By Edward Epstein
May 2, 2022
As the Lincoln Memorial in Washington marks its 100th birthday this month, most people recall two moments at the monument that they associate with the long fight for civil rights in this country -- the 1963 March on Washington that featured Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech and opera star Marian Anderson's 1939 concert at the site.
But there is a third, lesser known event that should rank right up there with those two moments when the history of the Lincoln Memorial and the campaigns for civil rights and voting rights are recounted. On June 29, 1947, President Harry S Truman, whose maternal and paternal grandparents had been slaveowners in Missouri, surprised everyone and shocked southern segregationists who assumed he was one of them when he came to the memorial to address the outdoor closing session of the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, and issued a clarion call for equal rights for African-Americans.
(In the Photo above, Truman, on the left, walks on the Lincoln Memorial grounds with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and NAACP leader Walter White.)
In his usual blunt style, Truman didn't beat around the bush. He began his 1,200-word speech before an audience estimated at 40,000 by saying "I should like to talk to you briefly about civil rights and human freedom. It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our country's efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to ensure that all Americans enjoy these rights. ... And when I say all Americans, I mean all Americans."
He then called for end to discrimination based on ancestry, religion, race or color.
His speech was a political bombshell that blew Truman's Democratic Party apart. The southern segregationist wing, very powerful in Congress, went ballistic. Mississippi Congressman John Bell Williams, whose quote was cited in a 2017 article in the journal Voices of Democracy, said, "The president has run a political dagger into our backs and now he is trying to drink our blood."
The background for Truman's sudden strong stand on civil rights began with the horrible experience of Isaac Woodard, a decorated African-American World War II veteran, who still in uniform, was on his way home by bus in South Carolina on February 12, 1946 (Lincoln's birthday, of all dates) when he was attacked and beaten severely by police and left blinded.
Walter C. White, head of the NAACP, investigated the case and came to the White House to brief Truman about it and other instances of bias facing returning black vets. As White's biographer A.J. Baime recalled this year on NPR's "Fresh Air," "Truman was shocked when White told him about the Woodard case.
"The very next day, Truman writes a letter to the Attorney General, Tom Clark, and says we have to do something about this. And that document, to me, is the beginning of the civil rights movement from within the White House," Baime said.
White asked Truman to address the NAACP meeting in Washington, which would have marked the first time in the organization's 38-year history that a president had done so. White was shocked when Truman agreed. Truman told White later on that he viewed it as his moral duty for the federal government to side with the black vets.
Truman, White, the NAACP and Truman's advisors all knew the significance of the president addressing civil rights with Lincoln literally right behind him. "They recognized the symbolic linkage between Truman's address and the rhetorical resonances of this particular location," Colorado State University professor Allison M. Prasch wrote in the Voices of Democracy article.
Truman knew he would pay a steep political price for his stand, especially since in 1947 he was already viewed as a distinct underdog in his quest for a full term as president in 1948 after succeeding to the job when Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945.
In fact, in 1948, southern Democrats bolted from the party after the Democratic convention adopted a platform backing Truman's civil rights program. The so-called Dixiecrats nominated then-South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for president. He got 39 electoral votes.
Despite that, Truman pulled off what is considered the biggest upset in U.S. presidential election history, beating Republican Thomas E. Dewey. But Truman's civil rights proposals went nowhere in Congress, bottled up by southern opposition.
For details about the Lincoln Group's plans to mark the Lincoln Memorial's 100th anniversary, go the events section of this web site.