Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford, “Truman and Civil Rights,” in A Companion to Harry S. Truman, edited by Daniel S. Margolies. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2012.
On April 5, 1968, less than twenty-four hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Harry Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, hosted the first national conference devoted exclusively to the Truman Administration and civil rights. The coincidental timing of the conference made the occasion doubly poignant, since many of the participating scholars felt a deep affinity for Dr. King and his work on behalf of civil rights. Despite the somber spirit that pervaded the first hours of the meeting, however, discussion leader and historian Donald R. McCoy pressed on with the agenda as planned. Throughout the day, sixteen invited scholars took part in three discussion sessions, which were each devoted to a series of pre-arranged questions. Among the questions discussed were: 1) what contributed to the Truman administration’s interest in civil rights; 2) what more could the administration have done to further civil rights; and 3) what significant accomplishments did the administration achieve for its period and for subsequent times? In answering each of these questions, the participants suggested that President Truman and his administration had taken bold steps to secure important advances on the civil rights front. As the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin told the group at a public address that afternoon, “The crucial turning point in viewing the problems of race … in the United States occurred when the executive branch of the federal government began actively to assume a major role. This occurred during the administration of Harry S. Truman.” Indeed, Franklin went on to argue that Truman had “move[d] the country” on the civil rights issue in a way that no previous President had done before. Truman created the President’s Commission on Civil Rights; he issued executive orders desegregating the military and federal bureaucracy; and he placed the civil rights of American citizens above the narrow regional interests of the Southern white establishment. “If the nation had listened more carefully to the President’s entreaties for human equality, and if it had assumed the grave responsibilities that it faced in those critical years,” Franklin concluded, then the horrors and recriminations of 1968 might have been avoided altogether.
In the years immediately following the Truman conference, scholars codified an orthodox interpretation of the President’s work on civil rights that was drawn mainly from positive contemporary assessments from the 1940s. The historical monograph to appear in 1969 was Richard M. Dalfiume published Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces: Fighting on Two Fronts, 1939-1953. Then, two years later, Donald McCoy and Richard Ruetten’s book, Quest and Response: Minority Rights and the Truman Administration came out. These studies presented what some scholars have called the “liberal” interpretation of the Truman administration, which reflected the egalitarian hopes of contemporary progressives who viewed Truman’s work as a stage in the unfolding march toward equality and social justice. Revisionist scholars soon challenged these generous claims about the President and his administration. In 1970, William Berman published The Politics of Civil Rights in the Truman Administration, and Barton J. Bernstein released “The Ambiguous Legacy: The Truman Administration and Civil Rights.” The following year, Harvard Sitkoff published his essay, “Harry Truman and the Election of 1948: The Coming of Age of Civil Rights in American Politics.” These works portrayed Truman as a “reluctant champion” of civil rights, who took up the African American cause (and then tailored its boundaries) for calculated political reasons that had little to do with civil rights. According to this school of thought, Truman’s life-long racism prevented him from seeing African Americans or other ethnic minorities as true equals, and thus his own personal limitations shaped what was essentially an “ambiguous legacy” on civil rights. Recent scholar have further refined this view moving in one of two directions. First, biographers, like David McCullough and Alonzo Hamby, have combed the archives and conducted hundreds of interviews to present a more nuanced and in-depth study of Truman the individual. These studies are important because they reveal a great deal about the President’s personal views on race, the power of the federal government, and the role that civil rights should play in the Democratic agenda. At the same time, a second group of scholars, including Mary Dudziak and Thomas Borstelmann, has moved in the opposite direction. These diplomatic and global historians argue that Truman’s civil rights activities must be understood not primarily on the personal or even national stage, but that his actions were in large part the result of new diplomatic realities created by the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
These historiographical debates had their origins in the fragmentation of American consensus during the 1960s. From the orthodox perspective, Truman’s civil rights policy stemmed directly from the benevolent expansion of federal power during the twentieth century. From the revisionist vantage point, however, Truman’s domestic policies including civil rights were viewed in tandem with his alleged failures in foreign policy. He had helped to mid-wife the domino theory and the containment policy, the same arrogant assumptions of American power and goodness that had led to the quagmire of Vietnam. Incipient detente made his stand against a seemingly monolithic communism a generation before seem incredibly naive. Domestically, his extensions of the New Deal had blossomed into Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which had only seemed to fuel urban unrest and black militancy. His accommodation of Joseph McCarthy’s red scare and the national security state of J. Edgar Hoover seemed particularly sour in a turbulent era whose professors and students were rebelling against that kind of governmental intrusion. In fact, Truman seemed to embody the small-town provincialism that the radical chic and the professional left regularly ridiculed. Thus the early 1970s was a prime entry point for the revisionists of Truman’s civil rights legacy. No longer would he be portrayed in the same pantheon with the great white fathers, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. The turbulence of the Vietnam era underscored the unfinished business of civil rights from the Truman years that, to revisionists, may have been left deliberately unfinished by the everyman from Missouri.
The pendulum then swung back again to accentuate the positive features of Truman’s civil rights legacy with the biographies of McCullough and Hamby. This shift resulted from a growing appreciation of the common sense measures pursued by Truman during a time of great crisis. For example, the resumption of the Cold War with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980 made Truman as foreign policy hawk seem not so bad. Ironically, his popular and academic reputation seemed to be reborn against a backdrop of a renaissance of the Gilded Age, laissez-faire economics that had been seen in the Truman years as being made obsolete by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Reagan and his speechwriters did their utmost to connect the Gipper, a Democrat during the 1940s, with Cold Warriors Truman and Kennedy who had stood up to the evil empire. This was in stark contrast to contemporary Democrats from McGovern through Mondale who allegedly were for appeasing the Soviet menace. Along with this reassessment of Truman’s foreign policy, his domestic liberalism was forgotten or conveniently embraced, as nearly all politicians of the 1980s came to agree with the increasingly distant accomplishment of dismantling racial segregation if not the actual attainment of racial equality in economic matters. Indeed, Truman's forthrightness and simple maxims paralleled Ronald Reagan's homespun and corny stories, as 1984's "morning in America" meant a restoration of a post-World War II peace and quiet that had never existed. The petty scandals that had almost driven Truman out of office were never mentioned, as the Gipper's own "Teflon" coating deflected charges that his administration was the most corrupt in history until that point. The obvious abuses of power during both the Truman and Reagan administrations came from an inherently evil Washington, DC and its entrenched elites, and not from the Midwesterners sent there to represent the people's interests. In reference to civil rights, Truman emerged as a competent manager of competing and conflicting interest who became a uniter and not a divider.