Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks

By Michael R. Gardner | Go to book overview
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When Harry Truman returned to Independence, Missouri, on January 21, 1953, the sixty-eight-year-old former president seemed unconcerned that his popularity rating was a miserable 31 percent. Since 1922, Truman had reveled in politics—at the local, state, and national levels. In retirement, the thirty-third president—while always a fierce partisan—gracefully accepted the fact that his days in mainstream American politics were over.

Unlike some restless, often depressed former modern American presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in particular, Truman thoroughly enjoyed his retirement years—years filled with daily walks around Independence, visits in Kansas City with some of the Battery D boys, and hours of reading with Bess in the snug den of Bess's family home at 219 N. Delaware Street.

When national events of note occurred, reporters would sometimes catch the always frank president on a walk; as these dogged reporters hoped, Truman occasionally would make a spontaneous remark that added spice to their stories. And sometimes, in his letters—which Truman still wrote prolifically even in retirement— the former president would offer a controversial view that found its way into the national press. One such event involved Truman's comments about sit-ins, the protests that became a popular—and necessary—part of the energized civil rights movement of the late 1950s and the 1960s. In response to the sit-ins of the late 1950s, citizen Truman, aged seventy-five, bluntly suggested in April 1960 that protesters should respect the property rights of store owners. When the former president went so far as to suggest that the Communist Party might be inspiring the lawless conduct of civil rights activists, Truman's respected Secretary of State Dean Acheson, wrote his former boss to ask him to restrain himself on the subject.

Dear Boss:

As the Convention approaches we partisans are likely to become, shall we say, emphatic in our statements to the press. Could we make a treaty on what we shall not say?

On the positive side we can, and doubtless will, say that our candidate—


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