1948 Democratic Convention

The South Secedes Again

Truman committed the Democrats to civil rights. After the party splintered, Strom Thurmond ran as the candidate of the States’ Rights Party. (Bettmann/ Corbis)
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Nearly two weeks after the convention, the president issued executive orders mandating equal opportunity in the armed forces and in the federal civil service. Outraged segregationists moved ahead with the formation of a States' Rights ("Dixiecrat") Party with Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its presidential candidate. The States' Rights Party avoided outright race baiting, but everyone understood that it was motivated by more than abstract constitutional principles.

Truman was slated to deliver his acceptance speech at 10 p.m. on July 14 but arrived to find the gathering hopelessly behind schedule. As he waited, nominating speeches and roll calls droned on and on. Finally, at 2 a.m. he stepped up to the podium. Most of America was sound asleep.

He wore a white linen suit and dark tie, ideal for the stifling hall and the rudimentary capabilities of 1948 television. His speech sounded almost spit into the ether at the opposition. "Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it—don't you forget that!" He announced he would call Congress back into session on July 26—Turnip Day to Missouri farmers—and dare it to pass all the liberal-sounding legislation endorsed in the Republican platform. "The battle lines of 1948 are the same as they were in 1932," he declared, "when the nation lay prostrate and helpless as a result of Republican misrule and inaction." New York Times radio and TV critic Jack Gould judged it perhaps the best performance of Truman's presidency: "He was relaxed and supremely confident, swaying on the balls of his feet with almost a methodical rhythm."

The delegates loved it. Truman's tireless campaigning that fall culminated in a feel-good victory of a little guy over an organization man. It especially seemed to revitalize the liberals, for whom the platform fight in Philadelphia became a legendary turning point. "We tied civil rights to the masthead of the Democratic Party forever," remarked ADA activist Joseph Rauh 40 years later.

In truth, the ramifications of that victory would require two decades to play out. In the meantime, Thurmond, winning four states and 39 electoral votes, had fired a telling shot across the Democrats' bow. Dixiecrat insurgents in Congress returned to their seats in 1949 with no penalty from their Democratic colleagues. Party leaders, North and South, understood the danger of a spreading revolt. Truman would not backtrack on his commitment to civil rights, but neither would Congress give him the civil rights legislation he requested.

His successors as party leader would show little disposition to push civil rights until the mass protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. forced the hands of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Only then would the ultimate threat of the Dixiecrats be realized—the movement of the white South into the Republican Party.

Alonzo L. Hamby, a professor of history at Ohio University, wrote Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman.


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