by Stan Cutler
On rare occasions, the stars are aligned in such a way that a single speech marks a significant historical moment. It happened in Philadelphia in 1948 at the Democratic Party’s nominating convention.
A speech on civil rights delivered by Hubert Humphrey, the Mayor of Minneapolis and a Senatorial candidate, marked the establishment of the Democratic Party as we know it today. When he took the podium, a tectonic fissure was splitting the party.
The Southern states, who’d dominated the party’s domestic policy for 120 years, were leaving. They’d had enough. The delegates, from the Northeastern states were willing to let them go. They’d had enough. Their differences were irreconcilable.
The debate got started around 1 p.m on July 14, down at the big art deco auditorium that used to stand on Civic Center Boulevard. It was the third day of the convention. The agenda called for the nomination process to elect the presidential candidate to begin later in the afternoon, hopefully to conclude with one ballot, before people on the East Coast went to bed.
Outside, the temperature was in the mid-80s. Inside, it was hot, sweaty, smoky, and un-air-conditioned. There were about 15,000 people in the hall, tens of millions listening on their radios, and several hundred thousand TV viewers.
Before the nomination process could begin, the party platform had to be approved by a simple majority of the 1,234 delegates – 617.5 votes. On that day, two opposing amendments to the platform were offered. A liberal amendment, supported by Humphrey, asserted that the Constitution guarantees the same civil rights and legal protections to every American, regardless of race, creed, or religion. It congratulated Truman for espousing civil rights and promised that, once re-elected, he would wage a legal war to achieve racial equality.
The Southerners’ amendment declared that the rights of state governments “to regulate and control local affairs and act in the exercise of police power” are protected from federal government interference under the limitations placed on it by the Tenth Amendment. As substitutes for the same plank, only one of the amendments could pass.
In 1948, according to Gallup polls, a clear majority of Americans did not like the idea of black equality. Voting their “conscience,” many delegates would reflect the attitudes of their white constituents.
Also, Truman was seen by many of the delegates as a poor candidate with no chance of winning in November; some delegates would vote against the civil rights amendment to show their lack of support for Truman. And all of the delegates were concerned that a civil rights election campaign, along with the loss of Southern electoral votes, would doom the party in November.
There were seven speakers for the States Rights Amendment and five for Civil Rights. Humphrey’s speech lasted 9 minutes and 51 seconds (The voice recording and transcription are on YouTube.) He delivered a speech that made the case for civil rights in a way that sent the liberals into ecstasy. They crowded the aisles, dancing, cheering. They threw confetti and hugged each other.
It was the moment when the Democratic Party coalesced around a single idea, the moral imperative of civil rights for every American. It has been the bedrock of its creed ever since. When the party returns to Philadelphia in 2016, if we don’t hear clarion calls for repeal of federal drug laws, gender equality, and protection from police brutality, it will mean that the Democratic Party has lost its soul.
The South’s States Rights amendment was voted on first. It lost badly, getting only 309 votes, less than a quarter of the total. Immediately thereafter, the vote on the Civil Rights Amendment was taken. After a contentious roll call, it passed by only 35 votes – 651.5 for, 582.5 against. It is not too much to believe that Humphrey’s speech was decisive.
After a brief recess, the alphabetical roll call to enter names into nomination for president began with Alabama. Its chairman was granted the right to speak “on a matter of personal privilege.” He said, “we cannot with honor further participate in the proceedings of this convention … The delegation of Mississippi (will) join in this walk-out … And we bid you goodbye.”
It took another 20 years, until the 1968 election of Republican Richard Nixon, running against Humphrey, for the rift between the South and the rest of the Democratic Party to reach its inevitable conclusion. What had once been the reliably Democratic South has been reliably Republican ever since.
If you were to color code a map of the votes on the Civil Rights Amendment, you would see a familiar pattern of red states and blue states, a pattern that hasn’t changed much since 1948.