Evening Exchange; Harry S. Truman and Civil Rights Movement
An interview with the first black man inducted into the Radio Hall the thing I will weekly news analysis segment. And President Harry Truman civil rights and Howard University all next an evening exchange. Hi I'm Kojo Nandi welcome to evening exchange. Let me think of presidents of the United States and the civil rights movement. We tend to think of the presidents of the 1960s and particular John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Some may even reflect back to the president the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and how the new deal with its safeguards for the poor
may have energized the civil rights movement. But a new book argues that more than any of those presidents mentioned it was President Harry Truman who truly energized the civil rights movement. But when he spoke to the graduates at Howard University's 1952 commencement. And you can see some members of that graduating class on the screen it was a time when he was a lame duck president having decided not to seek his party's nomination for re-election and that had something to do with how that speech was delivered. Here's a picture of a member of that class of 1952 then Beth Nelson. And she is joining us now Dr. Elizabeth Nelson also Brookes a professor at the University of the District of Columbia. Welcome back. Thank you. Also joining us Michael Gardner communications lawyer and author of the book Harry Truman and civil rights. Morale courage and political risks. Michael Gardner welcome. Thank you. What inspired this book. I was teaching at Georgetown where I've been an adjunct professor for the last 10 years and teaching on the
modern American presidents I realized as I did my research and that the students generally were misguided as to who they viewed as the pioneering civil rights President. The more I researched it the more I confirm that it was in fact Harry Truman. Why did you feel it was in fact Harry Truman. What is the empirical data with lots of hard evidence that's in this book. And Beth can confirm it too but the fact the matter is when he assumed the presidency in 1045 is the first Cold War President and tremendous problems he was facing. He almost immediately in starting in 1946 took actions that a president could take and only president could take despite a racist dominated Congress. He took actions which really confirmed the degree of segregation and racism in America and he proposed remedies. His civil rights message to Congress that was issued in February 2nd of nineteen forty
eight election year forty eight was able to. Articulate for the public what needed to be done for the Congress. And it took 16 years until President Lyndon Johnson got it through that Truman's vision of what should happen finally occurred. We mentioned his speech at the Howard University commencement of 1952 likely to give our audience some background to that speech because you said that President Truman at the time a lame duck president knew that there wasn't a great deal more he could do through the legislative process but felt he still had more to do. And when this opportunity came along he couldn't resist it because of the way in which the invitation was made. Tell us what Dr. Mordechai Johnson what the imitation which is in the book. It was very lovely and it was it was a testimonial to President Truman because Howard's president realized as so many of the students in fact he did that he was the pioneering president so he asked him as a lame duck president to come and speak to the
students on June 13 thousand nine hundred fifty two. And the president really gave himself and his administration a report card at Howard. It was what we've done. But what we need to do better in the future and I think he was really putting down a marker for whoever the next president was that it doesn't stop with me it must go on. Probably the most touching thing about that speech is where he says when I'm out of office I'm still with you and I'll do everything in my power to make full equality for black Americans a reality in America. Beth in North MOS books you were here as Howard you saw your picture you look like the picture was taken just to the right thank you. We saw him at that time. Tell us a little bit about I guess nowadays they call it the buzz. What was the buzz on campus prior to President Truman's visit. Generally the students felt that this was going to be next to a significant graduation. And we thought we were special because we were graduating. But it was topped off by the fact that President Truman had responded to Dr. Johnson's
invitation to come and deliver the graduation address. We knew things were going to be changed in our careers but we didn't know there were going to start off this way. When you say that you knew things were going to change in your careers that's because you knew before you graduated from Howard University there were others who had graduated from the school and others with not only undergraduate with graduate Ph.D. degrees who just had a hard way to go. And were you anticipating the same kind of thing or did you think that the climate was changing very slowly in Washington D.C. where I grew up. Was a Southern small segregated town. And Harry Truman could identify with that because he knew what small town life was like. But he had gone to the war. He knew the impact of our presence on the world's theater. And he was very
clear about what he was going to do to be certain that that was not marred and he understood that the mark on our society was this mark of segregation racism. And abuse. He did a very significant thing Michael Gardiner There had been presidents sitting presidents of the United States who had visited Howard University before but that's essentially what they did. A quick visit in the back way out the front way and then gone. What did he do differently. Well he was definitely not into a photo op he was here for the full two hour long graduation in bed tell me if I'm wrong but I think it was a lovely day outdoors in the quad. Beautiful day parents all around your friends around. Many of us group were graduating with friends we had known in kindergarten or third grade. And all of our friends from many parts of the world. And nothing could have been better that day. Even the weather supported the occasion. Why did he decide to stay for the
entire graduation ceremony after giving a speech. I think he really connected with black Americans and I think it was a way for him to say as president of the United States al be it a lame duck president that you are important to me. You have been an important part of my administration and I'm going to tee up the things that still need to be done. He not only stayed for the whole graduation he worked very hard on a speech it wasn't drafted by staffers and then just given to him he worked on many versions of it and I got to tell you about Michael guarding the check and the speech right is for Michael Garcia. The president took a personal interest in writing the speech looking over all the details as he apparently did with most of us here. Yes he did he spent a lot of time and when you go to the Truman Library and go through these boxes of documents you can see him doing six and seven drafts where the president's comments are improve this do that. And so he was intimately involved and I think Howard and June 13th 1052 gave him an opportunity before he went on The Independent to really
say one final time. To the African-American community I care. We've done some good things. I'm hopeful we must do more together. Well I guess those were the days when presidents speeches were graded apparently forced on content. And then second delivery as you know today it's the opposite bright at once of presidents because everybody has an opinion and how it was delivered from reading the book Harry Truman and civil rights. The last books I get the impression that the delivery was not that compelling that I would re read the speech yesterday and today. And it occurred to me while I was I recall that while he while he was speaking I said to myself. What a strange missionary What a strange advocate. He brings us the message. But he is not the right messenger because I grew up at the time Franklin Roosevelt and he truly was a messenger. But when you when you listen to his speech just as just as Dr. Gardner says. When we listen to the speech we
understood that the style was clear crisp Harry Truman not no embellishment. Honest clean direct words where he told you what his thoughts were he told you what his motivations were. He told you what the results were going to be and he took an action. This is the speech to Howard graduates that year was the quintessence quintet quintessential Harry Truman. Here's what he had to according to the book and according to the facts I guess he knew that while he had done a lot for civil rights that the world that you would be going out into was a world in which you would still face discrimination. And he told you that. In the beginning that was the thing that hooked me into his speech. He said I wish I could tell you that it was going to be easy for you I wish I could tell you that it was going to be different. How can you not like a man who is going to tell you things that you need to know to go out from college graduation. When he starts by telling you clear clean truth
what impact does it have on the students. Most list many of the students understood exactly what was happening. They understood the significance of the moment they understood the significance of the moment for their parents they understood the significance of most of the Movement for the continuation of their lives. But there were some who were too excited about their own degrees and about their own parties to take to it to be concerned about that. The majority of the students though had grown up in segregated environments. They in fact understood the significance of fair employment. They clearly understood the significance of what had happened with Harry Truman and the desegregation of the armed forces. I remember a lot of our classmates were returning soldiers. Well two of the things they may not know. One political and one personal. I'll start with the personal is they may not have known where Harry Truman came from in terms of race relations. He was speaking to the grandchildren of slaves. He himself was the
grandchild of slave owners. His grandmother went to her grave at 94 still hating Abraham Lincoln. Well it was his mother Martha Ellen young who at age 11 was taken off the family farm in Missouri with her five siblings and put into what President Truman called a concentration camp. It was a union camp in Kansas City because the family were sympathetic to the Confederacy and she remained terribly bitter and in fact when she first visited the White House the president played a prank on her and several of the oral histories confirm and he said mother tonight you have the honor of sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom. And she did not answer and she turned to Mrs. Truman and said Bess would you have my bags packed I'll be leaving. And that was the degree of her serious hate for Lincoln and really things Yankee. And that goes to another important consideration when you look at this man because he was morally
driven. He loved his mother. He was very close to his mother. And yet he realized that there are views that were part of his family culture were unacceptable. And when he made his speech to the end of the first president to speak to then WCB June 29 of 1947 he wrote the night before to his sister and said I'm going to make a speech to Mama Mama won't like it but I'm going to do it because it's right. The other part of it the Political of the students may not have known and that is there was not a great deal of political pressure on Harry Truman to do the right thing by civil rights. Indeed there was pressure from within the party to go the other way in order to appease the Southern Dixiecrats. Absolutely the Dixiecrats were a core element of any Democrat presidential candidates election possibilities and Harry Truman knew from the time he started down this road I think even with the committee and forty six the first presidential civil rights committee that was multi-racial speaking to the end of
Boise and 47 in June on the Lincoln steps and then sending that that 10 point comprehensive proposal during election year 48 to the guy he knew with those actions collectively that he was putting in serious jeopardy his ability to pull the south along which South had four times elected. FDR Southern Democrats and I think it was a very definite decision that if he lost in in November 48 so be it. If it was over civil rights he was not going to retreat. So while he was a great politician he also was a great risk taker when it came to a moral issue like segregation and give them hell Harry well. The students may not have known that there was not a great deal of political pressure on him but one of the things I noticed about the difference between commencement speeches today which in large measure inspire the students to go out and accomplish individually than the commencement speeches of yesteryear when there was a clearly defined cause in this
case. When Harry Truman finished speaking to this graduating class of 1952 did you end up with a sense of mission that there was something that we have to do here some unfinished business. It wasn't that at first I thought about it after as I read Dr. Gardner's book what I ended up with was a sense of hope. There were times when the trials and tribulations of growing up in Washington D.C.. And I had we spent winters here summers we went to my parents homes in about Nebraska and Montana where we were not treated the same way we had been treated in Washington. But when we returned to Washington it was always a sense of it's always it's just the same. It is never going to change or it's going to take a long long time after Harry Truman. Convened his civil rights committee. And after he did fear employment
through it and with us with federal responsibility for that. And the desegregation of the arms for armed services we knew that there was hope and it was going to be step by step by step. To the vision that he had displayed. He had described for us that day that hope that understanding of his role was apparently captured in a letter that president of Howard University Mordecai Johnson wrote to Harry Truman in December of 1952. As Harry Truman was preparing to exit the White House talk about what he said. It's a beautiful letter because he watching the president and obviously knowing other presidents. Really applauds Tillman for his courage and his steadfastness and the letter conveys a sense of hope that things will be better in this course just before Brown vs. Board of Education. But at the same time there were tangible things that the fencing court had done. Inspired by a very aggressive advocacy brief strategy by Tillman's Justice Department and as Beth
- Evening Exchange
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- Guests discuss Harry S. Truman?s involvement with the Civil Rights movement and the speech he gave at Howard University. [This is a segment from an Evening Exchange episode.]
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Director: Ashby, Wally
Guest: Nnamdi, Kojo
Guest: Ausbrooks, Beth N.
Guest: Gardner, Michael R.
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