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'Into the Bright Sunshine' spotlights the achievements of LBJ VP Hubert Humphrey

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. In the years after World War II, bowling was the fastest-growing recreational sport in America. And the American Bowling Congress, which ran local tournaments, limited teams to white men only. That practice was challenged in 1947 by the 36-year-old mayor of Minneapolis, who was gaining a national reputation for fighting racial, ethnic and religious discrimination in his city and beyond. His name was Hubert Humphrey, and he's best known to history as Lyndon Johnson's vice president in the 1960s, who supported an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, then lost the 1968 presidential election to Richard Nixon.

Our guest, Samuel G. Freedman, says Humphrey's better-known political failures have overshadowed some important achievements in his early years in politics, when he fought bigotry in Minneapolis and played a critical role in getting the Democratic Party to embrace civil rights in the 1948 presidential election. Freedman says Humphrey's powerful speech at the 1948 party convention, when a group of southern states threatened to bolt and formed their own party, helped lead to a critical realignment that allowed Democrats to win national elections in part by appealing to Black voters rather than segregationists in the South. Sam Freedman is a veteran journalist, author of nine previous books and a longtime professor of journalism at Columbia University. His new book is "Into The Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey And The Fight For Civil Rights." Well, Samuel Freedman, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

SAMUEL FREEDMAN: It's such an honor to be on the show with you, Dave.

DAVIES: You know, so many politicians in the United States have come from families of wealth - you know, the Tafts, the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, the Bushes. Hubert Humphrey was from the heartland, and his family suffered some real hardship. Tell us a bit about his background.

FREEDMAN: Hubert Humphrey was a product of the grasslands of eastern South Dakota, a tiny little town, 600 people, called Doland. And his father ran the local drugstore in town. And what's really important to know about Humphrey's childhood there is that we think of America plunging into the Great Depression with the stock market crash in 1929. But the Dakotas, because of a sudden drop in grain prices after World War I, were experiencing a depression seven or eight years before the rest of the country. And so by the early to mid-1920s, the Humphrey family had lost their home, which was the nicest home in town. They were in the process of losing their drugstore. Hubert Humphrey's father had to float roughly $15,000 of credit to the farmers who were his customers because they were all broke.

And that experience gave Humphrey this firsthand realization that economic calamity isn't the result of bad personal choices or a failure of character, that whatever personal choices people did or didn't make, there were these immense social and economic forces that were arrayed against them that they had no power to alter. And that gave Humphrey an early insight into the need for activist government.

DAVIES: Right. And then later he goes to college, which was tough, I mean, 'cause his family was struggling and there were dust storms and grasshoppers and all kinds of calamities that befell the family. Money was tight. He goes to college, and then in 1939, I think, when he's married, then has a daughter, gets an offer to go to graduate school at Louisiana State University, LSU, in Baton Rouge, which was his trip into the South - into the Jim Crow South. What did he see there? What was its impact on him?

FREEDMAN: The most important year of Hubert Humphrey's life is the year of 1939-40, on the academic calendar when he goes to Baton Rouge, La., to get a master's degree in government at Louisiana State University, LSU. At that point, he's 27 years old. He's married. He already has a baby. His undergraduate career had been interrupted for six years by the Depression and the need to go back to South Dakota to help his family run the second drugstore they tried to operate. And when he goes down to Louisiana State - and the only reason he's going there is they offer him $400 to be a teaching assistant. And as the father of a newborn, and now his wife, Muriel, isn't able to work the way she customarily did, he needs the money.

So he goes there. He heads down there as someone who's never shown any particular awareness of the rampant racism and antisemitism in Minneapolis, where he was going to college. He goes down there as a traditional New Deal, FDR Democrat whose orientation is to economic issues and trying to bridge economic inequalities. But then he's plunged, as you said, Dave, into a Jim Crow society for the first time. Where he and Muriel live is a mile and a half away from the LSU campus. In between is LSU's major Black neighborhood called either South Baton Rouge or, more evocatively, the Bottoms. And Humphrey passes through it going to and from campus every day.

And it's not just that he sees the things we have in our collective memory about the Jim Crow South - the separate waiting rooms, the separate water fountains, the back of the bus. He sees individual Black people humiliated, a Black pedestrian who, in the mind of a white motorist, is taking too long to cross the street and is reviled with racist slurs. He sees Black people in the lobby of the state Capitol afraid to get on an elevator if there are any white people in it. Hubert and Muriel Humphrey have a Black housekeeper named Maggie, who talks to them about the way white bill collectors come in and intimidate Black customers into paying up on the spot. And all that has profound effect on Humphrey.

The other less expected part of his time in Baton Rouge is that it's also where he makes Jewish friends for the first time, his teammates on the debate team at LSU. And one of them, a future federal judge named Alvin Rubin, tells Humphrey about having five uncles who were trapped in Europe under Nazi control, all of whom will later be exterminated. And that's Humphrey's first awareness in a palpable, tactile, personal way of what Nazi control of Europe means.

DAVIES: This, of course, was the 1930s when, you know, Hitler's rise in Europe and his moves on neighboring countries was front-page news. And, you know, fascism was a very real presence in Europe and increasingly in the United States. He meets a professor, Rudolf Heberle. Is that - I don't know if I'm pronouncing it right.

FREEDMAN: Heberle.

DAVIES: Heberle - a sociology lecturer who had escaped Nazi Germany and had done research about how a country could succumb to, you know, a fascist demagogue like Hitler. This was important for Humphrey; wasn't it?

FREEDMAN: It's transformative when Humphrey spends a year in this 12-student seminar led by Rudolf Heberle. Heberle's academic work when he was still in Germany took up the question, how is it that within two or three or four years, a democratic society can elect a demagogue like Adolf Hitler and then capitulate to his taking power as a dictator? And that research, plus the fact that Heberle has to report to the regime that he's one-eighth Jewish, leads to him being stripped of his job, expelled penniless from Germany, and he and his family make their way to Baton Rouge 'cause he gets this lectureship at LSU. And in the class Humphrey has with him, Heberle's talking about his research. He's also talking about his family's personal experience, and he's also drawing parallels between the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany and Black people in the Jim Crow South.

And there's one moment that Humphrey remembers decades later when Heberle looks at the students in his class and says, if we were in Nazi Germany, only maybe two of you would stand up to Hitler. And from that, Humphrey takes it as real lesson in human complacency and cowardice and also as a challenge to be one of those two out of 12 who would stand up to tyranny and different forms of racial or religious supremacy.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Samuel Freedman. His new book is "Into The Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey And The Fight For Civil Rights." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY PREVITE AND THE NEW BUMP'S "SHE HAS INFORMATION")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Samuel Freedman. His new book is about the career of young Hubert Humphrey. He was best known as vice president in the 1960s, but this book focuses on his time as mayor of Minneapolis, where he fought bigotry, and in his efforts in the 1940s to guide the National Democratic Party towards a strong stance on civil rights. The book is called "Into The Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey And The Fight For Civil Rights."

He made his political career beginning in Minneapolis, where he also went to graduate school, Humphrey did. And, you know, I think a lot of us have always thought of people in that part of the country as being easygoing and tolerant. But, you know, in this book, we learned that in the 1930s and '40s, Minneapolis was really a cauldron of racial and ethnic hatred. There was a lot of antisemitism. There were restrictive covenants that kept Jewish families out of certain neighborhoods, out of certain vacation homes, and some really violent stuff. Where was this coming from?

FREEDMAN: Minneapolis was a city that had a demographic majority of German and Scandinavian Protestants. And they controlled the city, and they gave no quarter to any minorities because they didn't have to. The Jewish community and the Black community cumulatively had maybe 3% of the total population. They had no ability to wield political power on their own. And even the liberals within Minneapolis' political life were oriented mostly towards issues of labor unions and economic issues, and their unions were segregated. The unions wouldn't have Black members except for a couple of Black-only unions like for the hotel workers. And the unions didn't take on, in any particular way, not only issues of racism but issues of antisemitism. And so you had this kind of wrap-around bigotry in Minneapolis that totally belies its longtime reputation in more recent decades of being this very blue city, notwithstanding the murder of George Floyd. But on every Election Day, it votes overwhelmingly Democratic.

And yet Minneapolis at this time - as a Jew there, you couldn't even belong to the automobile club, for instance. In other cities, one of the niche occupations for Jews was department stores. In Minneapolis, Jews couldn't work at department stores. The only jobs Blacks were allowed to have in Minneapolis was domestic workers for the women, hotel porters or busboys or bellhops for the men. And the attitude on the part of not only conservatives in Minneapolis but a lot of the supposed liberals, too, was to say to the Black population, look. We don't lynch you. We let you vote. So why can't you just be content living in your little ghetto there on the north side and working these menial jobs and stop complaining about it?

DAVIES: There was an organization called the Silver Legion that arose. Tell us about them.

FREEDMAN: The Silver Legion was a nationwide organization of pro-Nazi sentiment. In fact, it was founded in homage to Adolf Hitler. And although it was called the Silver Legion, they wore silver shirts, which was modeled on Hitler's Brown Shirts, his SS. And they had a big following in Minneapolis. And the Silver Shirts essentially wanted a country of Protestant, white domination. And they had not only a following among the riffraff of Minneapolis, but they had a following among the establishment of Minneapolis. When they had meetings in the late '30s here, the president of the board of ed went to those meetings. The president of the real estate board went to those meetings. Doctors and dentists went to those meetings. And it was typical of a wide berth that was given for rampant bigotry in Minneapolis.

You know, the tone, in a lot of ways, in Minneapolis was set by minister named William Bell Riley, who was the most important fundamentalist minister in America after the death of William Jennings Bryan. And Riley was this erudite, well-attired, well-read minister, an institution builder who had a big church and trained missionaries and ultimately set up a college. And he totally believed in the forged antisemitic tract "The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion." He completely believed and repeatedly preached that there was a Jewish conspiracy to run the world. And again, this gave an establishment legitimacy to that kind of intolerance in Minneapolis.

DAVIES: Hubert Humphrey got to know a guy named Sam Shiner, who kind of formed the Anti-Defamation Council there, I guess, or was a leader in it, and had a habit of having moles go in and attend some of these meetings and then developing information about what was really going on. There were also, at various times, attacks on Jewish boys out on the street. I mean, carloads of kids would come and beat them up. What did Shiner do with all this? What effect did it have?

FREEDMAN: Sam Shiner was a trained lawyer who couldn't get a job with any of the established Minneapolis law firms because he was Jewish. And he'd actually been making his living as a jazz pianist for years. And then the Jewish community in Minneapolis, by the late '30s, got really alarmed by the traction that the pro-Nazi group the Silver Shirts was having in town. And they realized, we need to pull some money together and put someone on salary to be our investigator, to keep tabs on all the antisemitic activity in this city. And Sam Shiner was the person whom they hired. And Sam Shiner would, among other things, as you were saying, Dave, get young gentile students from the university who were sympathetic to what Shiner was doing to infiltrate meetings of groups like the Silver Shirts, to infiltrate the sermons of antisemitic ministers like William Bell Riley and report back to Shiner. Shiner would have people jot down license plate numbers of who attended these meetings so he could see who was there. And he kept this expansive catalog with people's names and addresses and little notations on them.

The limit for Sam Shiner is that he had no political power, and he had very few political allies of consequence outside the Jewish community. And so when Humphrey comes along, there's an essential alliance made. Shiner becomes Humphrey's tutor in Minneapolis' forms of antisemitism, and Humphrey provides Shiner with a political ally, someone who cares about these issues but also has political ambition and talent.

DAVIES: Right. And he became friends with a Black man who was an editor of a newspaper, the Minneapolis Spokesman, Cecil Newman. He's quite an interesting character himself. Tell us about him.

FREEDMAN: Cecil Newman is an absolutely amazing man. Cecil Newman was originally a Pullman porter who was doing journalism on the side and ultimately saved enough money to found a newspaper, the Minneapolis Spokesman, which, by the way, is still published and edited by his granddaughter, Tracey Williams-Dillard, to this day. And Cecil Newman, in the pages of the Spokesman, was indefatigable in chronicling all the horrible forms of racism in Minneapolis. When a Black family in the early 1930s moved into a white neighborhood and were besieged by thousands of vigilantes night after night, he was reporting on that. When the police were going on a drunken rampage in the Black neighborhood and beating people unconscious, he was reporting on that. When the major breweries in town wouldn't hire Black workers and the unions at those breweries wouldn't take Black members, Cecil Newman was organizing a boycott.

But Cecil Newman, very much like his Jewish parallel in Minneapolis, Sam Shiner, had only so much power. He could try to publicly shame people. He could try to affect public opinion. But because the Black community here was numerically small, he couldn't wield political power himself, and the Black community couldn't wield political power itself. And then Cecil Newman meets Hubert Humphrey, and he is Hubert Humphrey's Black conscience. He is Humphrey's educator in racism in this country and racism specifically in Minneapolis, and Humphrey is the political ally who Cecil Newman's been waiting for a long time.

DAVIES: So Hubert Humphrey runs for mayor in 1943 as a young man in his 30s. He loses narrowly and then wins in 1945 and is reelected overwhelmingly in 1947. So he has several years as mayor of Minneapolis. It's a weak mayor form of government, but he's in a position to have an impact. And he really took on issues of civil rights, battling against, you know, housing segregation and employment discrimination. How did it go for him? How well did he - how much did he accomplish?

FREEDMAN: Humphrey accomplished an enormous amount in his three years as mayor. He comes into office saying that he's going to take on issues of civil rights and human rights, even though as mayor, as you said, he doesn't have that much power. Most of the power resides with the city council. So Humphrey develops these groups of volunteers and gets private funding and puts together a human rights commission to advance his agenda. Outside the council, he brings in very boldly two Black sociologists from Fisk University, the legendary HBCU in Nashville that would later educate John Lewis and Diane Nash. And they lead this study of Minneapolis' entrenched forms of discrimination to develop what we would now call a database to prove how deeply prejudiced a city it was. And Humphrey leverages all that to push through one of the nation's boldest laws on employment discrimination. What we now have at the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which Humphrey and LBJ pushed through in the '60s, is really a national version of what Humphrey was doing in Minneapolis in the 1940s.

And I want to tell you he paid a price for this, Dave. Even though he won handily at the polls, there was a lot of backlash in Minneapolis to the point that Humphrey actually was nearly assassinated by a local neo-Nazi who was opposed to Humphrey's civil rights agenda. Right at the point Humphrey is moving forward on this, he comes home one night from his mayoral duties and speaking at the rubber chicken circuit that night to this group or that group. He's walking to the front door of his house. Weirdly, the closest streetlight is out. And as he's fumbling with his key in the front door, a couple of shots rang out. And long story short, the person who took the shot at him, I'm firmly convinced from my research, was a pro-Nazi man named Maynard Orlando Nelson, who the police later arrested for other forms of vandalism. And when they arrested him, he had guns, knives, neo-Nazi propaganda, the whole terrorist toolbox. So Humphrey was doing things that were risky at that time that really literally put his life on the line.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take another break here. Samuel Freedman's new book is "Into The Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey And The Fight For Civil Rights." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "WATER IN CUPPED HANDS (AUNG SAN SUU KYI)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with veteran journalist and author Samuel G. Freedman. He has a new book about the early career of Hubert Humphrey, who was Lyndon Johnson's vice president in the 1960s and lost a close election for president to Richard Nixon. Freedman focuses on a critical moment in the 1948 Democratic National Convention when party leaders had to decide whether to embrace civil rights in the coming presidential campaign or yield to Southern segregationists threatening to leave the party if they didn't get their way. Freedman argues that Humphrey's speech for civil rights led to a critical shift in the party's electoral strategy, which affected elections for decades to come. Freedman's book is "Into The Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey And The Fight For Civil Rights."

So Humphrey is, by the late '40s, a national figure in politics. And we want - I want to talk about this critical moment that you focus on in 1948 when he plays a role in the national convention on the issue of civil rights. Some background here - you know, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is regarded as, you know, a groundbreaking liberal among American presidents. He did a lot of social welfare programs. But civil rights for African Americans was another matter. What was Roosevelt's posture on that issue?

FREEDMAN: Roosevelt believes that in order to win election and in order to get his New Deal programs through Congress, he needs to appease the southern wing of the Democratic Party, kind of the reverse of what we have now. In the '40s and earlier decades, it was the Democratic Party in the South that was the party of white supremacy. And so the deal Roosevelt cuts is to have certain New Deal programs, including Social Security, written in ways that basically are going to exclude the preponderance of Black workers in the South because they're in domestic or agricultural labor, and to allow the states in the South to implement New Deal programs locally. So if you have states that are practicing racial segregation, that's the way the New Deal programs are going to be implemented there. And in exchange, on Election Day, the Southern Democrats are going to vote for FDR, so he'll get their electoral votes and win the White House. And when his legislation for the New Deal is moving through Congress, these very long-serving and very powerful Southern senators and representatives are going to support and move forward his legislation.

And in terms of what the Democratic Party officially stood for in his platform, every time FDR ran for president, the party platform would use fuzzy, vague, ambiguous language about civil rights, and it would allow the southern wing of the party to interpret that platform as saying, we can have - what they called in their favorite euphemism - states' rights, which to them meant since the Constitution doesn't order us to have a racially equal society, it's the right of every state to choose whether to be integrated or segregated, and we choose Jim Crow. And that was the internal contradiction within the New Deal coalition and within the Democratic Party that Humphrey set out to resolve, one way or the other.

DAVIES: All right. So this is the 1948 convention, at which Hubert Humphrey, who is, at this point, a rising force in national Democratic politics, there. He's a liberal. He wants to, you know, bring an aggressive approach to civil rights to the national party, as he did in Minneapolis. And this is a fascinating election because Harry Truman, who had taken office after he was vice president when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in 1945, he's there. He is very weak, trailing Thomas Dewey, the Republican, in the polls. And the party was kind of flying apart. You know, you had a progressive faction which was - had already kind of split under Henry Wallace and was going to be running perhaps a third-party campaign for president. He was running a third-party campaign. The Southern segregationists were threatening to split if the party really embraced civil rights. Tell us about these segregationist Democrats. I mean, what was their strategy if the party really endorsed a real civil rights agenda?

FREEDMAN: Dave, there are many parts of my book that made me feel like I was writing current events in a creepy and sometimes depressing way. and this is one of them. The southern wing of the Democratic Party, led by Mississippi's governor, Fielding Wright, for months had been in a mutiny against the Democratic Party. And they had said explicitly, if there's any civil rights language in this platform and even if Harry Truman is nominated, we're going to bolt the party. And their plan was to run their own candidate - it ultimately became Strom Thurmond with Wright as his vice president - and to try to win enough states in the South that in this four-way election - Thurmond, Wallace, Truman and Dewey - neither Truman nor Dewey would win enough electoral votes to have the presidency.

And what happens in that case? And again, we have some really eerie echoes of 2020. The election goes into the House of Representatives. And what would happen there? The Southern delegates, or rather, the Southern representatives in the House, would hold the pivotal votes. And what people like Fielding Wright and Strom Thurmond were calculating is that then Thomas Dewey and Harry Truman are going to have to come on bent knee and promise the Southern representatives that segregation can go on forever, as George Wallace would later say. And in exchange, those Southern representatives will toss their votes to either Truman or Dewey, whoever cuts them a better deal.

DAVIES: Right. So the party's kind of flying apart here. And Truman decides, even though he has actually taken some strong public stance on civil rights - I mean, he's favored legislation to end poll taxes and segregation and discrimination in employment - he's going to soft-pedal that. He decides he has to do that. He has to keep the Southern Democrats in line, which means that an aggressive civil rights plank is simply not going to be acceptable to Truman and the people who are running this convention in Philadelphia. So you got Humphrey and these liberals with a classic dilemma. I mean, do you - in order to help the party win, you know, just go against your principles and accept a compromise, or do you press hard for a more aggressive program? How did Humphrey consider this as he got to Philadelphia?

FREEDMAN: Well, Humphrey is right in the middle of this kind of unprecedented amount of turmoil. You've got Harry Truman saying soft-pedal civil rights. Put in a vague plank. I don't want any conflict at my convention. You have the Dixiecrats already having reserved railroad coaches to take them from Philadelphia to Birmingham, Ala., for their convention after they leave the convention, which they expect to do. You have, literally outside the convention hall, the great Black labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph leading his protest movement, urging young Black men to resist the draft, not to register and not to serve until Harry Truman desegregates the military. And here's Humphrey. And he's a kid. He is a rising star, but he's 37 years old. He's only held elective office for three years in his life. Because of all the years he had to stop out of college due to the Depression, he's less than 10 years away from having his bachelor's degree. And he understands the righteousness of his cause. He knows this is the moment that you've got to defy the president in order to get a real civil rights plank in the platform. But he also knows what the risks are. One of Truman's floor managers, a senator, says to Humphrey explicitly, if you push this plank, if you give this speech, your political career is over.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with veteran journalist Samuel Freedman. His new book is "Into The Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey And The Fight For Civil Rights." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with veteran journalist and journalism professor Samuel Freedman. He has a new book about the early career of Hubert Humphrey, best known as vice president in the 1960s. Freedman writes about his early years fighting discrimination as mayor of Minneapolis and in guiding the Democratic Party in 1948 to embrace civil rights in the 1948 presidential election. The book is "Into The Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey And The Fight For Civil Rights."

So here he is. He's got his moment. This is - he's arguing for a different approach to civil rights in the platform of the Democratic Party. And the hall is full of, also, the Southern segregationists ready to hoot and boo and leave. This was a big deal. And it's also interesting - you know, political conventions historically were for insiders. But, you know, radio was well-established. This was the beginning of the television era. How many people heard or saw his address when he gave it?

FREEDMAN: Seventy million people...

DAVIES: Wow.

FREEDMAN: ...Either hear Humphrey on the radio or see him on TV, which was just becoming available along the northeast coast of the U.S. Seventy million people. That's like the Super Bowl now.

DAVIES: And he didn't have a lot of time, right? Was it 12 minutes? Do I have that right?

FREEDMAN: Hubert Humphrey had 10 minutes, and remembering his wife Muriel's admonition to him that a speech doesn't need to be eternal to be immortal. It was a real benefit to him that he had to telescope this whole speech within 10 minutes because every word had to count. And he couldn't, as he often did to his own peril, run his mouth and go on and on and lose his audience. And so what's amazing about this speech is how many important notes it hits in a very short amount of time. He talks about the moral issue of civil rights. He frames it in the context of the Cold War, that the U.S. is in a battle against the Soviet Union for hearts and minds in the newly decolonized nations of Africa and the Middle East and South America and Asia.

And Humphrey knows that the Soviet Union has been able to say communism is the political system of racial equality. Look at America. They have segregation. So Humphrey is talking about how intolerable that hypocrisy is. There's a great moment in the speech that one of Humphrey's close allies and aides, Eugenie Anderson, scripts in at the last minute saying basically, hey; all we're doing is endorsing Harry Truman's own agenda. So don't think of this as defying the president. We're just supporting what he has said already, which, literally speaking, was true. And then you have Humphrey as the great orator. And there are these two signature phrases in the speech. And these are phrases - he didn't improvise them. He'd been working these out in different speeches for months ahead. And in this speech, he got them just right.

DAVIES: We have a clip which probably has those two phrases in it. Let's listen...

FREEDMAN: Yes, I'm sure you do. That's...

DAVIES: Yeah, this is Hubert Humphrey speaking at the 1948 Democratic convention about civil rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUBERT HUMPHREY: My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late.

(APPLAUSE)

HUMPHREY: 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 shadows of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVIES: You can hear the boos of segregationists and the cheers of many in the hall. That's, of course - that phrase, into the bright sunshine, gives you the title of the book. What was the impact of this on the convention?

FREEDMAN: Most importantly and most immediately, Humphrey's speech convinces a majority of the delegates, over and against what Harry Truman wants, to endorse this very specific and strong civil rights plank that spells out, we're going to desegregate the military. We're going to guarantee safety - i.e., anti-lynching law - for all Americans. We're going to have fair employment. And by the way, Dave, it extends also to not only racial discrimination, but religious and nationality discrimination as well. So this was also a plank that was of major interest to Jews and Catholics in America.

And as soon as that plank is adopted and the Southerners walk out of the convention, Harry Truman now has no choice but to run as a civil rights candidate. And just two weeks later, Truman issues executive orders desegregating the armed forces and desegregating the federal workforce, which were two gigantic steps forward in civil rights. And then in November, in the election, even though Harry Truman loses a number of southern states to the Dixiecrats, he gets the electoral votes he needs to become president.

And this is really important because it shatters this assumption that FDR - and up to this point, Truman - had that you could only win the White House if you won all the southern states. And the breakthrough of understanding you could win the White House without that wing of the party, that prepares the soil for what Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey are going to do 16 years later in pushing through the Civil Rights Act of '64, the Voting Rights Act of '65, the Fair Housing Act of '66. Those could be pushed through because the experiment had been run successfully, that the Democrats can win as a truly multiracial, inclusive party that doesn't need the votes of its segregationist wing anymore.

DAVIES: You know, I guess, you know, as we sit here reflecting about the positive aspects of Humphrey's commitments and career, I mean, we should remember that in 1968, I mean, he was the candidate who had supported the Vietnam War under Lyndon Johnson. And then at that Democratic convention - I mean, it was one of the most notorious conventions ever because there were huge, huge numbers of anti-war protesters who showed up, you know, to exercise their rights to protest and were essentially attacked by Chicago police. This was - there was a commission afterward that called all of the mayhem and injury a police riot. And it's not like Humphrey ordered all of that, but he ended up kind of being - or at least seeming to be on that side, didn't he?

FREEDMAN: In effect, Humphrey was on the side of the Democratic machine. This was a convention in Chicago that was overseen by Mayor Daley. It was Mayor Daley's police force who attacked antiwar protesters and journalists. It was the political insiders who delivered Humphrey the nomination after this very complicated series of primaries in which Gene McCarthy ran an insurgency, Bobby Kennedy looked like he was on the way of - to winning the nomination before being assassinated. And it took all these internal machinations to hand Humphrey the prize. And that definitely put some real bruises, deservedly so, on his reputation. And it's part of the reason that many liberals changed their view of Humphrey enduringly at that point, but also that a lot of them - in I think what we know now as a great historical error in judgment - didn't vote for Humphrey against Nixon in '68 and convinced themselves there wasn't a meaningful enough difference between them and to which one can only say - Watergate.

DAVIES: Right. So many politicians today - before they make a move, they look at the polls. They look at the fundraising. I've got to play it safe. I mean, this really is a lesson in the importance of courageous leadership at a critical time, isn't it?

FREEDMAN: Hubert Humphrey was a politician from the neck up in the sense that he had a great mind, an inquisitive intellect, a great memory and ability to synthesize information. But fundamentally, he was a politician of the gut and the heart. His brain couldn't meaningfully engage unless something got to him in his heart or his gut. And that led him to be willing to take these bold stances, even when he runs for mayor of Minneapolis and says, I'm going to be a candidate who's going to take on antisemitism and racism. That's, like, appealing directly to 3% of the population of the city, the Black and Jewish communities. It makes no electoral sense to run on that basis. But he does it because he thinks it's the right thing.

And at the '48 convention, when he's been told explicitly by Harry Truman's people, if you give this speech, if you push the civil rights plank, your career is over, he goes ahead and does it anyway. And I think the tragedy of the later Humphrey is that he became someone, partly as Lyndon Johnson's vice president on Vietnam issue and partly running more as a kind of a worn-out person and a centrist candidate against George McGovern for the nomination in '72. In those later periods, he seems to have lost that moral compass a bit. And that's really the poignance and the heartbreak of him in the latter stages of his life. And what's most unfortunate is that that's the part of him, if people remember him at all, they tend to remember and not this utterly courageous and risk-taking person I write about in the book.

DAVIES: Well, Sam Freedman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FREEDMAN: Thank you, Dave. It was such a joy to be here.

DAVIES: Samuel Freedman's new book is "Into The Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey And The Fight For Civil Rights." Coming up, John Powers reviews the new season of the Navajo tribal police drama "Dark Winds," which he says is solidly enjoyable. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN ENO AND JOHN CALE SONG, "SPINNING AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dave Davies
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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