since Abraham Lincoln had made
so forceful a demand for civil rights for all people. Yet, before
delivering the speech, Truman wrote home to his sister, warning her that
he would be quoting Lincoln and saying things their mother might not like.
"But I believe in what I say, and I'm hopeful we may implement it."
Truman built on his historic speech before the NAACP by
creating, through executive order, a blue-ribbon federal commission to
investigate the recent civil rights violations and propose solutions. The
product of the inquiry by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a 176-page
report titled "To Secure these Rights," was the blueprint for most federal
civil rights initiatives for the next thirty years. Again, Truman went
beyond these actions. On February 2, 1948, he delivered to Congress the
first presidential message on civil rights, presenting a comprehensive
list of ten proposals based on "To Secure These Rights." Among Truman's
proposals were strengthening already-existing institutions, such as making
the Civil Rights Division to the Justice Department permanent; enacting
federal legislation against lynching and the poll tax; settling claims of
the interned Japanese-Americans; and prohibiting segregation in interstate
transportation--a statutory proposal that would directly challenge the
U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.
While Truman's omnibus civil rights bill languished in a
Senate filled with powerful southern leaders and monolithic procedural
roadblocks, he used other means at his disposal to salvage his civil
rights program. On July 26, 1948, Truman signed Executive Orders 9980 and
9981: the first integrated the federal work force and the second
integrated the United States Armed Forces. "With the stroke of the
presidential pen" Truman brought about the most sweeping social change for
African-Americans since the Civil War (p. 30). Remarkably, he took this
step in a Presidential election year--one in which a survey of pollsters
and journalists before the election had unanimously proclaimed Governor
Thomas Dewey, Truman's Republican opponent, the victor. Further, as
Gardner points out, Truman took each of these actions in the area of civil
rights before the national civil rights movement had gained any steam.
also praises Truman for the amicus curiae briefs submitted by his
Justice Department in support of the NAACP strategy of litigation to
topple the apartheid system in America. Notable cases in which the Truman
administration's Justice Department filed amicus briefs include Shelley
v. Kraemer, Sweatt v. Painter, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State
Regents, Hendersen v. United States, and the five school
desegregation cases later decided as Brown v. Board of Education.
Taken together, these decisions outlawed Plessy's "separate but
equal doctrine" in education and declared restrictive covenants
unconstitutional. Gardner credits the often over-looked Vinson Court, with
its four Truman appointees, including Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, for
laying the groundwork for the great Warren Court revolution. This chapter
offers a fascinating, alternative perspective on the Court's grappling
with civil-rights issues--one that challenges the conventional emphasis on
Warren Court's central role.
Gardner's main contribution is to present a story that has
been often overlooked by historians who credit other presidents for civil
rights. To demonstrate the social impact of Truman's accomplishments,
Gardner includes statements from people who were involved or affected,
ranging from members of Truman's inner circle, such as Clark Clifford, Tom
Clark, Philleo Nash, and George Elsey, to students at Howard University
who heard Truman's 1952 commencement address. Statements from Truman's
diary and letters provide insight into his determined stance on civil
rights. An excellent source that Gardner uses with skill is the biography
of White House butler Alonzo Fields. Fields's fond depiction of his
friend Harry Truman speaks volumes about the President's true feelings.
And yet, Gardner scants or omits some bodies of evidence
and argument even as he expertly deploys others. In Gardner's rush to tell
the story of Truman's moral outrage and politically precarious response,
he fails to look at a number of alternative explanations for the
scants the racism that Harry Truman felt and expressed in his early life.
Racial slurs can be found in many of his letters to his wife Bess.
Although David McCullough describes this race prejudice, it is nowhere to
be found in Gardner's book. Perhaps
deemed this evidence irrelevant because it pre-dated Truman's political
career. Further, such views might well be expected from a farmer in that
time and place. More troubling is Gardner's disregard of Truman's brief
flirtation with membership in the Ku Klux Klan during his first electoral
campaign. In 1922, he was running for the position of eastern judge of
Jackson County, a non-judicial, administrative office akin to a county
commissioner. In a highly competitive primary in which two candidates
already had Klan support, a political ally of Truman advised him to join
as well--on the grounds that it was "good politics." The ten-dollar
membership had been paid but upon learning the Klan was against Catholics,
Truman backed out. He had commanded a predominantly Catholic artillery
battery in France during the World War. Truman, thereafter, became an
enemy of the Klan, having his life threatened by them on occasion.
Gardner repeatedly claims that Truman was motivated to act
on civil rights solely by his moral outrage at the violence perpetrated
against returning African-American veterans of World War II. He goes so
far as to proclaim "[p]olitics had been irrelevant" to President Truman
when he created the Civil Rights Committee and delivered his Civil Rights
Message to Congress (p. 202). Evidence shows this statement is inaccurate.
Historians have attributed many of Truman's acts and
initiatives in civil rights to ulterior political motives, which Gardner
does not identify or address. In fact, Truman may have been the first
President to appreciate the power of the African-American vote and court
it actively. During his career as Senator, scholars have attributed his
votes for civil rights legislation to his reliance on the African-American
population in Kansas City, who backed the candidates of the city's
political boss (and Truman's political godfather), Tom Pendergast. In
1940, Truman was fighting an uphill battle for reelection--a contest
foreshadowing his run for the Presidency in 1948. His Democratic primary
opponent was Governor Lloyd Stark, a popular, well-financed opponent with
the power of the state's executive office behind him. The Pendergast
machine was in ruin, victimized by investigations and indictments (rooted
in partisanship but justified by their results), including the conviction
of Pendergast himself for tax evasion. Without machine backing, Truman was
alone, and most Missourians counted him out. Against this background,
Senator Truman made his first political speech in favor of civil rights at
a stop along his campaign over the oppressively hot highways of Missouri
in the town of Sedalia. His call for equality for African-Americans,
before a nearly all-white crowd of Missourians, showed great courage and
even greater respect for the power of the African-American vote--a factor
that Stark ignored, to his ultimate cost. The success of Truman's campaign
for a second Senatorial term taught him a valuable lesson about the
powerful voice of this emerging constituency.
This courting of African-American voters was an embedded
practice in the Truman administration, one that
wrongly disregards. The Truman administration attempted to balance the
liberal wing of the Democratic Party with the racist Southern Democrats,
in a strategy described by aide Phileo Nash as "backtrack after the bang."
The idea was to present a bold statement of intended action to satisfy the
New Deal liberals and then back off from that stance to regain or preserve
the support of the Southern Democrats.
In the 1948 election, Truman overcame the defections of the
right and left wings of the Democratic Party to defeat the Republican
front-runner, Governor Thomas E. Dewey, and win reelection. Some
historians have attributed Truman's miraculous victory to a report
entitled "The Politics of 1948." The plan of this report was to court
the African-American and labor vote to reassemble the New Deal coalition
and ride it into the White House. (Some historians and Truman advisors
say the report only confirmed what Truman already knew.) This strategy
required a delicate approach--an active stance on civil rights that did
not alienate the South unduly. Truman himself viewed the third-party
candidacy of Henry A. Wallace as the greatest impediment to his
reelection. Thus, he felt that positive action on civil rights was the key
to victory in 1948. This strategy has been credited as the driving force
behind the President's Civil Rights Message in February 1948. Although
Gardner briefly mentions this pamphlet, he omits its recommendation to
court African-American voters (p. 90).
disregard of politics leads to an inaccurate history of major events. For
example, consider Gardner's depiction of the debate over the civil rights
plank in the 1948 Democratic party platform. A public-interest group
active within the party, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), pushed
for a civil-rights plank that included all the proposals from Truman's
Civil Rights message to Congress. Interestingly, according to
historian William C. Berman, Truman and his supporters fought the ADA and
favored the milder civil rights plank from the 1944 Democratic platform,
to preserve party unity. Much to the chagrin of Truman and the
Southern Democrats, a majority of the convention delegates supported the
ADA and its strong civil rights plank. Gardner depicts this as a victory
for Truman (p. 99), whereas Berman (who is cited in Gardner's
bibliography) shows otherwise. At the least, Gardner
should have addressed this debate. In light of Truman's appreciation of
the black vote from his experiences in Missouri and in light of "The
Politics of 1948" pamphlet, it seems likely that Truman hoped to perform
another balancing act by courting African-American voters without
alienating white Southerners. At the 1948 Democratic convention, Truman
fell off this political tightrope. Always a political pragmatist (and an
avid poker player), Truman then played the hand that he was dealt. A map
showing the path of Truman's epic "whistle-stop" campaign shows how he did
so. Of the thousands of miles of train tracks traversed, none bisected the
old Confederacy. The African-American and liberal votes secured as a
result of the President's civil-rights activism and liberal platform
proved vital in Truman's reelection.
By failing to deal with these deft, sometimes devious
political maneuvers, Gardner leaves his argument for the sincerity of
Truman's commitment to civil rights open to serious challenge. But such
challenges to Truman's civil-rights policies, stressing political ulterior
motives as the roots of his civil-rights mission, do not convincingly
undermine that mission or Truman's sincerity in following it. Recognizing
a powerful constituency, listening to their complaints and acting to
please them is the essence of politics. Alternatively, Truman simply could
have courted the disaffected Dixiecrats and moved the New Deal coalition
to the right, a strategy that logically would have seemed more appealing
to a grandson of slave-holders. Truman's greatness lies in his synthesis
of political acumen, recognition of the gross inequities in the segregated
American nation, and in taking advantage of an opportunity to protect
African-American citizens and win their political support.
To Truman's credit, he often continued his push for civil
rights after his purely political objective was achieved. In his drive to
desegregate the armed forces, Truman pushed the military even after his
reelection in 1948 and never backed down. He deemed it a personal crusade,
vowing to "knock somebody's ears down" to achieve sweeping desegregation
at every level and in every branch of the armed forces.
Critics also take Truman to task for backing down on most
of his civil rights program in Congress, but political realities
necessitated it. After Truman lost a procedural battle in the Senate to
reform its cloture rules (and thus lost the battle to prevent Southern
Senators from filibustering any civil-rights measure to death), any hope
of enacting meaningful civil rights legislation was lost. To prevent
the entire Fair Deal program from meeting a similar fate, and to avoid
alienating Congress when he needed its help to fight the Cold War, Truman
had to cut his losses. In addition, the procedural reforms to the Senate
that Truman sought were considerable obstacles. It was only fifteen years
later, after a series of legislative battles, that Congress enacted the
landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Evidentiary oversights also prove damaging to Gardner's
work. When discussing Truman's motivation to create the Civil Rights
Committee, he states, "The best insight into Truman's motivation comes
from his own words in his statement issuing Executive Order 9808." Better
evidence in support of Gardner's thesis is available. Before the
Democratic National Convention in 1948, a group of Southern Democrats
asserted their complete support of the President, provided he backed off
from his support of civil rights. The President commented on the
similarity of their backgrounds and admitted that his experiences "would
foster the personal belief that you are right." With apparent sincerity he
explained how his "stomach turned over" upon hearing of the acts of
cruelty and violence against returning African-American soldiers. "I shall
fight to end evils like this."
President Truman's belief in the principles of the
Constitution and the Bill of Rights was a compelling motivation in his
civil rights initiatives. The theme of the Constitution for all people
runs throughout his career. He first referred to it in his speech at
On creating the Civil Rights Commission, Truman set its objective as "our
Bill of Rights implemented in fact." When asked what sources were used
in writing his civil rights message to Congress, Truman cited only the
Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
A statement from a critical contemporary of President
Truman may be most telling in appreciating the latter's commitment to
civil rights. When J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina
was questioned why he was leaving the Democratic Party Convention of 1948,
given that Truman was just promising the same things that
did, Thurmond responded: "But Truman really means it."
A final motivation for Truman's civil-rights activism was
his stubborn determination. When Truman took on a cause, he fought
tirelessly to see it through. This tenacity appears throughout his career,
from the major road construction project he spearheaded throughout
Missouri as county judge to the Marshall Plan. His indomitable initiative,
embodied in the famous "The Buck Stops Here" plaque he displayed on his
desk, also drove his civil rights pursuits.
A question that Gardner leaves unanswered is why Truman,
instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, was the first
president who championed civil rights as a near-personal quest. (Asked in
a more provocative way, was Truman morally superior to the Democrats in
the White House who preceded and followed him?) The answer may lie in his
life story. Truman's uncommon greatness comes from his common experiences.
He related to the bank teller, the night school student, the farmer, the
oil speculator, the veteran, the store owner, the county executive so well
because, at some point in his life, he played each of these roles. His
summers were spent not on a sailboat at Campobello or Hyannisport but
behind a plow in Grandview, Missouri. He was the friend of the common man
because he spent his life among common men. And when his Presidency ended,
he returned to a life among them, residing in the same house in
Independence, Missouri where he had lived since 1919, twenty miles from
his family farm and a few blocks from his high school, his church, and the
county courthouse where his political career began. Merle Miller declared
Truman "the last human being to occupy the White House."
In sum, much of what Truman did in civil rights came from
his belief in the common decency and respect deserved by all people. His
ordinary background and unassuming disposition, combined with his
dedication to preserving the Bill of Rights for all people, and his
self-taught knowledge of history predisposed Harry Truman to do what was
is correct in identifying "moral beliefs" as key to Truman's work for
civil rights -- but those beliefs did not have only one source. The
totality of these beliefs, his obstinate determination, his political
astuteness, and his progressive understanding of a powerful emerging
constituency ignored by his peers, led to Truman's great civil rights
. Address Before the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People, (June 29, 1947), in Public Papers of the
Presidents: Harry S Truman, 1947 (Washington, DC: Government Printing
Office, 1948), 311.
. Gardner seems particularly annoyed at one
oversight--that of ABC news anchorman Peter Jennings, in a 1997 television
documentary, crediting John F. Kennedy as the first president to view
civil rights as a moral issue (p. 32). Throughout his book, Gardner
expertly disputes this claim.
. Alonzo Fields, My 21 Years in the White House
(New York: Coward-McCann, 1961).
. David McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1992), 159-165.
. William C. Berman, The Politics of Civil Rights in
the Truman Administration (Columbus: Ohio State University Press,
. Ibid., 152.
. McCullough, 590.
. Kenneth O'Reilly, Nixon's Piano: Presidents and
Racial Politics from
Washington to Clinton
(New York: Free Press, 1995), 157.
. Ibid., 158. See also Alonzo L. Hamby, Man of the
People: A Life of Harry S. Truman (New York: Oxford University Press,
. McCullough, 638-639.
. Berman, 108.
. Ibid., 113. Similarly, Hamby depicts the ADA platform
fight as against Truman's "opposition," 448.
. McCullough, 640.
. Donald R. McCoy, The Presidency of Harry S. Truman
(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1984), 170.
. Hamby, Man of the People, 495.
. On the titanic battle fought in the Senate in 1957 to
secure even a mild, watered-down Civil Rights Act in the face of
determined Southern opposition, see generally Robert A. Caro,
Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, III (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).
. McCullough, Truman, 429.
. Remarks to the President's Committee on Civil Rights
(January 15, 1948), in Public Papers of the Presidents: Harry S Truman,
1948 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1949), 98.
. President's News Conference (February 5, 1948), in
. McCullough, Truman, 645.
. Merle Miller, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of
Harry S. Truman (New York: Berkley/Putnam, 1974), 9.
Library of Congress
Call Number: E814.G37 2002
* Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972 -- Views on civil
* Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972 -- Relations with African Americans
* Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972 -- Ethics
* African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century
* United States -- Politics and government -- 1945-1953
* United States -- Race relations
Citation: Peter M. Carrozzo . "Review of Michael R.
Gardner, Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political
Risks," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, June, 2002. URL:
“Gardner’s thesis is that
Truman was a pioneer, a hero, and the instigator of the modern civil
rights movement…Although I personally agree with Gardner’s positive
treatment of Truman’s civil rights actions, the author is overly
enthusiastic, even gushy, to the point of hagiography…By dealing with
civil rights in isolation rather than as part of the totality of Truman’s
domestic policy agenda, he leaves himself vulnerable to the revisionist
claim that Truman talked a good game, but often sacrificed civil rights to
Joe P. Dunn, review of
Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks, by
Michael R. Gardner, The History Teacher 36 (February 2003):