That may sound a great deal like the scenario for the Democratic Party in 2020, pinning its electoral hopes on the centrist form of Joe Biden while casting about for a way to attract the fervent followers of Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism. But it describes the Democratic Party in 1948. And how the party’s liberal minority triumphed in the platform deliberations that year affords an extremely instructive lesson for today’s progressives—those who might seek to bring Biden closer to the left on issues like “Medicare for All,” defunding police, a wealth tax and free college tuition.
Back in 1948, Harry Truman was the widely disparaged Democratic nominee. Yes, he was the incumbent president, but he had ascended to the position only through the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Otherwise, to his many critics within the party, he was a machine politician wary of risk. For months leading up to the convention, the prominent liberals who coalesced into a new group called the Americans for Democratic Action had been trying to entice someone, anyone—Dwight D. Eisenhower, William O. Douglas, Claude Pepper—to challenge Truman for the nomination.
When Truman made a presidential visit to the Democratic stronghold of Seattle in June 1948, ADA partisans confronted his motorcade with an 85-square-foot banner declaring:
REHABILITATE the DEMOCRATS
The speech Truman then delivered barely filled half of a 12,000-seat stadium. In the aftermath of that fiasco, a Democratic National Committee member named Harry Carlson wrote to ADA leader James Loeb that nominating Truman “would mean a disastrous defeat for the Democratic Party and for liberal principles.”
None of the dump-Truman fantasies turned into reality. Saddled with the lackluster incumbent, many voters on the left favored Henry Wallace, another former vice president to FDR, who was running for president on the Progressive Party ticket. While the liberals of the ADA sort reviled Wallace for his opposition to the Cold War, they fully grasped the appeal of his strong support for civil rights, especially to the black voters the Democrats needed.
So when Democratic delegates assembled in Philadelphia in the second week of July, the ADA contingent holed up at a fraternity house near the University of Pennsylvania to plot a way to both outflank and box in the timid Truman. The liberals would use those ADA members who were also convention delegates—most notably Mayor Hubert Humphrey of Minneapolis and former Representative Andrew Biemiller of Wisconsin—to shove a bold civil rights plank into the platform.
To do so, of course, required enough audacity to flout Truman, the sitting president and presumptive nominee. And it simultaneously demanded enough dexterity to present the plank as one supporting Truman. Finally, it needed the numerically insignificant ADA to set aside ideological purity in favor of coalition-building on the convention floor.
Admittedly, Truman found himself in an almost impossible pinch on civil rights. Though the issue had never mattered much in his earlier political career, he had appointed a commission to study it in 1947, and that commission had produced a report entitled “To Secure These Rights” that advocated an expansive program—anti-lynching legislation, the end of the poll tax, a permanent federal enforcement of fair-employment practices.
No sooner did Truman ask Congress to act on those recommendations in early 1948 than the Southern segregationist wing of the Democratic Party revolted, threatening to run its own third-party candidate and take away a bloc of reliable electoral votes. The weak, unpopular Truman did what his powerful, charismatic predecessor FDR had done when similarly faced with Southern objection: backed down.
“The strategy,” a Truman assistant later explained, “was to start with a bold measure and then temporize to pick up the right wing forces. Simply stated, backtrack after the bang.”
Truman’s preferred civil-rights plank for 1948 reprised the pallid language of the 1944 document. While all racial and religious minorities should have equal rights to live, work and vote, the last paragraph included the ambiguous qualifier, “We can call upon Congress to exert its full authority to the limit of its Constitutional powers to assure and protect these rights.”
Southern Democrats, of course, considered racial segregation a matter of state’s rights. In a piquant bit of wordplay, the civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph described the Truman position as a “colorless plank.” In 1948, Randolph was leading protest marches outside the convention hall and urging black Americans to refuse to serve in what he dubbed in both written and spoken jeremiads the “Jimcrow [cq] military.” Indeed, not only did the military remain segregated, but black war veterans had been attacked by whites in several Southern states for trying to vote or otherwise claim their citizen’s rights.
Randolph had already formed a committee urging black men of draft age to refuse conscription as long as the military remained segregated. The cause was proving hugely popular on the campuses of historically black colleges, and though only several hundred young men formally promised Randolph that they would refuse induction, the specter of mass opposition had some congressional conservatives talking about prosecuting Randolph for treason. For Truman, however, Randolph’s greatest threat was pushing black votes to the Republican or Progressive candidates.
On July 13, 1948, the second day of the convention, Humphrey and Biemiller introduced their more potent civil rights plank during Platform Committee deliberations. It was soundly defeated. Even so, the move so infuriated the party establishment that Senator Scott Lucas of Illinois scoffed, “Who’s this pipsqueak from Wisconsin who thinks he knows more about Negroes than Franklin Roosevelt knew?” Writing in his diary during the convention week, Truman condemned Biemiller as a “crackpot.”
Crackpot or not, Biemiller had become expert in the abstruse parliamentary rules that governed the Democratic convention, and he maneuvered to have the civil rights plank put to a floor vote even though it had failed with the Platform Committee. Working through the night and into the morning of July 14, when that vote would be held, the ADA contingent sweated over the language.
A young activist from small-town Minnesota named Eugenie Anderson, one of the few women in that particular boiler room, contributed the breakthrough idea. The plank should wrap itself around Truman and his now-distanced civil-rights commission report. “We highly commend President Harry Truman for his courageous stand on the issue of civil rights,” the final version of the plank stated. “We call upon Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic American principles: The right of full and equal political participation, the right to equal opportunity of employment, the right of security of persons, and the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our Nation.”
Selling the plank against Truman’s wishes and at the cost of a Southern walkout was Humphrey’s responsibility. He was just 37 years old, younger than Pete Buttigieg and Stacey Abrams are now. Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he was just a couple of years into holding the only elective office of his life. He wondered if he was on a political suicide mission.
The eloquent words that Humphrey spoke on July 14 from the convention dais—his call for party and nation to “get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights”—were carried nationally by radio and throughout the Northeast on brand-new television wires and have echoed down through history. Much less remembered is the moment on the podium just before a tremulous Humphrey began to speak, when he was reassured by Ed Flynn, the Democratic boss of the Bronx, “You go ahead, young man. We should have done this long ago.”
Flynn was just one of a number of big-city bosses—Jacob Arvey of Chicago, Dave Lawrence of Pittsburgh, Frank Hague of Jersey City—who delivered their compliant delegates to help pass the civil-rights plank in a floor vote, 651½ to 582½. (One Montana delegate split his vote.) Were they idealists? Hardly. They were worried that, without a surge of black voters in November, their machines would lose down-ballot races as Truman was being routed. For their part, ADA members like Humphrey had spent months prior to the convention persuading those bosses to join the civil rights push. Each faction ultimately recognized its need for the other.
One of Humphrey’s other pivotal contributions to the text tied the civil rights issue to the Cold War. With the United States and the Soviet Union vying for influence in the developing nations of Africa, Asia and South America—and even among liberals and leftists in Western Europe—civil rights could be sold to skeptics as a geopolitical necessity. Humphrey said as much in two key paragraphs of his speech:
Yes, this is far more than a party matter. Every citizen in this country has a stake in the emergence of the United States as a leader in the free world. That world is being challenged by the world of slavery. For us to play our part effectively, we must be in a morally sound position.
We can’t use a double standard—there’s no room for double standards in American politics—for measuring our own and other people’s policies. Our demands for democratic practices in other lands will be no more effective than the guarantee of those practices in our own country.
Once the plank passed, Truman had no choice but to run as a civil rights advocate. He was yoked to a platform endorsing it, even though the delegates from his own state of Missouri had voted against it. As a result of that plank, the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party bolted and within weeks of the convention officially formed the Dixiecrat Party, nominating Strom Thurmond for president. The FDR coalition, held together in part by deliberate ambiguity on civil rights, had fissioned.
By the end of July, Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military. In the final days of the 1948 campaign, he held the first presidential rally ever in Harlem, the capital of black America. And, in large part by consolidating black and liberal votes, he famously upset Thomas Dewey to win the election. Henry Wallace finished a distant fourth without a single electoral vote.
The very thing that Truman had most feared—a walkout and third party campaign by Southern Democrats—had not mattered in the end. To the contrary, by breaking the Democrats’ reliance on the white South, the 1948 insurgency led by Humphrey, Biemiller and the ADA prepared the soil for President Lyndon Johnson to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
No less of an African American hero than boxing champion Joe Louis wrote of the election in a column for the New York Age, a black newspaper: “By and large the Negro, who’s [sic] indebted to [Truman] for spotting the burning question of civil rights, had much to do with his election. The balance of power which was given Mr. Truman from the Tan Belts [a slang term of the time for African-American neighborhoods] of the nation speaks well for the Negro at the polls and must be considered by any future candidate aspiring for political office.”
Perhaps none of this history will matter when the 2020 Democrats convene, whether in a physical space or cyberspace, this August. Or perhaps, in seeking to move Joe Biden leftward on Medicare For All or free college tuition or a wealth tax or the “Green New Deal” or drastically overhauling policing, today’s liberals and leftists will take a memo on strategy and tactics from the ghosts of 1948.
That memo would stress the necessity of pragmatism over purity in the way that the ADA liberals accommodated themselves, however begrudgingly, to Truman as standard-bearer and made common cause with at least portions of the party establishment like the Flynn, Arvey and Hague machines. It would use Biden’s or Barack Obama’s own prior words and positions, in the way the ADA did with Truman’s, to tether an overall centrist candidate to his own more progressive positions. It would utilize, rather than criticize, the pressure of protest movements, much as Humphrey and the ADA played the inside game while A. Philip Randolph played the outside game. And it would use larger crises, with the Covid-19 pandemic and massive unemployment and the national outcry against police brutality substituting for the Cold War, to make a daring stance seem necessary for the historical moment.