Editorials: Counsel from an earlier president
A letter tells of Harry S. Truman’s unpopular civil-rights leadership
Harry S. Truman has become one of our most popular presidents, admired by conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, for his character, his integrity and his unpretentious, down-to-earth good sense that was the hallmark of his time and place.
Mr. Truman is remembered for his courage, too, first as commander of an artillery battery in the thick of some of the fiercest fighting of World War I, and then as an unflinching advocate for civil rights for blacks — “Negroes,” as blacks/colored people/African-Americans/people of color were called then — and in a time and place when such advocacy was not always popular.
He had no patience with the notion that a president of the United States could lead from behind. His proposal for a Federal Employment Practices Commission was an idea before its time, and was so unpopular that in the 1948 presidential campaign four Southern states bolted from the ranks of the Democrats.
A letter that Mr. Truman wrote to an old friend in his native Missouri that autumn, recently come to light, reflects both the former president’s courage, his blunt and plain speech, and the complicated times that propelled him to the White House.
He reminded his friend, one Ernest W. Roberts, of several violent acts committed earlier that year against blacks in the South, particularly in South Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas, and said “I can’t approve of such goings-on and I shall never approve it, as long as I am here, as I told you before. I am going to try and remedy it and if that ends up in my failure to be re-elected, that failure will be in a good cause.”
But often overlooked is the pride that Mr. Truman took in his Confederate ancestry. He was a direct descendant of two Confederate soldiers and a duespaying member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. His mother was such an unreconstructed rebel that when her son returned on furlough during World War I he never wore his uniform because “Momma didn’t like the damned yankees” who had burned out the family farm as she was made to watch, and even after his grandmother cooked dinner for the barn-burners.
When his mother, Martha Ellen Young Truman, visited him at the White House she refused to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Mr. Truman’s formal education ended in high school, but he was among the most widely read presidents. He cultivated a knowledge of history, and particularly of the presidents, that historians with a long trail of university degrees could envy.
He was bemused that his mother at 94 still held such passionate loyalty to the memory of the Confederacy, but he understood and appreciated the complicated history of America. He knew that the loyal remembrance of Southern courage and love of a vanished country was not in conflict with a passionate appreciation of the restored union, and a determination to establish and protect the rights in full of black men and women.
He certainly would not understand how ecclesiastical dons, even in ignorance, could punch holes in a stained-glass window at Washington National Cathedral just to remove tiny images of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson kneeling in prayer to seek forgiveness, solace and guidance from the God of their fathers.