How much and why did President Truman help to promote racial equality? Essay
Harry S. Truman was President of America from 1945 to 1952. During his time in office, the state of race relations in America improved, and several advances were made in achieving equality for African-Americans. Politically, his support for civil rights showed before his presidency; he was noteworthy during his tenure as Senator of Missouri ( a border state that shared the racist and bigoted society of the Deep South) for his support of legislation to abolish the poll tax( and obstacle in the way of many blacks’ constitutionally affirmed right to vote) and adopted an anti-lynching stance in the face of dozens of violent mob killings of African-Americans in the South- something that was seen as everyday life by its inhabitants.
When he ascended to the presidency in April 1945, after the death of his superior, Roosevelt, he initially did nothing significant to aid the plight of blacks- perhaps due to the ongoing war in the Far East. However, by September 1946 he had established a liberal civil rights committee to investigate increasing violence against blacks. This landmark report, named To Secure These Rights, was the first of its kind in America, and advocated eliminating segregation in the Southern states, as well as recommending and end to discrimination in the armed forces and interstate travel.Truman reinforced his support for racial equality by stating as such in his State of the Union speech (an important speech which many Americans watch) to the NAACP, the first president to do so, in both 1947 and 1948.
Truman’s increasingly liberal stance risked splitting his party and placing his presidential bid in 1948 in peril- however in 1948 he continued promoting civil rights by issuing executive orders to desegregate the military (a move that caused widespread dissent and antagonism from Truman’s political allies and enemies) and set up the Fair Employment Board to ensure fair employment in the civil service. Truman’s administration also mounted pressure on the Supreme Court by supporting the NAACP in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer, which resulted in a victory for civil rights advocates as it removed laws that stopped blacks from purchasing homes in white areas- thus reducing the prevalence of de facto segregation. Furthermore, Truman supported the NAACP in numerous other cases, such as Brown v BoE Topeka which help ended segregation of schools. Therefore I think that Truman as a politician and president helped promote racial equality and harmony.On the other hand, many Americans, such as black and white liberals, thought Truman was unsympathetic to the cause of civil rights and harboured a generally indifferent and apathetic attitude to improving race relations.
Truman was born and raised in the small town of Independence in the border state of Missouri (a place that was sympathetic to the Confederacy) and he was most probably a racist as was his family and friends at the time. As he was starting his political career, he did what any ambitious Southern politician would do; pay $10 in membership fees to the KKK, a notorious white supremacist group (it is notable, however, to point out that he later paid them back and left). It was clear then, to some, that Truman still retained at least some racist attitudes. For example, witnesses would say that Truman made racist jokes in private, and according to his sister he was “no more for nigger equality than the rest of us”. Frequently, the sensitivity of the race issue was broken and often spilled out to the public- one famous example would be when Truman’s wife refused a black woman( who just happened to be the wife of Harlem’s congressional representative, Adam Clayton Powell)to sing at an event.
Powell described the First Lady as the “last lady of the land” to which the infuriated Truman responded by privately calling him “a smart aleck and a rabble rouser” as well as a “damned nigger preacher”. Truman’s presidency was also fraught with failures to help black people- such as the defunding of the FEPC by Congress which he failed to prevent, and the CGCC that could only recommend, not enforce, against discrimination in the workforce. To conclude this point, it could be said that Truman’s policies did not do enough to promote racial equality, and that many other groups were involved in improving civil rights during his presidency that were not directly related to the federal government, such as CORE and NAACP.Truman’s motivation for his revolutionary view on civil rights may’ve simply stemmed from his urge to gain political power, therefore making it questionable if he truly believed in civil rights and revealing his cynicism. During the late 40s, it was clear that the importance of the black vote was becoming more and more prevalent. Since the end of Civil War in 1865 and the enactment of a constitutional amendment affirming universal suffrage based on race, African-Americans still faced huge obstacles in voting in political elections due to policies such as the poll tax.
However, as more states made laws for making voting fairer to blacks, it was seen as important for someone running for public office to consider this growing voter demographic. Truman realized this, and during the 1948 presidential election he made history by campaigning in Harlem, a predominantly black neighbourhood in New York City, as well as frequently confirming his support for civil rights by interact with blacks during his campaign. This political gamble paid off- Truman carried an unprecedented two-thirds of the black vote, which helped his election bid greatly especially in states such as California and Illinois. However, this newfound source of votes came with a cost- the Democratic Party split at its convention, with a politician named Storm Thurmond creating his own party called the Dixiecrats, which advocated strongly against racial desegregation- this was done to siphon votes off of Truman and lessen his chances of winning. Ultimately, it did not work and Truman became President in 1948.
To reiterate, Truman’s main motivation for his civil rights advocacy was simply to pander to blacks and white liberals at the time in order to gain the presidency in 1948.However, some historians would say that Truman’s motivations were largely due to his genuine moral obligations to protect and promote African-Americans as equal American citizens. Perhaps his unexpected support for black civil rights was a reaction to the senseless violence dealt to demobilised African-American soldiers by white policemen returning from fighting in World War II during 1946. Truman, referencing the attacks, described how “his stomach turned over” when he heard “Negro soldiers were being dumped out of army trucks and beaten”.
He also described how whatever he felt as “a native of Missouri” he knew something was “radically wrong with the system” when things like this, along with other racial-based violence were not met with justice. It could also be argued that Truman was fighting for the morality of America as a whole, due to the ongoing and infamous Cold War (a war of propaganda between America and the Soviet Union). Truman was desperate to reinforce America’s role to the world as the self-proclaimed champion of freedom and democracy, in order to persuade countries to turn away from communism to capitalism. He knew such things would be hypocritical if only citizens of a particular ethnicity enjoyed full civil rights in America.
In short, Truman did what he did through a sense of moral obligation and duty to protect African-Americans from racism and to preserve America’s reputation among the international community.In conclusion, Truman’s administration saw revolutionary advances in black civil rights and he played a crucial and decisive role to help solve discrimination through his power as President and spurned America as a whole to pursue racial equality- indeed, some historians would say that his administration was the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite this, it was clear that many things that could’ve been done were not and millions of African- Americans still faced widespread de jure and de facto racism and bigotry by the end of his presidency in 1952. However, this could not be completely be attributed to Truman’s apathy and his ambivalence towards African-Americans in general, as many Americans (Republicans, Dixiecrats etc.) were strongly against such concepts as racial integration and the President, as a rule, cannot have too much power to solve these problems- it was up to all the states in the union and all Americans to realize discrimination against African-Americans and work against it, not just the federal government in Washington D.C.