He grew up in an all-white community in South Dakota. When he was 11 years old, he met his first person with black skin. His father had developed his ability to appreciate everyone, and that meeting became a pivotal moment in his life.
Studying at LSU in the Jim Crow South further increased his sense of racial justice. When he pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, he was befriended by a Pullman car porter who founded a Black newspaper. Cecil Newman became his mentor and shared with him the struggles African Americans had in unionizing the railroads.
After one unsuccessful run for office, he became mayor of Minneapolis. As mayor, he was in a position to frame the injustices of segregation as a human rights issue. When the Democratic Party held their convention in Philadelphia in 1948, he was invited to speak on the third day, not the best spot on the speaking roster.
The Democratic Party was one of very divergent thinking about civil rights. The southern democrats held to the notion that states’ rights should be the theme of the party’s platform regarding civil rights. They were opposed by democrats from the more liberal north who felt that a strong civil rights platform was necessary. President Truman, fearing splitting the party, did not support the plank offered by the Minneapolis mayor and others.
When the Mayor spoke, he defied his President and many in his party when he said: “Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise on the guarantees of the civil rights which we have mentioned in the minority report. In spite of my desire for unanimous agreement on the entire platform, in spite of my desire to see everybody here in honest and unanimous agreement, there are some matters which I think must be stated clearly and without qualification. There can be no hedging – the newspaper headlines are wrong. There will be no hedging, and there will be no watering down.”
The next day, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the mayor got the “biggest hand of the stormy session.” The stronger civil rights platform was accepted, and the Democratic Party was changed to one where equality and social justice became one of its most important values.
The mayor also changed President Truman. Less than two weeks later, he desegregated the military and the federal workforce.
Mayor Hubert Humphrey changed the Democratic Party by calling on it to do what was morally right. He later became vice president of the U.S. under Lyndon Johnson and ran unsuccessfully for president. Just imagine how such a call would be received today. In an era of mistrust, misinformation, and calls intended to invoke fear rather than to appeal to our better nature, we need more people in leadership positions opting for the moral choice.
On the 75th anniversary of that speech, isn’t it time to reflect on what has happened to our society? Who will provide us with the moral wakeup call that we need so badly?
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“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who care in the shadows of life, the sick, the needs, and the handicapped.” – Hubert H. Humphrey