Was Hubert H. Humphrey ahead of his time?
Most students of American history remember the Minnesota statesman for his biggest political error — his dogged support for the Vietnam War, which turned his allies into enemies, doomed his 1968 run for president and forever stained his reputation. But Samuel G. Freedman's new book about the young Hubert Humphrey restores to memory a young politician who championed equality and rewrote the national agenda on civil rights. A politician whose proving ground was Minneapolis.
Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University, writes that he aimed for a political biography rather than a personal one, to place Humphrey "in the context of Minneapolis's disgraceful history of racism and anti-Semitism."
These issues are in the foreground, but the biographical details are telling. Humphrey came of age in the Great Depression and he dropped out of the University of Minnesota to forestall foreclosure at his father's pharmacy. He read the works of Black authors and, influenced by his father's free thinking, embraced his family's commitment to social justice.
After graduation, Humphrey settled in a segregated Minneapolis, and Freedman's portrait of the city in the 1930s and '40s is revelatory. Black people encountered obstacles everywhere, whether exclusionary home ownership covenants or bans on hiring. Police beatings were standard fare. The white political establishment turned away.
One national journalist wrote that "Minneapolis is the capitol [sic] of anti-Semitism in the United States." Jews were banned from upscale neighborhoods and denied places in civic leadership, and Jewish children were beaten in the streets. Insidiously, anti-Jewish feeling morphed into pro-Nazism and Christian nationalism, as fascist groups such as the Silver Shirts conducted hate campaigns.
In this fraught political landscape, Humphrey showed he had guts, a way with words and vaunting ambition. Elected mayor in 1945, he pushed for a fair employment commission and appointed police leaders who rooted out harassment of the Black community. He survived at least one assassination attempt. He was appointed a delegate to the 1948 Democratic presidential convention, where he was thrust into the most glaring of spotlights.
Incumbent Harry Truman was besieged on two sides: by Black citizens, outraged that African Americans who served in World War II were denied jobs and subjected to hideous violence, and by Southern Democrats, determined that after decades of Jim Crow, nothing should change. Humphrey stepped up.
Though warned that "this will be the end of you" by the party chairman, Humphrey spoke passionately at the convention, persuading delegates that Truman's platform should include an anti-lynching law, an end to the poll tax and military desegregation. Southern Democrats walked out, but Truman, sensing an opportunity to capture energized Black voters, approved most of the platform and won the election by a hair. Humphrey won a seat in the U.S. Senate on the same day.
Freedman's account, with its you-are-there immediacy, will absorb history enthusiasts and anyone interested in the early years of the civil rights movement. He restores Humphrey to his rightful place in American politics, and reminds readers that America's battles over access and equality have deep roots in a long, anguished past.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a book critic in Seattle.
Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights
By: Samuel G. Freedman.
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 490 pp., $29.95.
Event: In conversation with Laura McCallum, 7 p.m. July 24, Magers and Quinn, 3308 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. Free.