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Hubert Humphrey and the politics of backlash

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The May 25 death in police custody of George Floyd placed on center stage politicians in Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota. Yet as this drama has played out across the nation, another Minnesotan who was a lead actor in the civil rights movement of the last century has been strangely forgotten — Hubert Horatio Humphrey. He’s worth remembering today because last month marked the anniversary of his historic speech to the 1948 Democratic National Convention. That moment helped fuel his political ascent; an ascent whose ultimate end offers an echo and a lesson for these troubled times.

Born and raised in South Dakota, Humphrey graduated in 1939 from the University of Minnesota. He became a New Dealer, emerging as the boy wonder of Minneapolis politics. After an unsuccessful mayoral run as an independent in 1943, he helped engineer the merger of the state’s Democrats with the Farmer-Labor Party (under whose banner the current mayor, Jacob Frey, was elected in 2017) and was its successful candidate in 1945, the city’s youngest-ever mayor at age 34. 

One of the challenges Humphrey faced at city hall, it turns out, was police corruption. He first attracted national attention for his reforms of the force and for a crackdown on crime in what was at the time a city known not as a progressive beacon but as one controlled by mobsters. He also worked to repair the reputation of a community deemed one of the most anti-Semitic in the country. 

Humphrey became a civil rights pioneer. In Minneapolis he introduced the country’s first Fair Employment Practices Commission, and mandated non-discrimination clauses in municipal contracts. At the 1948 convention he led supporters of a civil rights “minority plank” to the party platform, demanding that Democrats focus on the realization of “a full program of civil rights to all.” 

“I ask you for a calm consideration of our historic opportunity,” Humphrey urged the delegates. “Let us do forget the evil passions and the blindness of the past.” 

Humphrey and his allies won the platform fight, but the plank’s historic adoption led to a walkout of Southern delegates and the subsequent Dixiecrat presidential candidacy of Strom Thurmond. The senator from South Carolina won four Southern states and 39 electoral votes. It was too few to deny Harry Truman his narrow victory over Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, but it was an ominous portent of an election two decades later.

Humphrey entered the Senate with Lyndon Johnson in 1949. He initially waged a lonely progressive battle against the Southern senators who dominated his party. But the political partnership that would change all that was his bond with Johnson. “No senator could enunciate liberal aims more persuasively,” writes Robert Caro, “could arouse liberal emotions more dramatically, could mobilize national liberal opinion against a (southern) Senate Leader more effectively” than could Humphrey. When LBJ acceded to his post as master of the Senate, he wanted the liberal Humphrey on his side.

“During the 1950s Humphrey blossomed into a capable, creative, and highly esteemed senator,” notes the Senate’s official history, which led to his election as Democratic whip in 1961. His crowning moment came when he served as manager for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the height of his powers, he became Johnson’s running mate in that year’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. With the Republicans in disarray, and the Great Society legislative agenda rolling forward, the reelection of Johnson and his likely 1972 successor, Humphrey, seemed assured. 

But, as the proverb reminds us, as men plan God laughs. Johnson’s war strategy failed to defeat the North Vietnamese assault on the South. That failure ended LBJ’s presidency. Conventional wisdom holds that being tethered to that policy doomed Humphrey’s subsequent 1968 candidacy. Yet Humphrey’s campaign, while it was weakened by the intra-party split over Vietnam, was ultimately undone in the realm that had been the source of his rise, that of civil rights. 

Beginning in 1965, deadly riots, far beyond the scope of what we have seen this year, erupted in Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark and elsewhere, competing with Vietnam for front-page coverage. In addition to their economically detrimental effects on Black income and employment, these disturbances signaled the end of the non-violent demonstrations of the early civil rights movement and caused many white Americans to doubt the legitimacy of the agenda Hubert Humphrey had championed all his life.  

While chanting anti-war protestors mocked traditional American notions of patriotism, a new generation of Black leaders – Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown (who said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie”) and the Black Panthers – took to the airwaves and the streets to repudiate the legacy of the soon-to-be-assassinated Martin Luther King.  

The 1968 election featured the third-party insurgency of Alabama’s George Wallace. Paired with his running mate, the scowling General Curtis LeMay, Wallace ran a campaign of law and order. He capitalized not only on Southern hostility to federal civil rights legislation, but on the anger of traditionally Democratic blue-collar union workers, whose reaction to the rioting was characterized in the press as “white backlash.” The fissures that had first appeared in the Democratic coalition in 1948 had widened, with Richard Nixon and the Republicans ultimately to benefit.

Humphrey could have survived his loss of the 11 one-time Confederate states (six went to Nixon and five to Wallace). He could not prevail with the loss of Illinois, Missouri and New Jersey, which had gone to Kennedy in 1960 but to Nixon in 1968. Blue-collar Democrats remembered the smoke rising in Chicago, St. Louis and Newark. A significant number defected to Nixon or Wallace, delivering those three states to the Republican, with their 55 electoral votes providing his margin of victory. 

The man from Minnesota had made history at the 1948 Democratic convention by warning that the Democratic Party “needs to maintain the trust and the confidence placed in it by the people of all races and all sections of this country.” By 1968, though, trust in Humphrey’s party was fraying among people of all races and in all parts of America. Even as he was being nominated in Chicago, ugly clashes between police and anti-war demonstrators sullied his final moment of triumph. That year was the high water mark of postwar American liberalism, one it has struggled for two generations to regain. 

As the 2020 election approaches, many progressives believe their time has again come. But as violent demonstrations have persisted in parts of the country, it’s worth remembering that a noble civil rights movement and its champions can be dealt a serious blow by civil violence and rhetorical overreach. 

Current poll numbers notwithstanding, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would be well advised to echo Humphrey’s call and suggest that all sides put behind us “the evil passions and blindness of the past” in his acceptance speech later this month. Failure to stress this campaign theme might result, if not in defeat, then in a closer election than Democrats anticipate.

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at the Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.

Tags 1968 2020 presidential campaign George Wallace Joe Biden LBJ Liberalism in the United States Minneapolis Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party Vietnam war

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