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Samuel G. Freedman: What a Young Hubert Humphrey Can Teach Us

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“Humphrey’s insurgency at the convention basically lashed Truman to the mast of [Humphrey’s] own civil rights agenda. And desegregating the armed forces was arguably the single most important civil rights cause of that moment in time.”

Earlier this month, Samuel G. Freedman, a professor at Columbia Journalism School and frequent contributor to The New York Times, responded to a series of questions from Merion West’s Erich Prince regarding his latest book Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights. After having previously published books on subjects from a black church in New York to the life of his own mother, Mr. Freedman turned his attention in his latest book to a figure from American political history arguably on the verge of slipping from the forefront of our collective consciousness: former Vice President and 1968 Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey. However, instead of focusing on Vice President Humphrey’s role in the Johnson administration or even his return to the Senate in 1971 less than three years after his defeat in the 1968 presidential election, Mr. Freedman brings to light the early years of the crusading young politician from Minnesota and his commitment to civil rights.

Most Americans remember Hubert Humphrey perhaps primarily for his defeat to Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential, the jockeying that went on in the days immediately preceding the election regarding potential peace plans in Vietnam, or even President-elect Nixon’s post-election remarks to Humphrey that “Hubert, everything is going to be okay. You and me are going to have a great life,” as Humphrey wept and offered his support to the president-elect. As such, what should readers most look forward to learning about when it comes to Humphrey’s early political career, as well as the issue of race. 

Humphrey grew up deeply affected by his father H.H., who was a liberal Democrat in a town full of conservative Republicans. It was partly as a result of his father’s open-mindedness that Hubert, at age 11, ventured to the outskirts of his hometown of Doland, South Dakota to meet and befriend a group of black workers on a road-graveling team. That curiosity tells you something about Humphrey. He was also very affected by the Social Gospel theology, which urged Christians to try to create the “Kingdom of God” on earth by addressing issues of economic need and racial inequality, among others.

But beyond all those factors, Humphrey was enduringly transformed by the year of graduate school (1939-40) he spent at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He was plunged into a Jim Crow society for the first time in his life, and the segregation and racism just offended his sense of decency. When he returned to Minneapolis in the fall of 1940 to essentially begin his public life, he was equipped for the first time to also see the racism of the North.

Can you talk about the impact, in terms of voting patterns, that took place when President Harry S. Trump captured 77% of the black vote in 1948, thus improving on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 71% in 1936 and how this impacted the Democratic Party of the time? 

The surge in black votes for Truman is the reason that he won the 1948 election. Thanks to Humphrey’s successful push to have the Democratic Party explicitly endorse civil rights in its platform for the first time ever, Truman had no choice but to run as a civil rights candidate. And, indeed, Truman issued executive orders desegregating the military and the federal workforce just two weeks after the party convention. His margin of victory over Thomas Dewey [in 1948] came from three swing states: California, Michigan, and Ohio. And he won all three because of the increase in the black vote.

How did Humphrey help to influence President Truman’s approach to race, particularly when it came to initiatives such as desegregating the armed forces?

Truman was at odds with himself about civil rights. His ancestors included Confederate soldiers and slaveholders, yet Truman was appalled by a series of vigilante attacks on black war veterans returning to the South [following the Second World War]. So Truman actually put forth a strong civil rights program in 1947, only to back away from it when he considered the coming election in 1948. Humphrey’s insurgency at the convention basically lashed Truman to the mast of [Humphrey’s] own civil rights agenda. And desegregating the armed forces was arguably the single most important civil rights cause of that moment in time.

Can you describe Vice President Humphrey’s relationship with President Johnson, the latter of whom seemed to be more of the pragmatist on many issues including that of race? 

That’s not a period of Humphrey’s career that I researched in any depth. I defer to the published works of Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, and Nick Kotz.

How did Humphrey view his career at the end of his life? 

Although Humphrey always tried to be ebullient and upbeat, even while dying of cancer, I know from some of his personal letters that he felt abandoned and even betrayed by some of his liberal allies. He lost his last campaign—to be Senate majority leader—to that former Ku Klux Klansman Robert Byrd. That really hurt. And he’d been through years of being heckled by anti-war protestors because of his support for the Vietnam War and being rather viciously ridiculed. All of that took a toll, even on a congenital optimist like Humphrey.

How did you choose Humphrey as the subject of a book and why did you elect to focus largely on the earlier parts of his career? 

I’d been looking for a book set in the late 1940s for many years because I felt there was a gap between all the books written about World War II and all the books focused on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But I’d never found the right focus until a historian friend of mine, during the course of a launch event for one of his books, mentioned Humphrey’s speech at the 1948 convention. I knew of the speech, of course, but hearing my friend also call it a landmark turned on the proverbial light bulb for me. I was attracted to filling a gap in people’s knowledge of Humphrey and filling a gap in the story of civil rights in America in the 1940s.

What should those of us working in and following politics most remember when reflecting on Humphrey’s life, now decades after his death? 

He believed in both moral passion and practical politics and not one or the other. He understood the interdependence of mass protest movements and legislative acumen in moving forward on civil rights issues. And he was a great coalition builder, who was interested in results.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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