The issue of civil rights in the 1948 Democratic convention

Address on Civil Rights to the Democratic National Convention (1948)
Humbert Humphrey

It was not popular to be a Liberal in 1948.  Hubert Humphrey, a Liberal Senator from Minnesota, along with a small handful of other Liberals, submitted the following minority report on Civil Right to the 1948 Democratic Convention. The following speech given by Humphrey to that convention is widely considered to be the inaugural moment which ushered in the modern Civil Rights Movement into the forefront of American politics.


Humphrey’s speech now seems rather innocuous, but it must be remembered that this speech was given at a time when much of America was still segregated; Blacks were not allowed to drink out of the same water fountains or eat in the same restaurants as Whites, poll taxes prevented millions of Blacks from voting, and lynchings were common.


All throughout the following speech, boos could be heard emanating from the floor of the convention, and toward the end of his speech several Southern delegations walked out.  Although it would be almost twenty years before any meaningful Civil Rights legislation was passed, this speech was truly a defining moment both for the Democratic Party and the nation itself.  Neither would be the same again.  And since that day, Liberalism remains the soul and conscience of not just the Democratic Party, but also of America.


As it was in 1948, Liberalism again is not that popular today, but it remains a powerful force in American politics despite the efforts of those who seek to discredit, demean, and slur it.  There are powerful Conservative forces in this country, not unlike those same forces in 1948, which continue to preach a doctrine of elitism and privilege.  But they will not win because Liberalism, although not perfect, appeals to the decent instincts of man.

Fellow Democrats, fellow Americans:
I realize that in speaking in behalf of the minority report on civil rights as presented by Congressman DeMiller of Wisconsin that I am dealing with a charged issue–with an issue which has been confused by emotionalism on all sides of the fence. I realize that there are here today friends and colleagues of mine, many of them–who feel just as deeply and keenly as I do about this issue and who are yet in complete disagreement with me.
My respect and admiration for these men and their views was great when I came to this convention. It is now far greater because of the sincerity, the courtesy, and the forthrightness with which many of them have argued in our prolonged discussions in the platform committee.
Because of this very great respect–and because of my profound belief that we have a challenging task to do here–because good conscience, decent morality, demands it–I feel I must rise at this time to support a report–the minority report–a report that spells out our democracy, a report that the people of this country can and will understand and a report that they will enthusiastically acclaim on the great issue of civil rights!
Now let me say at the outset that this proposal is made with no single region. Our proposal is made for no single class, for no single racial or religious groups in mind.
All of the regions of this country, all of the states have shared in the precious heritage of American freedom. All the states and all the regions have seen at least some infringements of that freedom–all people–get this–all people, white and black, all groups, all racial groups have been the victims at times in this nation of–let me say–vicious discrimination.
The masterly statement of our keynote speaker, the distinguished United States Senator from Kentucky, Alben Barkley, made that point with great force. Speaking of the founder of our party, Thomas Jefferson, he said this, and I quote from Alben Barkley:
He did not proclaim that all the white, or the black, or the red, or the yellow men are equal; that all Christian or Jewish men are equal; that all Protestant and all Catholic men are equal; that all rich or poor men are equal; that all good and bad men are equal.
What he declared was that all men are equal; and the equality which he proclaimed was the equality in the right to enjoy the blessings of free government in which they may participate and to which they have given their support.
Now these words of Senator Barkley’s are appropriate to this convention–appropriate to this convention of the oldest, the most truly progressive political party in America. From the time of Thomas Jefferson, the time of that immortal American doctrine of individual rights, under just and fairly administered laws, the Democratic party has tried hard to secure expanding freedoms for all citizens. Oh, yes, I know, other political parties may have talked more about civil rights, but the Democratic party has securely done more civil rights.
We have made progress, we have made great progress, in every part of this country. We’ve made great progress in the South, we’ve made it in the West, in the North, and in the East, but we must now focus the direction of that progress toward the realization of a full program of civil rights for all. This convention must set out more specifically the direction in which our party efforts are to go.
We can be proud that we can be guided by the courageous trail blazing of two great Democratic presidents. We can be proud of the fact that our great and beloved immortal leader Franklin Roosevelt gave us guidance. And we be proud of the fact–we can be proud of the fact–that Harry Truman has had the courage to give to the people of America the new emancipation proclamation!
It seems to me, it seems to me, that the Democratic party needs to make definite pledges of the kinds suggested in the confidence placed in it by the people of all races and all sections of this country.
Sure, we’re here as Democrats. But my good friends, we’re here as Americans–we’re here as the believers in the principal and the ideology of democracy, and I firmly believe that as men concerned with our country’s future, we must specify in our platform guarantees which we have mentioned in the minority report.
Yes, this is far more than a party matter. Every citizen has a stake in the emergence of the United States as a leader in a free world. That world is being challenged by the world of slavery. For us to play our part effectively, we must be in a morally sound position.
We can’t use a double standard–there’s no room for double standards in American politics–for measuring our own and other people’s policies. Our demands for democratic practices in other lands will be no more effective than the guarantees of those practiced in our own country.
Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise on the guarantee of civil rights which I have mentioned in the minority report.
In spite of my desire for unanimous agreement on the entire platform, in spite of my desire to see everybody her in honest and unanimous agreement, there are some matters which I think must be stated clearly and without qualification. There can be no hedging–the newspaper headlines are wrong! There will be no hedging, and there will be no watering down–if you please–of the instruments and the principals of the civil-rights program!
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 late! To those who say, 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 state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!
People, people–human beings–this is the issue of the 20th century. People of al kinds, all sorts of people, and these people are looking to America for leadership, and they’re looking to America for precept and example.
My good friends–my fellow–Democrats–I ask you for calm consideration of our historic opportunity.
Let us not forget–let us do forget–the evil passions, the blindness of the past. In these times of world economic, political, and spiritual–crisis, we cannot–we must not–turn from the path so plainly before us. That path has already lead us through many valleys of the shadow of death. Now is the time to recall those who were left on that path of American freedom.
For all of us here, for the millions who have sent us, for the whole two-billion members of the human family–our land is now, more than ever before, the last best hope on earth. I know that we can–I know that w shall–begging here the fuller and richer realization of that hope–that promise of a land where all men are truly free and equal, and each man uses his freedom and equality wisely and well.
My good friends, I ask my party, I ask the Democratic party, to march down the high road of progressive democracy. I ask this convention, I ask this convention, to say in unmistakable terms that we proudly hail, and we courageously support, our President and leader Harry Truman in his great fight for civil-rights in America!

(Delivered July 14, 1948, Philadelphia, PA)

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