“Into the Bright Sunshine”- Why Hubert Humphrey Speaks to Our Times

Into the Bright Sunshine, by Samuel Freedman (Oxford University Press) is subtitled ” Young Hubert Humphrey and the Struggle for Civil Rights.” You might think the book was something for a history class, a chronicle of events long ago; even for that, you might turn away, if like many DL readers you mostly think of Humphrey as the man who didn’t stand up to Lyndon Johnson on the U.S. war against Vietnam. But as Freedman, who’s also an award-winning journalist and professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, explores in this book, there’s a lot more to Humphrey’s story, much of it useful for today’s struggles against racism and inequality. Freedman’s previous books are Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students and Their High School (1990); Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church (1993); The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond (1996); Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (2000); Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life (2005); Letters To A Young Journalist (2006); and Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Game and Changed the Course of Civil Rights (2013). (Ed.)

Interview conducted by email on August 22, by DL Online Editor Chris Lombardi CL). (Full disclosure: Lombardi studied with Freedman decades ago, in the book seminar he runs at Columbia Journalism School).

CL: At some points, Humphrey’s journey feels kinda Joseph Campbell-ish, with young Hubert painted as a naif hero, going forth to conquer the forces of prejudice: “It was in Louisiana that Hubert first met Jews…” It can’t have been that simple.

SF: I wouldn’t necessarily invoke Campbell, but Humphrey’s childhood was incredibly isolated. He came from a town of 500 people, almost all of them white Protestants with roots in northern Europe or Scandinavia. One Jewish family in town. A small community of Black railroad workers 40 miles away. A Catholic town ten miles away that had crosses burned on its outskirts. It was a tribute to Humphrey’s father H.H. — a freethinker, a liberal Democrat — that Hubert as a boy was infused with a broader political and social perspective. 

CL: Can you speak to his religious evolution, and where does his Quaker grandma fit in?

SF:As far as I can tell, his Quaker grandmother wasn’t such a big influence. But the Social Gospel strain of Protestant theology was. Growing up as a member of the local Methodist church, and being best friends with the minister’s son, Hubert was exposed to a theology that put much less emphasis on personal purity and making it into heaven than it did on building the Kingdom of God (the term that was used) on Earth. Doing so meant supporting organized labor, reaching out across denominational and racial lines. That sensibility informed much of Humphrey’s public life.

CL: What distinctions did he see between the Social Gospel and all-out socialism, leading him to steer the Democratic Party away from the Henry Wallace crowd?

SF: It’s pretty clear that Humphrey was in the New Deal camp of using activist government to save capitalism from itself rather than seeking state ownership of major industries, etc. But it’s also true that in the Dakotas, where he grew up, there’d been a strong tradition of farmers forming their own cooperatives in order to have leverage against the power of the railroads and the commercial grain, dairy, and livestock markets. Humphrey was a major supporter of Wallace in the mid-1940s. He even gave one of the seconding speeches to Wallace’s (failed) nomination as vice president in the 1944 convention. But the emerging Cold War totally shattered their friendship and alliance. Wallace fervently opposed the Marshall Plan, while Humphrey strongly supported it. And I think that Humphrey interpreted Wallace in light of the bitter factional fighting in Minnesota’s Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party between Popular Front and anti-Communist forces. 

CL: How, in showing us a hero, did you avoid the “white-savior” narrative?

SF: From the outset of work on this book, I vowed not to fall into the white-savior trope. So I was always looking for the Black (and Jewish) allies and influences on Humphrey. Key among them was Cecil Newman, who founded, published, and edited the Black newspaper in Minneapolis, the Spokesman, and was really Humphrey’s tutor on racism in Minneapolis. And when the book moves forward to the 1948 Democratic convention, I was very attuned to A. Philip Randolph’s campaign for mass Black draft resistance if Harry Truman didn’t desegregate the military. After Humphrey’s speech at the convention led the Democratic Party to fully embrace civil rights for the first time, Humphrey and one of Randolph’s top aides exchanged letters that expressed their understanding that you needed both inside and outside forms of pressure to achieve political change. Humphrey never perceived himself as doing things for Black people (or Jews), but rather doing things with them. 

CL: You say early on that you wanted a full portrait of Minneapolis’s struggles with racism, pinging off the 2020 George Floyd flashpoint. When did you realize how huge the scope would be? You note, “The first Black person recorded in what became Minnesota was a fur trader…” and soon locate Dred Scott at Fort Snelling! That scope covers geographic space as well as time. Did you always know it would be like that?

SF: When I started this book in 2015–with Barack Obama in his second term and marriage equality being declared a Constitutional right–I thought I was filling some important historical and biographical gaps, about both Humphrey and the proto-Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s. I was intent on researching the context of racism and anti-Semitism in Minneapolis during Humphrey’s years there. But when [Donald Trump was elected in 2016] and George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, I realized that I was writing current events. The parallels between the struggles that Humphrey was involved in—whether to reform a bigoted, abusive police force or more generally to advocate for inclusive democracy against right-wing extremists like Gerald L.K. Smith–were almost eerie to comprehend. But, as an author, I also appreciated that my book might have a lot more present-day relevance than I’d initially assumed. 

CL: You show Humphrey learning how to use political means to try to address racism/anti-Semitism. He acted as what we would today call an ally/accomplice. And you name points on the journey from South Dakota to Minneapolis to Jim Crow Louisiana and back again. What’s your story, of learning you had to be an ally/accomplice? Or did you think of yourself as neither, just a super-accurate observer?

SF: I grew up in Central Jersey in a very politically minded, leftie household. My father and his entire family had lived in an anarchist community in Stelton, NJ, and though he went on to become a successful capitalist–as a machinist, inventor of microbiology machinery, and ultimately founder of a biotech company – e was firmly a man of the Left. My mother was less overtly political but was very formed by having rejected her parents’ Orthodox Judaism. The harshest insult in my father’s lexicon would be to say to me, “You’re so bourgeois.” In any case, the dinner conversations of my youth were often about the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. My parents were both Gene McCarthy supporters in 1968, though they were sane and practical enough to vote for Humphrey against [Richard] Nixon that November. So my entire career as a non-fiction author has been very much inspired by the political milieu of my family and by the belief that one’s work should contribute something positive to society.

CL: Speaking of which, can a writer be an ally, or even an accomplice (joining struggles outright, against our own privilege)? I’m guessing your answer is about reporting, and about listening– the latter word also used in today’s ally/accomplice discussions. What do you tell writers who ask you how to best explore these questions?

SF:I definitely believe a writer can be an ally. But the writing can only be credible if it also looks with intellectual honesty even at social and political movements a writer supports or endorses. You can’t be an author and also be writing de facto p.r. 

CL: Do you mean for Bright Sunshine to be an antidote for the helplessness we can easily feel when Silver-Shirts types resurface? What can Humphrey teach us all now?

SF: The battles that Humphrey fought against American fascists/bigots like Gerald L.K. Smith and Strom Thurmond are so instructive for our battles today against Trumpism. Humphrey’s enemies were Christian Nationalists, white supremacists, American Firsters. Sound familiar? The fact that we need to fight these battles anew every generation or two doesn’t mean that Humphrey, Randolph, et al,, failed; it means that victory doesn’t last forever and that progress always provokes backlash. But it’s vital for progressives today to be reminded that we can win, and have won, these battles in the past.

CL: In a book with 2020’s “reckoning” at its center, let’s talk Humphrey and policing.I was especially struck by that 1946 moment when goes against his own police commissioner after Dreamland Cafe. What’s the role of policing in this story? What would Humphrey think of today’s “defund the police” narrative? 

SF: Humphrey saw extremely clearly the bigotry, the abusiveness, and the inbred culture of the Minneapolis police force in the 1940s. Not only did he personally intercede in such cases, but he had the entire police force sent for training in “human relations,” as the term was back then, at the University of Minnesota. The tragedy of his rapid ascent from Minneapolis into the U.S, Senate is that he never fully implemented his police-reform plans, and over the succeeding decades, the powerful police union defied every other attempt at reform. The historian Michael Lansing at Augsburg University has written very compellingly on that point. But Humphrey, in my view, would not have had any truck with defunding the police.

CL: I’m also thinking of his role in prodding Truman to finally desegregate the military, after working with A. Philip Randolph during the 1948 Democratic National Convention. Did he think of the military families he met then, later, when anti-war activists targeted him?.

SF: Humphrey’s support for the Vietnam War was the gravest mistake of his political life, as he ultimately acknowledged. But he was like a lot of other Cold War liberals, including Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Walter Reuther, if I remember correctly, who bought into the “domino theory,” at least initially.

CL: Why are socialists Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin missing from the book? Harrington, the first editor of this magazine, served on the board of Americans for Democratic Action as a student in 1948 , just as Humphrey was using the anti-communist lefty group to reshape the Democratic National Committee, and he later worked with Humphrey on the War on Poverty. Humphrey thanks him in The Education of a Public Man, along with Bayard Rustin. 

SF: Purely a matter of already being about 30,000 words over my promised length for the manuscript and not being able to squeeze in everything I would have wanted to.