Hubert Humphrey Was a Hero?

For many leftists, ar least those of us born after 1950, the name Hubert Humphrey evokes the worst of the Democratic Party’s failures, including the decades-long war against Vietnam. But Samuel Freedman’s upcoming book, due in July, invites us to reconsider that, in light of Humphrey’s little-acknowledged civil rights legacy. In the Q&A below via Oxford University Press, Freedman highlights some reasons we might want to revisit and learn from Humphrey.(Eds.)

On July 14, 1948, Hubert Humphrey, a future Vice President, but then the 37-year-old mayor of Minneapolis, walked up to the podium at the Democratic National Convention and gave a speech that helped change America forever. As Samuel G. Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, details in his new book INTO THE BRIGHT SUNSHINE: YOUNG HUBERT HUMPHREY AND THE FIGHT FOR CIVIL RIGHTS (Oxford University Press; July 14, 2023), Humphrey’s exhortation to “get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights” forced the party platform further to the left on race than many, including Harry Truman, was ready for. Humphrey called for the integration of the Armed Forces, an end to segregated schools, and laws against racist hiring practices. The acceptance of these proposals caused many Southern delegates to storm out, and 75 years later, the effects are still being felt. Truman won the election because Black people turned out for him, and the intractable rigidity of our red/blue divide began to solidify as the Democratic Party embraced Civil Rights as a voting issue and came to rely on Black turnout to win elections.

Freedman recreates here Humphrey’s journey to that pivotal speech from a remote, all-white hamlet in South Dakota to segregated Baton Rouge to the mayoralty of Minneapolis. His mentors that helped shape his worldview include Cecil Newnam, a Black newspaper publisher, a Jewish attorney, and a professor who had fled Nazi Germany. His adversaries, whose ideologies live on today, were the white supremacists, Christian Nationalists, and America Firsters of mid-century America.

Why does your book matter now?

This book is about an early version of a battle that America is still fighting—the battle for multi-racial, interfaith democracy against white supremacy, Christian Nationalism, and American Firstism. The book’s publication date, July 14, was chosen because it’s the 75th anniversary of Hubert Humphrey’s landmark speech on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic Party convention. That convention persuaded the delegates to fully endorse civil rights for the first time—not even under FDR had the Democrats done it. Because of that support for civil rights, the bloc of Southern segregationists, the so-called Dixiecrats, bolted from the party. During the subsequent presidential campaign, Harry Truman broke a major barrier of segregation by ordering the integration of the American armed forces. And then he won his upset victory over Tom Dewey thanks to a massive surge of Black voters in swing states.

So the events of the summer and fall of 1948 add up to a hugely important—and sadly overlooked—pivot point in the struggle for civil rights. In fact, I’d argue that those events set the table for what Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson would jointly accomplish 16 years later with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which was then followed by the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act.

And though LBJ has deservedly gotten tremendous credit for his leadership on civil rights, the reality is that Hubert Humphrey got there first, and without Humphrey’s moral leadership and political acumen in 1948, there’s no telling how much slower the progress toward civil rights might have been.

Where was the turning point for Humphrey? When did he realize he must embrace equality as a central policy?

The pivotal year in Humphrey’s life, in terms of his commitment to equal rights, is the year (1939-1940) he attended graduate school at Louisiana State University. He went to LSU as a conventional New Deal Democrat, mostly oriented toward issues of economic class. But in Baton Rouge and at LSU, Humphrey experienced life in a Jim Crow society for the first time. He also made Jewish friends, some of whose families were already captives of the Nazis, for the first time. And he was profoundly influenced by one of his professors, an exiled, part-Jewish, anti-Nazi scholar named Rudolf Heberle. By the time Humphrey returned to Minneapolis from LSU, he was focused, both politically and morally, on the fight for racial and religious equality.

You spend a lot of time talking about Humphrey’s younger years before he entered politics. Why was the time he spent in South Dakota, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge so formative, and looking back on his later successes, where were the influences of those places the most visible?

South Dakota basically had its own depression a full decade before America as a whole plunged into the Great Depression. During the agriculture crisis of the 1920s, Humphrey’s family lost their home and their business, a drugstore, and had to move to another town to try to start from scratch. The New Deal programs enacted under Franklin Roosevelt saved families like Humphrey’s from complete destitution, and Humphrey never forgot that lesson. When he came back to Minneapolis after grad school at LSU, Humphrey perceptively saw that racism was not just a Southern phenomenon, but that it was pervasive in the North, as well. And Humphrey was greatly influenced by the publisher-editor of Minneapolis’s major Black newspaper, a man named Cecil Newman, who truly became Humphrey’s conscience on racial issues.

What did Humphrey learn from Newman?

Both Newman’s articles in his newspaper and his personal conversations with Humphrey informed Humphrey’s understanding of the forms that racism took in the North—police brutality, job discrimination, restrictive covenants in housing. Newman helped Humphrey recognize that racism isn’t just about the separate water fountains or segregated schools of the Jim Crow South, and that addressing racism meant not just changing laws but seeking to change hearts and minds, as well.

Humphrey gets credit for pulling Truman to the left in 1948 and forcing the Democrats to embrace civil rights as a central party tenet. This led to the break with the Dixiecrats and a new calculus in national elections. When Humphrey made that speech at the convention, how much was he thinking about the political implications of what he was advocating?

Humphrey had a great deal of trepidation as he prepared to speak in support of a stronger civil-rights plank than the Democrats had ever had. He knew that Truman wanted to avoid the issue for fear of dividing the party. He knew the Southern delegations were ready to walk out in protest. And—at 37 years old, and just the mayor of a mid-sized city—Humphrey understood that he could be destroying his own political career. But he presciently believed that the Democratic Party could succeed even without its bloc of Southern white voters if it could mobilize Blacks and liberal whites elsewhere in the nation. He basically foresaw what the Democrat Party has, in fact, become. And those segregationist Democrats who rebelled in 1948 went on to become Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan voters and, ultimately, the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. But Humphrey wasn’t just thinking strategically. He was thinking of the morality of racial and religious equality. Corny as it may sound to our skeptical ears today, he was trying to do what was right, regardless of the political cost.

Humphrey left politics a diminished figure. More than once, he ran for president and lost. He was vilified by the Left for his support of the Vietnam War. What do we miss when we only remember him for the end of his career?

In a sense, the scorn and ridicule that Humphrey endured during and after his years as LBJ’s vice president and his own failed races for president in 1968 and 1972 can only be understood if you see what a luminous, idealistic figure Humphrey was earlier in his career. But we’ve tended to only remember the disparaged, later Humphrey. I’ve set out to correct that historical amnesia. Not to give Humphrey a free pass on his failings, but to restore to the historical record the moral courage he displayed as a younger man.

What do you see as Humphrey’s legacy in politics today? Is there anybody that reminds you of him?

Humphrey’s most important legacy, as I see it, is the example he set back in the 1940s of fighting for truly pluralistic democracy against more narrow, resentful definitions of what America should be. As a nation, that battle is never completely over; it needs to be refought in almost every generation. And Humphrey demonstrated how to build a small-d democratic coalition across lines of race, religion, gender, even party identification, and how to appeal to this country’s better angels rather than its inner demons. I actually think that Joe Biden gives a pretty good approximation of how Hubert Humphrey, were he alive today, would govern as president. And, among the political figures a generation or two younger than Biden, senators Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker evoke Humphrey with their combination of idealism and spirit, what Humphrey once called “the politics of joy.”

Samuel G. Freedman has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, winning the National Jewish Book Award and the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Award. His columns for the New York Times about education and religion have received national prizes. A professor at Columbia University, Freedman has also been named the nation’s Outstanding Journalism Educator by the Society of Professional Journalists. (Full disclosure: DL Editorial Committee member Chris Lombardi is an alumna of Freedman’s book seminar at Columbia.– Ed,)