A Different Look at Humbert Humphrey

Politicians Wade's World

            New Orleans      As a politician, Hubert Humphrey in the minds of most people outside of Minnesota either doesn’t exist or is what many would call a damaged brand.  He was something in his day and could brag about a stellar resume as a young mayor of Minneapolis, a US Senator from Minnesota, then the liberal placeholder as vice-president under Lyndon B. Johnson, and a standard-bearer, albeit unsuccessful, as the Democratic nominee for President, beaten by Richard Nixon.  For many, he is the parody of the “happy warrior” in politics.  Read Robert Caro on Johnson’s career, and he comes off as a dedicated liberal, but something of a patsy as well.

Reading the just published Into the Bright Sunshine:  Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights by Columbia University historian Samuel G. Freedman and talking to him on Wade’s World about Humphrey’s contributions up to 1948, and it’s hard not to see him and his career to that point in a different and better light.  He showed real courage in pushing against antisemitism and equal rights for African-Americans, particularly during that period, even though both were only small segments of the Minneapolis and Minnesota population.  He stood for principle then, regardless of the political price, and sometimes it did in fact cost him.

His shinning moment at the grand finale of this work was his speech, and as importantly, his leadership of the fight at the Democratic convention in 1948 to force then president and putative candidate Harry Truman to have to endorse a plank in the platform embracing civil rights.  There had been some transactional movement earlier around the military, but Truman had retreated from his earlier actions as he tried to hold the southern, segregationists in the party.  Humphrey, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the Sleeping Car Porters under A. Philip Randolph, and other labor unions, like the UAW, assembled a coalition and fought at the convention to have this predictably divisive support of civil rights a major part of the platform and the campaign.  Humphrey nailed a closing speech before the convention in his best moment that helped propel the measure to victory in a close vote.  Respect was earned and his role and that fight needs to be remembered even as some southern states walked out and joined Senator Strom Thurmond in the state’s rights fight, which at some level we are still fighting.

Freedman does a good job on that story, but his deep research also hit home with me in a couple of other ways.  Writing about the trials and tribulations of Humphrey’s father and his family in South Dakota when wheat prices capsized after World War I finally answered a question I had always had about why my grandparents abandoned farming in the Dakotas and moved to southern California before my dad was born there in 1921.  They, like most farmers then, were almost starving.

Another piece that had my full attention were the disputes between Humphrey and Gerald L. K. Smith over whether Smith could speak in a public building in Minneapolis, which, according to Freedman, triggered a permanent enmity between them.  Smith had been the chief organizer for Huey Long’s Share the Wealth movement after leaving the ministry in Baton Rouge to carry his flag.  Upon Long’s death, he allied with conservative and right-wing business forces in various crusades against the New Deal, Jews, and almost all others in a paroxysm of the worst of populism.  I had actually interviewed him in Eureka Springs, Arkansas around 1972 or so for a short-lived publication we helped put out called the Arkansas Advocate.  He was known for a vicious piece of religiously cloaked plays and a giant Christ of the Ozarks statute in that area that can be seen for miles, and likely is still standing.  I was only interested in his experiences in organizing Share the Wealth, counterpointed to interviews I did at the same time with H. L. Mitchell, the chief organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.  He seemed ancient then, though I now see he was likely younger than I am now.   He was generous with his time and effusive with his manners, and we avoided the topics that had been his lifeblood for more than 30 years.  It’s good to find out that Humphrey had managed to checkmate him in Minneapolis, where he had been very effective spreading hate for years.

Vietnam added Humphrey and Johnson to the list of collateral damage, and they earned the beatings they have taken for the blood and lives that were lost, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth remembering how far they fell from grace to become such tragic figures.