During one sweltering week in July 1948, the Democratic Party gathered in Philadelphia for its national convention. The most pressing and controversial issue facing the delegates was not whom to nominate for president -the incumbent, Harry Truman, was the presumptive candidate -but whether the Democrats would finally embrace the cause of civil rights and embed it in their official platform. Even under Franklin Roosevelt, the party had dodged the issue in order to keep a bloc of Southern segregationists-the so-called Dixiecrats-in the New Deal coalition.
On the convention’s final day, Hubert Humphrey, just 37 and the relatively obscure mayor of the midsized city of Minneapolis, ascended the podium. Defying Truman’s own desire to occupy the middle ground, Humphrey urged the delegates to “get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Humphrey’s speech put everything on the line, rhetorically and politically, to move the party, and the country, forward.
To the surprise of many, including Humphrey himself, the delegates voted to adopt a meaningful civil-rights plank. With no choice but to run on it, Truman seized the opportunity it offered, desegregating the armed forces and in November upsetting the frontrunner Thomas Dewey, a victory due in part to an unprecedented surge of Black voters.
The outcome of that week in July 1948-which marks its 75th anniversary as this book is published-shapes American politics to this day. And it was in turned shaped by Humphrey. His journey to that pivotal speech runs from a remote, all-white hamlet in South Dakota to the mayoralty of Minneapolis as he tackles its notorious racism and anti-Semitism to his role as a national champion of multiracial democracy. His allies in that struggle include a Black newspaper publisher, a Jewish attorney, and a professor who had fled Nazi Germany. And his adversaries are the white supremacists, Christian Nationalists, and America Firsters of mid-century America – one of whom tries to assassinate him.
Here is a book that celebrates one of the overlooked landmarks of civil rights history, and illuminates the early life and enduring legacy of the man who helped bring it about.