Two thousand eleven marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of a great American political leader who rose from humble beginnings to contend for the presidency of the United States. He was a man who knew electoral disappointment and triumph, but more meaningful than even the greatest of his victories is his association with an ideal that transformed first a political party and then a nation.
He was flawed, of course. He made mistakes and many of us disagreed with him. Some even mocked him as the optimistic and energetic campaigner, who had such a way with words, grew unsteady and weak.
Yet, for those who recalled and understood his remarkable accomplishments, he continues to inspire a warm affection that extends across lines of partisanship and ideology. And history has been steadily more generous to him, as the sifting and winnowing of time helps us all to recognize the importance—and the superiority—of those leaders who provided a boldness of language and action when it was most necessary for the nation.
I write, of course, of Hubert Humphrey, born May 27, 1911.
By extension I write, also, of another American who would be 100 this year, Ronald Reagan (born February 6, 1911), and of the brief shining moment when these two men stood together on behalf of progressive democracy.
Humphrey, the former mayor of Minneapolis, US Senator from Minnesota, Vice President of the United States and Democratic nominee for president, was associated with no cause so closely as that of civil rights during more than three decades of active political service. The epic moment in his journey came early—“pre–Brown v. Board of Education,” as Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison likes to recall—when the 37-year-old mayor of an overwhelmingly white Midwestern city stood before the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to demand that his party abandon “the evil passions and the blindness of the past” and take up “the great fight for civil rights in America!”
Humhrey’s soaring speech on behalf of a proposed platform plank thought too radical by party leaders changed the course of the convention, the party and the nation.
Rejecting calls for more debate, more compromise, more time, Humphrey declared that the time had come for Democrats, for Americans, to speak “clearly and without qualification” against “vicious discrimination.”
“My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late,” proclaimed Humphrey. “To those who say that 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 states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
When the majority of delegates answered Humphrey’s call, American politics was forever changed. President Harry Truman would campaign that fall on a platform that outlined what Humphrey referred to as “a new emancipation proclamation.” He did not do so as the leader of a united party, however. An exodus of Southern segregationists and their conservative allies began when the convention backed Humphrey’s proposal, and they never really returned to a party that—after decades of crass calculation and crude compromising—had begun finally to stand for the principle that all men (and women) are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.