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Which Transformative American Leader, Born a Century Ago, Got Civil Rights Right? Ronald Reagan? No, Hubert Humphrey | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Which Transformative American Leader, Born a Century Ago, Got Civil Rights Right? Ronald Reagan? No, Hubert Humphrey

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.

Humphrey’s generation of young liberal Democrats hailed the direction that the party had taken and campaigned all the more ardently for Truman. Among them was Ronald Reagan, the president of the Screen Actors Guild union and one of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals. It is often recalled that Reagan cut a remarkable television commercial in 1964 on behalf of the conservative Republican presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. But sixteen years earlier, Reagan cut a similarly remarkable—and effective—radio commercial on behalf of the liberal Democratic presidential candidacy of Truman. Reagan also spoke on behalf of Hubert Humphrey, whose civil rights advocacy was one of the reasons the union leader declared that: “Mayor Humphrey, at 37, is one of the ablest men in public life.”

“President Truman knows the value of a man like Hubert Humphrey in the Senate,” Reagan told a national radio audience, in a commercial that denounced corporate profiteering and tax cuts for the rich, as well as moves by Republicans and their segregationist allies to undermine the ability of unions to organize. “Mayor Humphrey is fighting for all the principles advocated by President Truman: for adequate low-cost housing, for civil rights, for prices people can afford to pay and for a labor movement freed of the Taft-Hartley law.”

Reagan did not just talk the talk. He used his fame to promote the cause of civil rights in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1951, he starred as a crusading Southern district attorney who took on the Ku Klux Klan in the film Storm Warning. That film, which celebrated undercover journalists and lawmen taking battling the crudest manifestations of southern segregation was a classic liberal statement of the era, which the New York Times recognized as a return to “social crusading” by Hollywood. Reagan, “the fearless young prosecutor,” is “the hero who takes up the cudgels and finally beats the local klan into the ground.”

As “the great fight for civil rights” progressed from the Montgomery bus boycott to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, however, Reagan drifted away from the cause… and from Humphrey’s side.

By the mid-1960s, as Humphrey was leading the Senate push to enact landmark civil rights legislation, Reagan was on the other side. “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so,” claimed Reagan, who had switched his political allegiance from Democrat to Republican. The man who had once hailed Humphrey’s advocacy on behalf of Civil Rights now opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and he was one of the highest-profile campaigners against Humphrey’s election in 1964 as vice president on a ticket led by the more conservative Lyndon Johnson.

Humphrey and Reagan diverged further as the years passed, with Reagan hailing Confederate President Jefferson Davis as “a hero of mine” and complaining that civil rights legislation had the effect of “humiliating to the South.” As governor of California, Reagan would oppose Fair Housing legislation and vetoes state-based civil rights protections. As president, he would veto the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, a measure that advocates promoted by quoting Humphrey’s soaring rhetoric of decades earlier.

Humphrey’s last years were spent in the United States Senate where, after the compromises of the Johnson years and the heartbreaking 1968 presidential campaign, he renewed the liberal faith of his youth, preaching that “the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

In December of 1977, President Jimmy Carter would pay tribute to the ailing Humphrey with the words: “I’ve come to recognize that all the attributes that I love about America are resident in him.”

Less than a year later, Humphrey would be dead.

Less than three years later, Carter would lose the 1980 presidential race to Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s presidency has all the champions it will need. I don’t begrudge this enthusiasts (led by none other than Sarah Palin) a centennial celebration of the great champion of their brand of conservatism.

But this year I will devote a little more time to celebrating the centennial of the man who proposed that we might “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

Ronald Reagan may not have been right about everything. It is fair to say, however, that he was onto something when he described Hubert Humphrey as “one of the ablest men in public life.”

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