In October 1947, a Commission on Civil Rights appointed by the president issued To Secure These Rights, one of the most devastating indictments ever published of racial inequality in America. It called on the federal government to assume the responsibility for abolishing segregation and ensuring equal treatment in housing, employment, education, and the criminal justice system. Truman hailed the report as “an American charter of human freedom.” The impact of America’s race system on the nation’s ability to conduct the Cold War was not far from his mind. Truman noted that if the United States were to offer the “peoples of the world” a “choice of freedom or enslavement,” it must “correct the remaining imperfections in our practice of democracy.”

In February 1948, Truman presented an ambitious civil rights program to Congress, calling for a permanent federal civil rights commission, national laws against lynching and the poll tax, and action to ensure equal access to jobs and education. Congress, as Truman anticipated, approved none of his proposals. But in July 1948, just as the presidential campaign was getting under way, Truman issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces. The armed services became the first large institution in American life to promote racial integration actively and to attempt to root out long-standing racist practices. The Korean War would be the first American conflict fought by an integrated army since the War of Independence.

Truman genuinely despised racial discrimination. But his focus on civil rights also formed part of a strategy to win reelection by reinvigorating and expanding the political coalition Roosevelt had created. With calls for federal health insurance, the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, and aid to public education, the Democratic platform of 1948 was the most progressive in the party’s history. Led by Hubert Humphrey, the young mayor of Minneapolis, party liberals overcame southern resistance and added a strong civil rights plank to the platform.

A scene from Brotherhood of Man, a 1946 animation used in connection with an organizing campaign by the United Automobile Workers. It suggests the common interests of workers of diverse races.

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