by Stan Cutler
This year, writer Stan Cutler has been writing about the circumstances of the Democratic National Convention, which was held in Philadelphia in the summer of 1948. The DNC will return to Philadelphia for its convention next year.
I wonder whether the Democrats would have accomplished as much on July 14, 1948 if their conditions had been at all comfortable. Imagine being in a Philadelphia auditorium with 14 or 15 thousand people during a heat wave in July without air conditioning.
An array of bright lights illuminate the podium for the television and newsreel cameras, like stoves in the front of the hall. The auditorium’s cooling and ventilation consists of a system of roof fans blowing over water. During the convention, the system moistens the atmosphere, already overheated by the funk radiating from the mass of sweating people. The atmosphere inside the packed hall climbs near, perhaps exceeds, 100 degrees Fahrenheit and approaches 100% relative humidity.
As awful as it is to be there, you cannot leave. If you are one of the 1,234 delegates, you have a historic role to play, so you must endure the discomfort. On July 14, the third day of the convention, the party is transforming. The southern states force a vote on party platform language declaring that law enforcement is a state prerogative with which the federal government may not interfere. The southern states ask the Democratic Party to endorse their right to deny African Americans their civil rights.
The party rejects them – 925 delegate votes against the south’s 309. After the tally is announced, 35 southern delegates walk out of the convention. The Democratic Party and the throng of spectators stay inside the auditorium another 10 miserable hours to nominate Harry Truman and hear his acceptance speech at 1:55 a.m. on July 15. If Truman had lost on the first ballot, the convention might have lasted for many more miserable days. In 1924, at a New York City convention, the Democratic Party toiled through 103 roll calls before nominating John W. Davis to run against Coolidge.
Even at the time, people were struck by a coincidence – the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Civil Rights that was inserted into the platform instead of the states’ rights plank – were written in Philadelphia during oppressive heat waves.
This is the language that drove the Southerners out of the Party, “Racial and religious minorities must have the right to live, the right to work, the right to vote, the full and equal protection of the laws, on a basis of equality with all citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution. We highly commend President Harry S. Truman for his courageous stand on the issue of civil rights. We call upon the Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental American Principles: (1) the right of full and equal political participation; (2) the right to equal opportunity of employment; (3) the right of security of person; (4) and the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation.”
Truman was facing stiff challenges from powerful factions on his right and left. The most popular candidate in the hall seemed to be “Anybody But Truman.” But the Democrats voted for Truman on the first ballot, giving him 947½ votes out of the 1,234, 330 more than he needed.
In fact, his first-ballot victory had little to do with the temperature inside the hall. Two other factors, civil rights and television, influenced Truman’s tactical decisions on that extraordinary day.
The original language of the civil rights plank in the platform omitted any reference to the Constitution. Truman’s operatives on the platform committee had written milder language with the hope of persuading the south to remain loyal to the party. But, when the south proved their disloyalty by attempting to remove the compromise and replacing it with a declaration of states’ rights instead, Truman responded by personally endorsing stronger, Constitutionally-based language. By so doing, he convinced the dominant, liberal faction of the party not to enter a name in nomination. Had Truman not done so, Hubert Humphrey would have competed against him, and Truman would not have obtained a first ballot majority.
Why didn’t the Democrats wait until the 15th to nominate a presidential candidate? The roll call votes on the party platform concluded at around 5 p.m. on the 14th. Certainly, the chairman could have called it a day at that point. Given the conditions, the convention would have welcomed a recess.
Part of the answer is television. The chairman, aware that he was managing the first televised Democratic Convention, wanted the nomination to take place during prime time.
Truman watched the proceedings on a television in a hotel suite, a mile and half from the auditorium. He sent word to Rayburn not to adjourn. He wanted to address the convention during the current session, and prime time be damned. He knew his people – many of them would forsake the ritual of an acceptance speech for the chance to escape the hall and go home as soon as the nomination was over.
In political terms, it had already been a hell of a long day. The delegates were exhausted, perhaps wrung out by the roll calls and the rhetoric, tired of the deals and the rumors. These factors made it imperative that he appear to raise morale before the convention adjourned.
He sent word to Rayburn that the he was on his way, to keep the convention in session so that he could deliver a speech that would convince the Democratic Party that, he was the man to lead them to a November victory.