Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Harry Truman, Civil Rights, and Barack Obama

As I've mentioned in prior blogs, I have been reading the Memoirs of a former President of the United States of America, Harry S. Truman.

In this essay I'll take a look on Harry's civil rights record and compare that to what we might expect from likely Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama.

As I've pointed out before, the predecessor of President Truman was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, known as FDR. FDR made a deal with the racist Democratic Party establishment: he could have his welfare programs, and Jim Crow segregation would remain in force in much of the nation. In the end Roosevelt depended on massive government spending on war preparations to pull the U.S. economy out of the Depression.

Harry Truman had saved the country billions of dollars by running a congressional committee that audited World War II defense spending. This got him selected as FDR's running mate in 1944. FDR died in 1945 and Harry Truman became President. Harry pushed for civil rights for Jews and African-Americans (then called colored people). Powerful Democrats did not like that and tried to keep Harry from being the Democratic Party nominee in 1948.

From Harry's Memoirs:

When J. Strom Thurmond, the governor of South Carolina, who headed the revolt, made his dramatic departure from the convention floor in Philadelphia with his followers, he was asked by a reporter to clarify his position.

"President Truman is only following the platform that Roosevelt advocated," the reporter pointed out.

"I agree," Thurmond replied, "but Truman really means it."

Truman had shown that by creating a Committee on Civil Rights, which in October 1947 made ten major recommendations, including a federal guarantee of the right to vote and to what we now call equal opportunity employment. In early 1948 he urged Congress to pass legislation that would end segregation in transportation facilities. While the legislation failed to pass, Truman had ordered, as Commander in Chief, that the armed services, including civilian employees under military contracts, be integrated.

Truman's efforts were mainly a failure. Even thought they voted Dixiecrat in the 1948 election, the southern Democrats stayed in the Democratic Party for congressional purposes and held most of the powerful committee chairs that enabled them to block legislation they did not like.

Integration, civil rights for non-European Americans, would come gradually and painfully. Republican Earl Warren, heading the Supreme Court, stood above the political fray and did more to bring civil rights to America than any other person in power. Anarchists, socialists, communists, non-violence activists and black activists of all sorts pushed hard (and even violently) at the establishment until Lyndon Johnson finally said "uncle" and pushed substantial civil rights legislation through Congress.

Barack Obama would be the first part-African to be President of the United States. Even if he loses, just being the Democratic Party nomineee is a first. But what would an Obama presidency mean for Civil Rights?

First, President Obama would find himself in the same situation every President is in: he is an executive officer. Congress legislates. He could choose to vigorously execute the current civil rights laws, or not, but he needs Congress to make substantial changes.

Second, the Obama Presidency will be taken by many to mean that civil rights is no longer an issue. They will reason that if a man with an African father can be elected President, then low-class blacks, like poor white people, are just somehow losers who are individually responsible for their own fate. Many people of color are doing fine or even great, but not very many people of color have white mothers who sent them to fancy white prep schools and fancier colleges, as Obama did.

Barach Obama's positions on civil rights and education at his Web site are all fine and good. But Barach is inheriting an economically exhaused nation with an astonishing national debt and budget deficit.

Senator Obama says No Child Left Behind has "failed to provide high-quality teachers in every classroom." There are many aspects to teachers being of high-quality, the two main ones being motivation and training. But another one the Democrats always leave off the table is firing teachers who refuse to be motivated or to do what is needed. This is because the Democrats, and Barack Obama in turn, are way indebted to the teacher's unions, who unfortunately represent the bad teachers as well as the good ones. I like what Obama says about spending more money, particularly on programs like the "Zero to Five Plan," but where will the money come from?

Quality education for all students, regardless of their parantage, is a key component of both civil rights and a strong economy. But civil rights enforcement is also critical. Here Obama is really weak. Nothing really new is presented. Doing better at enforcing the current law, and subduing ongoing prejudices, is a good thing. But nothing he mentions is going to break up the gang culture that uses young men for cannon fodder. Nothing is going to compensate African-American families for their economic losses under slavery and segregation. I don't see any mention of compensation for the abuses of white working class people or sharecroppers either.

Which brings us back to Taxes. The web site has no page for taxes or the federal budget. In the economy section there is a tax cut plan for a new $500 per person tax credit for working families. That is going to expand the budget deficit and not provide money for education or for breaking the cycle of poverty in America's poorest neighborhoods.

So what we seem to have is a promise of lower taxes and higher spending. Wow. It's so simple. No politician in American history even thought of promising that.

Going back to Truman, I think he really meant to end discrimination against non-white people in the United States. But meaning it and being President is not, in itself, enough.

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