Harry S Truman and Civil Rights

People with signs calling Truman a champion of human rights.
Civil Rights advocates welcoming Harry S Truman


Given his background, Harry Truman was an unlikely champion of civil rights. Where he grew up—the border state of Missouri—segregation was accepted and largely unquestioned. Both his maternal and paternal grandparents had even owned slaves. Truman’s background notwithstanding, some would say it was Truman who energized the modern civil rights movement, paving the way for future legislative successes of the 1960s.
Independence, Missouri, early 1900s
Independence, Missouri, as it would have appeared in Truman's youth.


Harry Truman’s civil rights views as President surprised many because they seemed to contradict his upbringing. Truman grew up in a former slave state where his small-town, rural surroundings included segregation and subordination for many of its citizens. Black residents lived in a separate section of town, attended a different school, and were prevented from shopping at most stores. In his early letters, the young Harry Truman reflected on his background by frankly admitting prejudices against blacks and Asians. Despite all this, Truman believed in fairness. While serving in Jackson County public office, he saw the plight of African Americans in urban areas.

Truman’s experience as an officer in World War I and post-war business dealings with a Jewish partner also broadened his perspectives. By 1940, as he sought reelection to the US Senate, his viewpoint had matured.
In a speech in Sedalia, Missouri, he said, “I believe in the brotherhood of man, not merely the brotherhood of white men, but the brotherhood of all men before law. I believe in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In giving the Negroes the rights which are theirs, we are only acting in accord with our own ideals of a true democracy.”
Photograph of Issac Woodard after his blinding
After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, President Truman directed the conclusion of World War II. Black veterans returning from the conflict found poor treatment at home. Truman conveyed his alarm, “My stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of army trucks in Mississippi and beaten. Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this.”
Other episodes of violence profoundly moved Truman. In 1946, in Georgia, a mob shot and killed two black men and their wives. No one ever stood trial for the crime. In South Carolina, police pulled Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard from a bus and beat him with night sticks permanently blinding him. These events left a deep impression on the President in a way that no statistics ever could. In late 1946, Harry Truman established “The President’s Committee on Civil Rights.” He instructed its members: “I want our Bill of Rights implemented in fact. We have been trying to do this for 150 years. We’re making progress, but we’re not making progress fast enough.” The committee released its report in 1947. Entitled, “To Secure These Rights,” it documented nationwide discrimination in areas such as education, housing, public accommodations, and voting rights.
President Truman shaking the hand of an African American soldier
On February 2, 1948, President Truman took great political risk by presenting a daring civil rights speech to a joint session of Congress. Based on the committee’s findings, he asked Congress to support a civil rights package that included federal protection against lynching, better protection of the right to vote, and a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. These proposals met strong opposition in Congress and led to the splintering of the Democratic Party right before the 1948 presidential election. Truman won reelection, but little civil rights legislation was enacted during his administration. Instead, Truman turned to his executive powers and issued orders prohibiting discrimination in federal employment and to end segregation in the military. Previously, African Americans in the military served in separate units where they often preformed minor duties and were commanded by white officers. On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the military and establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services. By 1954, the Army had disbanded its last all-black unit.
Harry Truman once wrote, “Discrimination is a disease, we must attack it wherever it appears.” Through his efforts as leader of the world’s most prominent democracy, he sought to improve the opportunity of each American to lead a successful life with basic guarantees of freedom. Some critics believe that he should have done more, while, at the time, others thought he went too far. Considering his upbringing and the climate of the times, Truman demonstrated a great deal of personal growth and political courage while in the White House. Although Truman never entirely overcame all of his personal prejudices, his heartfelt sense of fairness and his deeply-rooted faith in the US Constitution made him the first modern president to champion civil rights, paving the way for the legislative successes of the 1960s.
President Truman speaking outdoors to NAACP in 1947
On June 29, 1947, President Truman addressed
the NAACP’s 38th Annual Convention,the first
president ever to do so. An audience of 10,000
listened from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Truman declared that the federal government
must “take the lead in guaranteeing the civil
rights of all Americans.

Truman Library

On June 29, 1947, President Truman addressed the NAACP’s 38th Annual Convention,the first president ever to do so. An audience of 10,000 listened from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Truman declared that the federal government must “take the lead in guaranteeing the civil rights of all Americans.” Truman Library

Harry S Truman National Historic Site

Last updated: August 18, 2021