Alonzo Hamby is a historian and professor specializing in President Harry Truman and 20th century United States history. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE interviewed Hamby about domestic issues during Truman's presidency.
Truman and Civil Rights
There was a lot in Truman's background that mitigated against support of civil rights. He had, after all, come from a family that was basically Southern. He had ancestors who had been slaveholders. It soon was a pretty sure bet also that privately he believed that most blacks ere inferior to most whites, and I think it's fair to say that neither he nor Bess would have been pleased if Margaret had brought Sidney Poitier home for dinner.
But he also came from a background that said, everyone deserved an equal chance in life. And once you had begun to define blacks as part of the body politic, then you had to extend that equal chance to them. And he acted on this intuition, which ultimately was far more important to him than whatever he felt about racial superiority or inferiority.
When Harry Truman became president, civil rights were just beginning to develop as a major national issue. Several things had happened. There'd been a big movement of the black vote into the Democratic Party in the 1930s. This is a constituency that Truman could not ignore, and it was a constituency that he needed to appeal to because they'd come into the party because of Roosevelt and the New Deal. There was no guarantee that blacks were going to vote for any Democratic candidate who followed Roosevelt. On the other hand, the Southern contingent in the party, of course, still operated in an atmosphere in which blacks were not even able to vote in one Southern state after another. Rigid segregation was taken for granted in every aspect of American life.
So there's a great conflict here and politically Truman has to choose as he is he going to go with the South? Which he has some emotional relationship to. Or is he going to go with the Northern liberals and the black constituency and the civil rights program they favor? There's no easy answer to this question for him, because he stands to make a significant proportion of the party mad at him whatever he does. The political advantages are by no means as clear as they might seem to be in retrospect. I think he decides he's going to do the right thing, and the right thing is to take the stand he does on civil rights.
Which is to, first of all, appoint a commission to study the issue. He does this in the fall of 1946. One of the reasons that he does it has been that there were numerous instances of violence against returning black veterans, some of them still in uniform. He clearly was horrified by this. He thought it was a very, very bad thing. The commission he appointed was stacked with liberals. It returns a report about a year later called "To Secure These Rights," which recommends a comprehensive civil rights program. After a little bit of hesitation, Truman, in early 1948, sends his comprehensive civil rights bill up to Capitol Hill. He also takes some other action. He gives the Justice Department the go-ahead to file supporting briefs in court cases with the NAACP.
To describe the Southern reaction, fury might be a tame word. Truman lost an enormous amount of support in the South. Feelings there were quite emotional, quite bitter, in a way that it's hard to understand today, in an era when Southern politics have become biracial and even someone like Strom Thurmond has black people on his staff, advising him.
What is maybe more intriguing about is that there are a number of indications that the civil rights program didn't go over terribly well in large segments of the North, which Truman really had to worry about. After all, there were a lot of white Northern Democrats were not enthusiastic about racial integration. And while there are other ways to explain Truman's decline in popularity in early 1948, I think it's fair to say that the civil rights program that he sent to Congress had something to do with his low Gallup Poll ratings that spring. The political payoff was by no means apparent.
Truman starts out trying to support the major elements of the liberal constituency on reconversion. He gives the labor unions more or less a hunting license to go out and negotiate large increases with management. Ah, he supports price controls, but there's another side of him also. Here's a man who has a background as a small businessman, so that, ah, he doesn't have a feeling that unions are a hundred percent right. He, ah, as a small businessman, has a certain level of distrust of price controls. So the -- the result is that when the unions ask for 30 percent wage increases and business says, "We've gotta have equivalent price increases to finance this," ah, the government winds up backing off trying to look for compromises. The labor unions especially get upset. They feel the Administration's deserting them. They expect a hundred percent backing from a Democratic President. So throughout late 1945 and into 1946, Truman's estrangement from the labor leadership, here's a constituency absolutely crucial to the Democratic Party, grows until some leaders are saying he's anti-labor.
I think maybe his biggest mistakes are tactical. He doesn't give a country any sense of direction. He seems to be going, ah, back and forth. He gives the appearance of being unable to deal with all the economic problems of reconversion and he comes to be the person that the unions blame for not being able to get the large wage settlements that they had wanted, that consumers blame when they can't go into a store and buy what they want, and that a public fed up with one strike after another blames for labor disorder.
Whatever he does, it's not going to please everybody who's associated with the Democratic Party. And he is sort of caught up in the divisions among different constituencies that he needs to appeal to. Ah, if you go all the way with labor, then the, ah, the Southern Democrats, the more conservative Democrats in general, are going to be very unhappy with you. And he's sort of trapped in this mode and he's not able to emerge as a decisive leader until the Democrats lose control of Congress. And then he can sound tough and decisive, ah, particularly since by that time he's done away with the economic management apparatus with price controls, rationing altogether as a result of the 1946 election.
Well, once the Democrats have lost control of Congress in 1946, Truman no longer has to worry about leading a Democratic majority in Congress. Ah, moreover, by this point, price controls, rationing have been phased out. The economy's been de-controlled. So he's no longer responsible for this impossible job of trying to manage it so that we have a smooth reconversion. And, as a matter of fact, if the economy goes badly, particularly if there's a lot of inflation, ah, he can blame in on the Republicans, who were the most vociferous opponents of price controls, anyway. A lot of things are no longer as pinnable on him as they had been.
Small Town Living
Well, Independence was very much an upper South county seat town. The bulk of its residents were people who had immigrated to Missouri from Kentucky, mostly before the Civil War. I think you particularly get a sense of the provincial character of the town in its race relations, which were quite fascinating. The black population was basically a servant class. Most of the local whites were quite paternalistic. They were convinced that their blacks were "good folks." Occasionally, if you're reading the Independence paper in the early 20th century, you'll read about an armed hold-up late at night perpetrated by a black person. It's always believed this is someone who came over from Kansas City and has disappeared back into Kansas City. "Our blacks would never do anything like that."
This was the atmosphere that Harry Truman grew up in. It was a sense of race relations that that he had. The Truman family had a couple of black servants, sort of hired hands, a woman who did some of the house work and cooking for them, a man who helped out with the livestock business, gardening, yard work, and the like. They obviously felt very paternalistic toward this black couple and years later when Harry Truman is president and one of the children of this couple is having a hard time, he tells an aide to make sure that this person's "taken care of" and that he gets whatever's coming to him in the way of public assistance, among other things. So I think with today's consciousness, that's particularly one aspect of Independence that hits people very quickly and very directly.
More broadly speaking, Independence was a fairly homogenous community. It was kind of protypical white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in its overall make-up and, as some residents of turn of the century Independence remember it, you had a rough class system that sort of went along the lines of church membership with the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians at the top, with the Southern Baptists, which was the church of Harry Truman's parents, somewhere in the middle, and then down at the bottom the relatively small population of Catholics, and maybe even less regarded than the Catholics in those days, the Latter Day Saints whose families had settled in Independence before the Civil War period and who had not made the trek out to Utah with the bulk of the Mormons, but who'd stayed there to establish what we know today as the reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints.
This was kind of the Independence class system. There was no cosmopolitanism here. That was for sure. Basically the working assumptions, presuppositions of the white upper South, Protestant South dominated the town and permeated the cultural atmosphere.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?