Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks

By Michael R. Gardner | Go to book overview

Introduction

When Harry Truman suddenly became president on April 12, 1945, the United States was at war against one of the world's most notorious racists, Adolf Hitler. The country was also engaged in a much more subtle war at home—a simmering racial war waged by a reenergized Ku Klux Klan (KKK) that was threatened by the return of nearly nine hundred thousand black American veterans to the United States. 1 The KKK's fears were based on the fact that many of these returning African American veterans had been “liberated” during their World War II service—service in a segregated military that often took these black Americans to areas of the world where one's skin color was largely irrelevant.

Long before he became president, Harry Truman knew firsthand about the KKK and their cowardly but intimidating form of racism. The Klan had a real presence in young Truman's rural life in Jackson County, Missouri, during the early 1920s. With more than twenty thousand active Klan supporters in Jackson County in the early 1920s, Harry Truman got a direct taste of the Klan's tenacious racism when the Klan refused to support Baptist Truman for Jackson County judge because of his work with Catholic politicians. 2

In addition to having direct knowledge of the Klan, Harry Truman also knew about slavery. Both sets of his grandparents, the Anderson Trumans and the Solomon Youngs, had owned slaves. 3 His beloved mother, Martha Ellen Young Truman, who died at the age of ninety-four, nurtured throughout her long life a fierce hatred for the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln—the president whose actions altered the slave-dependent Missouri farm life of Martha Young's childhood. 4

By April 12, 1945, not much had changed for black Americans since Lincoln freed the slaves throughout much of the rebellious South with his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. The South and border states, such as Missouri, were segregated; the vast U. S. armed services were segregated; much of corporate America was segregated; and even the nation's capital—the sacred seat of America's constitutional democracy—was segregated. 5 In fact, many of the obvious trappings of the apartheid lifestyle of Cape Town, South Africa, circa 1985 existed in Washington, D. C., in 1945. “Whites only” rest rooms, theaters,

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