1946 September 19

Truman Promises Presidential Civil Rights Committee


In a White House meeting with NAACP leaders on this day, President Harry Truman was shocked by graphic stories of recent lynchings and brutalities against African-American World War II veterans. Particularly important was the case of Isaac Woodard, a veteran who was pulled from a bus in South Carolina, attacked, and blinded in both eyes (February 12, 1946). The case received considerable national attention, and on August 18, 1946 20,000 people attended a rally in New York City to raise funds for his case. Folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the brutal assault on Woodard. The attacks on African-Americans were part of a concerted segregationist effort to use terrorist methods to maintain the racial caste system. Truman promised the NAACP that he would do something about civil rights, and on December 5, 1946, he created the first federal commission to investigate civil rights.

The famous folk singer Woody Guthrie composed a song about Woodard in his honor, “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard.” The lyrics are included in the book Woody Guthrie, Born to Win, pp. 229-231. (Whether there is any surviving recording of the song is not clear.)

The President’s Committee on Civil Rights delivered its path-breaking report on October 29, 1947. Truman used the report to deliver to Congress a legislative program on civil rights on February 2, 1948 (which Congress, dominated by Southern segregationists, ignored). In one of his most important acts as president, Truman on July 26, 1948, desegregated the U.S. armed forces by executive order. His actions were overshadowed by the later dramatic events of the civil rights movement, but he was the first civil rights president in modern times.

Read the report of Truman’s Civil Rights Committee, “To Secure These Rights”: http://www.trumanlibrary.org/civilrights/srights1.htm

Read: Steven F. Lawson, To Secure These Rights: The Report of Harry S Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights (2004)

Learn more: Michael Gardner, Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks (2002)

View documents on President Truman and civil rights at the Truman Library: http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/desegregation/large/index.php

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