As we commemorate Black History Month this year it is vitally important to remember and honor all the people who made profound contributions to this continuing fight.
We are aware of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X among others.
However, often we forget the great leaders of the 20th century who, despite facing the possibility of political ruin, did the right thing, thus helping to make huge strides in the fight for civil rights. Many of these people were white.
Today, we will concentrate on four of these leaders to include former President Harry Truman, former Vice President and Senator Hubert Humphrey, former Senator Paul Douglas and former President Lyndon Johnson.
Let’s begin this discussion with President Truman, who assumed the presidency after the death of Franklin Roosevelt April 12, 1945. His immediate task was ending World War II. The war in Europe ended less than a month after Truman became president, but war against Japan would continue for more than three months.
However, Truman made history-changing decisions in the area of civil rights, which would set a new path for African Americans.
He created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946, which would bring attention to racial inequalities in America. It was pale by later standards, but it was a beginning of directing focus on this problem.
A year later, Truman was the first president to address the NAACP, June 29, 1947. In the speech, which took place at the Lincoln Memorial, Truman outlined a program to end discrimination with the first comprehensive presidential proposed civil rights legislation.
Executive Orders 9981 and 9980 were signed July 26, 1948 by President Truman. Executive Order 9981 ended discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin in the Armed Forces, and Executive Order 9980 did the same in the Federal work force.
These executive orders were monumental strides in the fight to end segregation.
It was not only the right thing to do, but it was a courageous act, too. Truman signed the executive orders a few months before a heated election, which most pundits predicted he would lose.
In the late 1940s, a political novice would begin his three-decade crusade to end segregation.
Hubert Humphrey, a 33-year-old mayor of Minneapolis, would put his fledging political career on the line with an historic speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Humphrey told the convention, “To those who say my friends; to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late. To those who say 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 shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!”
Humphrey and his allies succeeded in having the convention adopt the pro-civil rights plank.
Truman was elected to a full term as president in an upset victory, and Humphrey was elected to the Senate. He would serve in that body until 1964 and continue his fight for civil rights and equal justice. The signing of the Civil Rights Bill, July 2, 1964, was the culmination of his years in the Senate.
Humphrey was nominated to be President Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, and the ticket easily won the 1964 election. There was much work to be done and during the Johnson administration, landmark civil and voting rights legislation became law. Humphrey was an important part of this success.
Paul Douglas was a contemporary of Humphrey’s and another passionate crusader for civil rights. He served in the Senate from 1949-67, but had a fascinating biography before entering the Senate.
He was an expert in economics and taught the subject at the University of Chicago and was elected to the Chicago city council in 1939, but he would do something unheard of for a man of his age. Douglas, 50, enlisted in the Marines, successfully went through basic training and later requested combat duty. His wish was granted with the help of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and his assistant, Adlai Stevenson. He was assigned to the 1st Marine Division — Pacific Theater of Operations.
Douglas was wounded twice and was awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
He was elected to the senate in 1948 by a comfortable margin and became a passionate advocate for civil rights and because of his unending efforts, helped to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1964.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described Douglas as “the greatest of all the senators”. In June 1957, he would go against custom and be the only senator to vote against the confirmation of racist senator James Eastland as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
President Lyndon Johnson seemed the most unusual person to be a civil rights icon. He was from Texas and didn’t have a history in his years in the Senate as being one who would lead the passing of the greatest civil rights legislation in America’s history.
He assumed the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Nov. 22, 1963. The Civil Rights legislation Kennedy had proposed had stalled in the Senate, largely because of opposition by southern senators. Johnson brilliantly crafted a coalition of northern Democrats and moderate Republicans. Congress voted to pass the legislation and the act was signed into law by Johnson, July 2, 1964 with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in attendance.
Johnson’s signature accomplishment in civil rights legislation was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was signed into law Aug. 6, 1965. His “We Shall Overcome” speech March 15, 1965 launched the momentum in getting the act passed.
He also appointed Thurgood Marshall, as the first African American justice to the Supreme Court.
This article focused on four 20th century political leaders who contributed to the civil rights movement, but there were many other people who deserve credit, including John and Robert Kennedy, the Supreme Court headed by Earl Warren in the 1950s and 60s, orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein and the countless thousands of people who participated in the civil rights marches and helped organize get out the vote efforts.
Retired Colonel Richard Toliver, whose distinguished military career included flying numerous combat missions in Vietnam and commanding a flying squadron, was assigned at Luke Air Force Base from 1974-76 as an operational test pilot for the F-15.
He had the following reflection of the people who became involved with the civil rights movement.
“We appreciate celebrating African American history,” he said. “The civil rights movement was profoundly helped by people God placed on earth to do great things. These were people of faith who were there to pursue justice and righteousness. They were people of courage and not bound by the status quo, who answered the call to do the right thing.”