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“Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage And Political Risks” by Michael R. Gardner Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., 276 pages, $35 The struggle, far from over, for racial equality already stands as a crucial chapter in American constitutional history. In “Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks,” Michael R. Gardner, a practicing lawyer and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, sets the record straight on the part that our 33rd president played in the struggle. His well-documented conclusions will astonish even many of those whose memories go back to the period of which he writes. Today we, especially lawyers, take for granted the role of the federal government in the expansion and protection of its citizens’ civil rights. Quite the contrary obtained when Harry S. Truman entered the White House in April 1945. Although each of the three Civil War constitutional amendments, Nos. XIII, XIV and XV, empowered Congress to enforce it “by appropriate legislation,” that power had been, for practical purposes, ignored for at least a half-century. The author demonstrates by text and photographs how this federal passivity condemned millions of black Americans to humiliation and degradation. In every aspect of life, residence, employment, travel, education, marriage, recreation, worship, legal proceedings, medical care, military service, even burial, a double standard insulted blacks with daily reminders of their supposed inferiority. In many places the system functioned under the silent threat of the rope. Lynchings in America, the author shows, occurred as late as 1947. Racial segregation and discrimination, the book emphasizes, prevailed not only in the South. Washington, D.C., for example, practiced all aspects of the American version of apartheid. The federal civil service, moreover, operated in strict segregation by virtue of a system inaugurated by Woodrow Wilson and largely undisturbed by his successors, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Older readers will remember that for at least a decade after World War II, many hotels and restaurants in cosmopolitan New York City practiced a surreptitious whites-only policy.) By birth and background, Harry S. Truman seemed unlikely to do anything about it. A high school graduate, he had spent his life in a former slave state where the Ku Klux Klan remained active and powerful well into the 20th century. Both his grandfathers had owned slaves. His mother, who lived to see her son in the White House, had girlhood memories of the Union Army’s presence in Missouri that embittered her for life. Her son called her “an unreconstructed rebel.” Yet something — the author can only suggest what — in the mind, heart or both of President Truman made him see the wrong in what most white Americans accepted as part of the country’s way of life. Whatever the source of his beliefs, the new chief executive wasted little time turning them into action. On Dec. 5, 1946, appalled over the treatment that black war veterans had been receiving, he formed the Presidential Committee on Civil Rights. His executive order setting up the committee declared, “The Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws clearly place on the Federal Government the duty to act… . “ The diverse, biracial composition of the new committee made clear the direction that its founder expected it to take. It did not disappoint him. Its landmark report, entitled “To Secure These Rights,” and dated Oct. 29, 1947, set forth in 35 points a program of reforms that the author calls “a comprehensive civil rights policy game plan.” Its recommendations fell under four rubrics: the rights to safety and security of the person, to citizenship and its privileges, to freedom of conscience and expression, and to equality of opportunity. Most of the points in the committee’s report required legislative action. A major part of the book tells in detail of the persistence and heartfelt eloquence with which the president tried to convert his committee’s sweeping recommendations into law. But Southern Democrats and some conservative Republicans joined forces to thwart his efforts at every turn. Later administrations saw most of the tangible progress that was made. It was an appointee of President Dwight Eisenhower, Chief Justice Earl Warren, who in 1954 spoke for the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, overruling Plessy v. Ferguson and beginning the end of racial segregation in public schools. Not until the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson did Congress enact the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act of 1966. Yet, as the author demonstrates with convincing documentation, the administration of Harry Truman deserves much of the credit for this progress. Under Chief Justice Fred Vinson, a Truman appointee, the Supreme Court laid the groundwork for Brown by a series of decisions less spectacular than the 1954 holding but eroding, step by step, segregation in education. By executive orders issued in July 1948, President Truman ended racial segregation in the federal civil service and in the armed forces. He thereby set an emphatic precedent for federal action in the realm of civil rights. He also stimulated the demands of black Americans for equality by showing them that such a goal was achievable. The author made a wise choice in his subtitle. Harry Truman’s stand on civil rights was not smart politics. Time and again his advisers warned him that he was threatening the future of his party and himself by moving so far ahead of public opinion. In 1948, a Gallup poll showed 82 percent of Americans opposed to their president’s civil rights program. The book proves that for Harry S. Truman, racial justice was a matter of conscience, not of vote-getting. Since his death 30 years ago, the reputation of Harry S. Truman has improved in the eyes both of historians and the general public. Few persons in either category, however, recognize him as a heroic pioneer in the civil rights movement. Michael Gardner has performed a service in demonstrating so thoroughly and so readably his subject’s entitlement to that recognition. Walter Barthold is a lawyer in New York City.

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