PHILADELPHIA – The young mayor from Minneapolis had only minutes to make his case to Democratic National Convention delegates gathered here in 1948. He used them to deliver a speech that steered his party away from support for government-sanctioned segregation and toward an embrace of civil rights that continues to reverberate in an American political system still grappling with race.
“My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late,” Hubert H. Humphrey proclaimed from the floor of Philadelphia’s Convention Hall, in a voice that sounds confident but ragged in a scratchy 68-year-old recording.
He went on: “To those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this — the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
This week, Democrats are back in Philadelphia for their national convention for the first time since 1948. They meet at a time of renewed racial unrest in the country, making Humphrey’s successful push for the first civil rights plank in the national Democratic platform seem as pertinent as ever.
“Dad knew, he knew even after they passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, that this was a deeper problem. That’s why he continued to work on it until the end of his life,” said Skip Humphrey, who followed his father into politics and served three terms as Minnesota’s attorney general. “He knew you had to help people help themselves, to make sure everybody had the same opportunities and freedom.”
A future U.S. senator, vice president from 1965 to 1969 and Democratic candidate for president in 1968, Hubert Horatio Humphrey Jr. in 1948 must have seemed an unlikely vessel for civil rights progress. The South Dakota native walked away from his father’s pharmacy business to study political science and then pursue a political career in Minnesota. He was elected mayor of Minneapolis in 1945 at 34.
At that time, blacks made up only about 1 percent of the population in Minneapolis. Civil rights issues were hardly at the forefront, although there are documented cases from that era of white homeowners in certain neighborhoods banding together to repel black buyers. The city was also trying to transcend its recent history as a haven for anti-Semitism.
Some U.S. cities including Detroit had seen race riots at the end of World War II. “This was not going on in Minneapolis, but Humphrey latched onto it as something the country’s leaders had to pay attention to,” said Jennifer Delton, a Skidmore College historian and St. Paul native who wrote a 2002 book about the early Humphrey era in Minnesota politics.
Humphrey also had fresh experience with factionalized progressive groups. After his first unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 1943, he turned his attention to the merger of Minnesota’s Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties — which survives to this day as the DFL. “He had to prove to a lot of people that a merger is going to preserve this progressive, liberal, forward-looking New Deal-type of party,” Delton said. “A lot of the progressive, Farmer-Labor people didn’t want to align with the Democrats because at that time it was the party of racists and white supremacists.”
By 1948, liberal Democrats from the Midwest and Northeast were ready to force that issue at a national level. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Humphrey protégé whose political career closely paralleled that of his mentor, said that President Harry Truman and other national party leaders were reluctant.
“They didn’t want him to give that speech. They thought it would break up the party,” said Mondale, a college student at that time who was working on Humphrey’s successful 1948 U.S. Senate campaign. “He gave the speech and to everybody’s surprise, the old big-city machine mayors — Chicago and so on — broke with the party and went for civil rights. They realized they had to get good with their black communities. And that’s when it all started.”
Mondale said Humphrey, a gifted public speaker, “worked like hell on that speech.” The fallout was immediate: The entire Mississippi delegation walked out mid-speech, as did half the group from Alabama. But those who remained approved the civil rights plank. Truman was elected that November, and Humphrey won his first term in the U.S. Senate.
It was in the Senate where Humphrey’s crusade for an end to legal segregation culminated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As the Senate’s majority whip, he was crucial in uniting the coalition of non-Southern Democrats and liberal Republicans who made it happen. That same year, Humphrey ascended to the vice presidency as running mate to President Lyndon Johnson.
“It took what happened in 1948 to get to 1964,” Delton said. “History is never a straight line, and Humphrey certainly wasn’t solely responsible, but in terms of the Democratic Party’s turn toward civil rights, it’s Hubert Humphrey. A white man from Minnesota.”
Humphrey lost the 1968 presidential election to Richard Nixon, thwarted by the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the increasing inability of Democratic candidates to win Southern states. In 1970, Minnesotans sent Humphrey back to the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death from cancer in 1978 at 66.
The physical copy of his 1948 speech, typewritten but with his pencil scrawling all over it, sits behind a series of locked doors deep in the bowels of the Minnesota Historical Society.
Josie Johnson is a longtime civil rights activist in Minnesota who came to know Humphrey later in his career. In 1948, she was an 18-year-old college student inspired to activism in part by Humphrey’s Philadelphia speech.
“That was the first time I heard a white, powerful person echo what I’d heard all my life from my parents and our community,” Johnson said. “Lots of politicians talk about justice, equality, opportunity. Hubert gave meaning to those words.”