Truman called to integrate the military 75 years ago — and to go further
Special To The Washington Post February 2, 2023
Seventy-five years ago Thursday, President Harry S. Truman announced his intention to desegregate the military. It would become his most important civil rights legacy.
But Truman actually wanted to go much further. In the same letter to Congress on Feb. 2, 1948, he issued a host of bold civil rights proposals, including a federal anti-lynching law and a major increase in political autonomy for the District of Columbia, which less than a decade later would become the country's first majority-Black city.
Truman's address marked a remarkable transformation for the grandson of enslavers who earlier in life had referred to Black people with racist slurs and said they belonged in Africa. Coming just a few months after he became the first president to address the NAACP, his civil rights proposals infuriated Southern Democrats and helped fracture the party in the 1948 election, leading to a third-party Dixiecrat candidacy.
"Willingly or not, Truman had found himself assuming an unfamiliar role: as a champion of African Americans," Jeffrey Frank wrote in the 2022 book "The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953." "While he could not put aside his ancestral biases, he knew that he could not ever ally himself with the Confederate wing of his party."
The president's proposals included both a legislative wish list and an announcement that he would be flexing his executive power. Truman needed Congress to pass laws to implement some of his civil rights agenda, such as the anti-lynching law. But when it came to desegregating the military, he was able to do that on his own.
"I have instructed the secretary of defense to take steps to have the remaining instances of discrimination in the armed services eliminated as rapidly as possible," Truman said. He issued an executive order in July that banned racial discrimination in the military, along with an order desegregating the federal workforce.
Truman's championing of African Americans followed an unlikely journey. He was born less than two decades after the end of the Civil War and grew up in a segregated town in the former slave state of Missouri. His mother despised Abraham Lincoln, harrumphing during a visit to the White House when Truman was president, "You tell Harry if he tries to put me in Lincoln's bed, I'll sleep on the floor," according to a 1991 story in American Heritage magazine by historian William E. Leuchtenburg.
"Truman literally learned at his mother's knee to share the South's view of the War Between the States," Leuchtenburg wrote. "He grew up detesting the meddlesome abolitionists [and] decried the racial experimentation of Reconstruction."
In 1911, when Truman was 27, he wrote a letter to his future wife, Bess Wallace, that was full of racist epithets for Black, Chinese and Japanese people and concluded, "I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America."
After Southerners helped Truman become President Franklin D. Roosevelt's running mate at the Democratic National Convention in 1944, Leuchtenburg recounted, Alabama Gov. Chauncey Sparks crowed, "The South has won a substantial victory. … In the matter of race relations Senator Truman told me he is the son of an unreconstructed rebel mother."
But early in Truman's presidency, which began after Roosevelt died in 1945, he sympathized with Black soldiers who were mistreated upon their return from World War II.
"My stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten," he said. "Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as president I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this."
In December 1946, he created the President's Committee on Civil Rights, which issued a report the following October that became the basis of his civil rights proposals. Meanwhile, he took important symbolic steps, like his June 29, 1947, speech to the NAACP at the Lincoln Memorial, where he told the crowd, "It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our country's efforts to guarantee a freedom and equality to all our citizens," adding, "when I say all Americans — I mean all Americans."
On Feb. 2, 1948, he sent a 10-point civil rights proposal to Congress. In addition to the lynching ban, the plan called for giving D.C. home rule, allowing District residents to vote in presidential elections, banning discrimination in interstate transportation facilities, establishing a Fair Employment Practice Commission and taking steps to protect voting rights.
Truman called lynching a crime "against which I cannot speak too strongly. … So long as one person walks in fear of lynching, we shall not have achieved equal justice under law." He hoped D.C. would become "a true symbol of American freedom and democracy for our own people, and for the people of the world."
Truman was ahead of his time in both these areas. Washingtonians didn't get to vote in presidential elections until 1964, and home rule took another nine years. Meanwhile, the federal government didn't pass an anti-lynching law until 2022, after more than a century of failed efforts. About 4,700 lynchings took place in the United States between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP.
Truman's civil rights plan never stood a chance on Capitol Hill. A group of Southern Democrats, led by Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, threatened to "stand guard" and filibuster any Truman civil rights measure that came to the floor. Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) suggested that the Solid South withhold its electoral votes and elect "a distinguished Southerner."
Many Southern Democrats responded by backing Dixiecrat nominee Strom Thurmond, the segregationist South Carolina governor, for president; he would win four Southern states. Truman also faced a challenge from the left, in Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, whom Truman had replaced as Roosevelt's vice president. Wallace, who had also served as Truman's commerce secretary, urged the president to act faster on civil rights.
He wasn't the only one bringing the pressure. On March 22 of that election year, civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph told Truman, "I can tell you the mood among Negroes of this country is that they will never bear arms again until all forms of bias and discrimination are abolished."
On July 26, 1948, Truman issued the executive orders to desegregate the military and the federal workforce. "The two orders were expected to have a thunderbolt effect on the already highly charged political situation in the Deep South," the New York Times wrote in a front-page story.
The next day, Gen. Omar Bradley, the Army chief of staff, stated, "The Army is not out to make any social reforms. The Army will put men of different races in different companies. It will change that policy when the nation as a whole changes it." Truman's effort didn't take full effect for several years, and its implementation was uneven across the services.
Meanwhile, Truman sought to make up for his lost Southern support with gains among African American voters. In a campaign appearance in Harlem, he highlighted his executive actions in the face of congressional resistance and promised to work for the civil rights agenda "with every ounce of strength and determination I have."
Nine years later, in accepting a human rights award, Truman said, "Let's make sure we preserve the greatest inspiration we can give the world, the liberties and the rights we profess through one of the most wonderful documents in the world — the Constitution of the United States."