Few today appreciate the depths of the nation's unease on the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April 1945. Loved or loathed, FDR dominated America's politics from the Depression till the closing days of World War Il. Suddenly, with the war still on and an uncertain postwar future looming, Americans had to ponder what sort of president they would have in the largely unknown Missourian, Harry S. Truman.
No group felt FDR's loss as intensely, nor worried about the future more, than African Americans. Harry McAlpin, the sole black newspaper reporter then accredited to the White House, captured this mood in his question at Truman's first presidential press conference. "Mr. President, probably as much as any group, the passing of President Roosevelt is very keenly felt by the Negroes in America, as they looked upon him as sort of a symbol of justice and equal opportunity. I wonder," McAlpin asked, "if you would comment on the things that they were so specifically interested in and felt they knew where the President stood: on the fair employment practice, the right to vote without being hampered by the poll taxes, and all that?"
"I will give you some advice," the new president replied. "All you need to do is read the Senate record of one Harry S. Truman."
Truman's answer typified the man: While blunt, it concealed as much as it revealed. Truman's senatorial record of support for several major objectives of African Americans--a federal anti-lynching law, the wartime Fair Employment Practice Commission and bringing an anti-poll tax bill to a …