The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Harry S. Truman went from being a racist to desegregating the military

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Edward Williams, right, shakes hands with President Harry S. Truman at a casual meeting during the president’s morning walk.  (Harry S. Truman Library and Museum)

Harry S. Truman didn’t start out as a champion of African Americans. In fact, his dramatic transformation from segregationist to civil rights advocate was nothing short of astonishing.

Truman’s evolution — from a farm boy raised by Confederate sympathizers to U.S. president, who on July 26, 1948, signed the order to desegregate the armed forces — can be mapped through his letters and memoirs.

“I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a n—– or a Chinaman,” Truman wrote in a June 22, 1911, love letter to his future wife, Bess Wallace. “Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a n—– from mud, and then threw what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.”

When Truman was a U.S. Senator, he wrote a letter to his daughter, Margaret, on April 7, 1937, describing a dinner at the White House with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and referring to the black waitstaff with a derogatory name.

“They gave a real good meal at the taxpayers[’] expense — tomato soup, fillet of flounder, roast turkey, string beans, pineapple salad, chocolate ice cream and cake, candy and little cafe noir afterwards,” Truman wrote. “All these things were in courses, deftly placed and removed by an army of coons. I suggested to Mrs. [Sherman] Minton  that these negroes were evidently the top of the black social set in Washington.”

Two years later, in an Aug. 4, 1939, letter to his wife, Truman wrote from Washington: “Well this is n—– picnic day. But they don’t have ’em like they did in days past. I remember once going to Washington Park with our washwoman to a Fourth of August celebration. I’ll never forget it. Had chicken and catfish fried in corn meal and was it good!”

Born on May 8, 1884, nearly 20 years after the end of the Civil War, Truman grew up in a segregated town in the once pro-slavery Missouri. His grandparents on both sides were slave owners. His mother, Martha Ellen Young, hated President Abraham Lincoln, telling her son upon a visit to the White House many years later that she’d rather sleep on the floor than stay in the Lincoln Bedroom.

“Truman never completely rose above that heritage,” Raymond H. Geselbracht, editor of the book, “The Civil Rights Legacy of Harry S. Truman,” said during a 2010 speech.

“Despite this, he became the president of the United States who for the first time since the Reconstruction Period immediately following the Civil War committed the government of the United States to the realization of civil rights for African Americans,” Geselbracht said.

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When Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, he declared “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” That same day, he also signed an executive order to desegregate the federal workforce.

Truman would become “the first American President to proclaim the equality of blacks,” according to the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo.

The orders show just how quickly Truman evolved on race issues, against a wave of political resistance from members of Congress from the South. His transformation would come as a result of political pressure from black voters — who had voted Republican until Roosevelt — and civil rights activists urging the president to address the rise in violence against black people.

The timing has particular significance.

“He does this in the Summer of 1948, just weeks before launching his reelection campaign,” said Kurt Graham, director of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. “Anybody today would lie low and ride it, get through the election and then do what they wanted to do. But Truman did the right thing even if it would cost him.”

Truman, who never graduated from college, was an advocate for the underdog. “He knew what it was like to come from nowhere,” Graham said.

When Truman became president in April 1945 after Roosevelt’s death, Southern members of Congress were delighted, believing they had a president sympathetic to segregationists.

“On the funeral train carrying FDR’s body, the Democratic senator from South Carolina Burnet Maybank assured a Southern friend, ‘Everything’s going to be all right — the new President knows how to handle the n—–s,’” William E. Leuchtenburg wrote in “The Conversion of Harry Truman,” for American Heritage magazine.

But Truman would soon defy the Southerners in his party.

Truman received a letter at the White House on July 18, 1946, from R.R. Wright, a black military officer, detailing an attack on Isaac Woodard, a black World War II veteran who was pulled off a bus in Batesburg, S.C., and beaten and blinded by the police chief months earlier.

Truman was particularly disturbed by the attack. “He referred to it often in public and private when justifying his support for civil rights,” Kari Frederickson wrote in the book, “The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968.”  Truman “had a special feeling for soldiers, and from that point on Truman took a different tack.”

In 1948, Ernest Roberts, one of Truman’s friends in Kansas City, wrote him a letter begging him to stop pushing an equal rights bill for black people.

Truman wrote a stern and brief reply on Aug. 18, 1948, “The main difficulty with the South is they are living eighty years behind the times and the sooner they come out of it the better it will be for the country and themselves. I am not asking for social equality, because no such thing exists, but I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings and, as long as I stay here, I am going to continue that fight.”

Truman referred to a list of lynchings, including an attack on July 25, 1946, when two black veterans and their wives were pulled from a car near Monroe, Ga., and executed by a white mob.

“When the mob gangs can take four people out and shoot them in the back, and everybody in the country is acquainted with who did the shooting and nothing is done about it, that country is in pretty bad fix from a law enforcement standpoint.
“When a Mayor and City Marshal can take a negro Sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up and put out one of his eyes, and nothing is done about it by the State authorities, something is radically wrong with the system.”

On Sept. 19, 1946, Truman met with the National Emergency Committee against Mob Violence, composed of civil rights, labor and religious leaders. During the meeting, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White, who had gone undercover in the South to investigate lynchings, read a list of lynchings that had occurred across the country.

“My God!” Truman exclaimed. “I had no idea it was as terrible as that! We’ve got to do something.”

A day later, Truman wrote to Attorney General Tom Clark about the attacks.

Three months later, on Dec. 5, 1946, Truman issued an executive order he called “Freedom From Fear,” which created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, tasked with analyzing the state of civil rights in the country, investigating mob violence and proposing legislation to protect civil rights.

Truman later wrote in “Memoirs by Harry S. Truman: Volume Two: Years of Trial and Hope” that he decided to appoint the civil rights committee “because of the repeated anti-minority incidents immediately after the war in which homes were invaded, property was destroyed, and a number of innocent lives were taken.”

Several months later, Truman became the first U.S. president to address the NAACP. He knew his family wouldn’t approve, but he wrote to his sister, Mary Jane Truman, that he believed in civil rights and would not be swayed.

“I’ve got to make a speech to the Society [sic] for the Advancement of Colored People tomorrow,” Truman wrote. “Mamma won’t like what I say because I wind up by quoting old Abe. But I believe what I say and I’m hopeful we may implement it.”

On June 29, 1947, Truman stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and addressed the NAACP. A crowd of more than 3,000 gathered along the Reflecting Pool.

“As Americans,” Truman said, “we believe that every man should be free to live his life as he wishes. He should be limited only by his responsibility to his fellow countrymen. If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American’s achievement should be his ability, his industry and his character.”

Truman emphasized in the speech: “When I say all Americans, I mean all Americans.”

When he sat down after the speech, according to the Geselbracht’s book,  Truman “showed absolutely no signs of fear of the impending firestorm that was certain to come quickly his way. White told the president he thought it was an excellent speech, and Truman assured him, ‘I said what I did because I mean every word of it — and I am going to prove that I do mean it.’ ”

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