The Quiet Years, War and Peace

The Beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement

World War II provided a major spark to the growing Civil Rights Movement. Energized by the war, and empowered by the status of hundreds of thousands of African Americans as veterans, the Civil Rights Movement placed mounting pressure on the federal government, and black voters in the North became more focused in their support for politicians friendly to the cause of Civil Rights. Black veterans publically registered for Democratic primaries and staged public protests in record numbers. Mounting racial violence faced down their efforts—the white population would do anything to keep African Americans relegated to an inferior class.

In response to the demands of civil rights organizations and the mounting racial tensions in the South, President Harry S. Truman created a national Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. This committee, chaired by Charles Wilson, issued a remarkably forthright report entitled To Secure These Rights. Under the heading “The Right to Vote,” the report read: 

The right of all qualified citizens to vote is today considered axiomatic by most Americans. To achieve universal adult suffrage we have carried on vigorous political crusades since the earliest days of the Republic. In theory the aim has been achieved, but in fact there are many backwaters in our political life where the right to vote is not assured to every qualified citizen. The franchise is barred to some citizens because of race; to others by institutions or procedures which impede free access to the polls. Still other Americans are in substance disfranchised whenever electoral irregularities or corrupt practices dissipate their votes or distort their intended purpose.

Its conclusion was direct: “The denial of the suffrage on account of race is the most serious present interference with the right to vote.”

Justifying Federal Action on Racial Disenfranchisement

Following an assessment of racial disenfranchisement, the Committee on Civil Rights came out with a strong message: “the national government of the United States must take the lead in safeguarding the civil rights of all Americans.” This was a bold stance—it was tantamount to rejecting the existing constitutional order that allowed states to regulate the affairs of their citizens, flying in the face of the powerful political watchwords “states’ rights.” Nonetheless, the Committee on Civil Rights called for federal guarantees of the right to vote, justifying federal action on three separate grounds:

  1. Voter discrimination was producing a “moral erosion” of the nation, particularly in the South. 
  2. Discrimination had negative consequences for the economy
  3. In the climate of the Cold War, the international interests and position of the United States was threatened by any limitation on democracy at home.

President Truman and the Committee on Civil Rights

The Committee on Civil Rights had in some ways run out ahead of the personal views of Harry Truman. He had voted to repeal the poll tax, but he was fairly moderate on racial issues. More importantly, in order to win reelection in 1948, he needed to hold on the votes of some Southern Democrats, as well as northern blacks, whom the Republicans and more liberal Democrats were campaigning hard to win over.  Truman responded with compromise—he issued two executive orders that desegregated the military and instituted equal employment opportunity practices within the federal government. But Truman declined to support full range of reforms proposed by his Committee on Civil Rights.

Truman’s reluctance to become a vocal advocate for civil rights and African American suffrage meant that the movement lacked a strong leader in the federal government outside of Congress, and for a decade following the report of the Committee on Civil Rights, the federal government did very little to curb racial discrimination of every kind. The Southerners in Congress, thanks to the dominance of the Democratic Party, held key leadership positions and successfully blocked any attempts at progress in key committees.