When we published our original “10 Racist Presidents” listicle, I included Harry Truman, citing his brief membership in the Klu Klux Klan. In the proceeding months, though, I’ve realized I was pretty unfair to Harry Truman (thanks Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson!). Harry Truman was a member of the KKK, if only until his Catholic political patrons found out, but his actual presidency was remarkably strident in its advocacy for Civil Rights.
Between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights acts of Lyndon Johnson, there was only one president who went to the mattresses for defending the rights of African-Americans in this county, only one president who didn’t sell out black people for expediency, who didn’t kowtow to southern segregationists out of political necessity, who didn’t talk out of both sides of their mouths when it came to equality, who didn’t shrug their shoulders lazily while yet another Civil Rights bill died a slow, painful death in the torture chambers of the United States Senate—Harry Truman. Even Eisenhower, when he was using federal troops to enforce school integration after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs The Board of Education ruling, would never admit to believing that schools should be integrated. He was just, he would repeatedly tell the press, an agent of the court.
But not Harry Truman. Truman never hemmed. He never hawed. He integrated the United States military. He submitted a strong battery of Civil Rights bills to Congress as part of his Fair Deal package of legislation. And when, thanks to a stirring speech from Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic Party adopted a strong (and very politically unwise considering Truman’s 36% approval rating and desperate need for southern votes) Civil Rights plank for Truman’s 1948 re-election campaign, he embraced the platform. Wherever he went in America, whether it was the liberal North, the ultraconservative Midwest, or the virulently segregationist South, he never back-peddled, obfuscated, or dissimulated. He was Harry Truman and he was blatantly, unabashedly in favor of Civil Rights. Even when southern segregationists broke off and formed their own “State’s Rights” part, which threatened to deny Truman more than 100 electoral votes, he stayed the course.
And he won.
The American people, for the first time in their history, had cast their votes in a solid majority, blatantly, unquestionably, for Civil Rights.
So why then isn’t Harry Truman considered a Civil Rights hero the way Lyndon Johnson is? Because for all his bluster and bravery Harry Truman, unlike Lyndon Johnson, never actually achieved much. The segregationist, conservative Southern Democrats who dominated the Senate never even let him come close to passing any of his Civil Rights bills. Using their chokehold on the Senate, they slaughtered them in their cradles with ease. Harry Truman was a brave man, who fought bravely for Civil Rights, but he was—alas—entirely outmatched as a political warrior by Richard Brevard Russell, the leader of the southern segregationists, who despite believing in the utter stupidity of white supremacy was an otherwise astoundingly brilliant rhetorician, organizer, and political operative. Sadly in the game of politics, being right only counts for 1/100 of the battle.