harry truman and the black vote -- 2/09/16

Today's selection -- from These United States: A Nation in the Making 1890 to Present by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas J. Sugrue. In 1948, Harry Truman, who had become president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, faced long odds in becoming elected president in his own right. He faced two Democratic "splinter parties," Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats and Henry Wallace's Progressives, as well as a strong Republican opponent in Thomas Dewey, the popular Governor of New York. To help his chances, he reached out to a previously neglected part of the electorate -- the black vote, becoming the first major Democratic candidate to campaign in black neighborhoods:

"The odds seemed long against Truman's [election]. Not only did he face mutiny in his own party; his Republican opponent was the well-regarded governor of New York, Thomas Dewey, who had run against Roosevelt in 1944 and won 46 percent of the vote nationwide. Dewey represented the moderate wing of his party. A strong supporter of civil rights, he had signed a strong state antidiscrimination law in 1944. An internationalist, he strongly supported the United Nations and opposed Robert Taft and the Republican isolationists. Dewey also supported liberal programs such as public housing, generous unemployment insurance, government-funded highways, and Social Security. As he argued, 'anybody who thinks that an attack on the fundamental idea of security and welfare is appealing to peo­ple generally is living in the Middle Ages.'

"How could Truman beat Dewey if the Democratic electorate split? Truman's advisers boldly gambled that enough southern Democrats would remain loyal to the party to neutralize [Dixiecrat Strom] Thurmond 's challenge. They poached key constituents from [Progressive Henry] Wallace's shaky coalition, including organized labor. Some left-led unions supported Wallace, but radical unionists were weak in 1948, hobbled by factionalism and anti-Communism. Mainstream union leaders, who had been lukewarm to Truman in 1946, now backed him loyally because he took their side in the debate over Taft-Hartley. Many unions used their money and troops to get out the vote for Truman.

"The president needed more votes, both among progressive whites who might lean toward Wallace and especially among black voters who, because of their mass migration northward, were increasingly powerful, particu­larly in closely contested northern states. ...

"Truman used his executive power to move forward on civil rights. He cared about winning black votes but also worried about America's interna­tional reputation. In October 1947 the President's Committee on Civil Rights, which Truman had created a year earlier, issued a report, To Secure These Rights. The committee argued that 'domestic civil rights shortcom­ings are a serious obstacle' to America's influence in the postwar world.

"In July 1948, Truman boldly circumvented Congress and issued Exec­utive Orders 9980, which banned discrimination in the federal workforce (in effect creating a permanent FEPC), and 9981, which desegregated the U.S. military. Echoing the language of the Double Victory campaign, Tru­man insisted that the armed forces maintain 'the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity.' Behind the scenes, many top military leaders quietly supported the move: it was costly to maintain separate barracks, separate dining halls, and even separate blood banks for black and white soldiers. In the fall -- mostly off the radar of the white-owned news media but covered at length by the black press, Truman became the first major Democratic candidate to campaign in black neighborhoods, in both Harlem and North Philadelphia, hoping to appeal to black voters in closely contested states.

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Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas J. Sugrue


These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890 to the Present


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2015 by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas J. Sugrue


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