Edi­to­ri­als: Counsel from an ear­lier pres­i­dent

A let­ter tells of Harry S. Tru­man’s un­pop­u­lar civil-rights lead­er­ship

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY -

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.

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