Truman's Administration

Article excerpt

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 vote on the Senate floor--had alarmed Southern Democrats less than a year earlier, during the 1944 Democratic National Convention. Concerned that the party's vice-presidential candidate would likely complete Roosevelt's fourth term, Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks confronted Truman on his views on race relations. The Missourian replied that he was "the son of an unreconstructed Rebel mother."

Indeed, Truman's border-state heritage included direct family ownership of slaves and embittered memories of antebellum and Civil War violence between abolitionist and pro-slavery forces. Truman's parents and their respective families lost both property and their own freedom under General Order Number 11 of 1863. That measure relocated slave owners and suspected Confederate sympathizers of the border area to a Federal post to ensure Union control in Missouri's western border counties. Little wonder that when 91-year-old Martha Truman visited her son in the White House in 1945, she did not take kindly to teasing from the family that she would be required to sleep in Abraham Lincoln's bed.

Truman never transcended the custom of his place and time that drew the color line on social equality, but as an ardent nationalist, he believed that the Constitution entitled all Americans to political and economic opportunity. He affirmed this belief in June 1945 by urging Congress to create a permanent Fair Employment Practice Commission, his first important action in a course that ultimately came to endorse a comprehensive civil rights program.

The liberal direction of the new president seemed to turn South, however, during the fall social season over an incident involving the First Lady, Bess Truman. Mrs. Truman had accepted an invitation to a tea hosted by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR): Shortly afterward, the pianist Hazel Scott revealed that she had been denied use of the DAR's Constitution Hall for a concert. Scott's husband, Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., telegraphed Mrs. Truman to ask her to withdraw her acceptance. Mrs. Truman informed Powell that while she deplored discrimination that denied artistic talent an opportunity to express itself, her acceptance of the DAR's hospitality was "not related to the merits of the issue which has since arisen." The president in turn informed Powell that he found no constitutional or legal basis for interfering with the DAR's discriminatory policy. …