Henry Wallace’s Campaign Foreshadowed the Movement as Well as the Rainbow
By Patricia Sullivan
Vol. 10, No. 5, 1988, pp. 11, 16-17
Late in the summer of 1948, presidential candidate Henry Wallace embarked on a week-long tour through the Deep South. For a brief time, he was able to break through much of the Cold war hysteria that clouded the Progressive Party, and focus public attention on a fundamental issue and purpose of his third party campaign. Wallace’s Southern strategy grew out of President Roosevelt’s earlier efforts to address the South as the nation’s “number one economic problem.”
In order to carry New Deal reforms forward, Wallace embraced the emerging civil rights struggle as essential to realizing the economic and political potential of the region, and the nation. He attacked segregation from North Carolina to Mississippi, and encouraged black Southerners in their burgeoning effort to dismantle the structure of white supremacy. Henry Wallace’s Southern campaign was about hope and inclusion, and a notable chapter in the politics of progressive reform. It is also a reminder that the roots of the civil rights movement go deeper than the 1950s and 1960s.
The Progressive Party was part of the ferment, sparked by the New Deal, which would transform twentieth century Southern politics. The New Deal had “aroused the political interests and political hopes of classes of people left unmoved by traditional Southern politics,” wrote V.O. Key. Franklin Roosevelt’s unsuccessful attempt to purge Southern Conservatives from office encouraged grassroots efforts to mobilize the New Deal’s constituency in the South–particularly blacks, and working class whites–a constituency that was largely disfranchised. During the 1940s Southern New Dealers joined with the NAACP and other organizations in a campaign to eliminate disfranchisement laws enacted at the turn of the century. At the same time, black civil rights activists, labor organizers and Southern progressives supported local voter registration efforts throughout the South.
Following the Supreme Court’s 1944 decision outlawing the white primary, black voter registration in the South increased dramatically. When South Carolina resisted the Court’s ruling, black activists John McCray and Osceola McKaine organized a separate party, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). In 1944, twenty years before the well-known challenge of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, the PDP took a delegation to the Democratic National Convention to contest the seating of the all-white delegation. Osceola McKaine ran for the Senate on the PDP ticket that November to stimulate black political participation in the Palmetto State. The number of registered black voters in South Carolina increased during the 1940s from 3,500 to 50,000.
In tandem with the early voting rights movement, civil rights organizations worked with local communities in preparing for a frontal assault on the segregation system. As early as the mid 1930s, the NAACP’s Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall joined with black lawyers around the South and initiated the legal challenge to racial discrimination in education. Their efforts would culminate with the 1954 Brown decision. In 1947, CORE staged the first “Freedom Ride” through the upper South following the Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in interstate transportation.
Building on these earlier efforts, the Progressive Party’s Southern campaign provided another means for challenging the segregation system, while stimulating political interest and participation. Southerners who organized for Henry Wallace in the South had been active in the voting rights movement of the 1940a They included: Louis Burnham of the Southern Negro Youth Conference; Palmer Weber, of the CIO Political Action Committee and member of the executive Board of the NAACP; Virginia Durr, of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax; and Clark Foreman, president of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare.
Other supporters linked the ’48 campaign with the movement of the 1950s and 1960s: Dr. Sam Williams, who was Martin Luther King’s philosophy teacher at Morehouse in 1948 and later national chairman of CORE; Rev. and Mrs. Maynard Jackson Sr., parents of Atlanta’s first black mayor; Daisy Bates, who led the effort to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock; and Randolph Blackwell, then a student at North Carolina A T College who became a top aide in the South to Martin Luther King Jr.
Tactics Previewed the Movement
Progressive Party organizers used tactics that previewed the sixties movement. Northern student volunteers came South in the summer of 1948 to help with voter registration and the petition drive to get Wallace on the ballot. Black candidates ran for office on the Progressive party ticket throughout the region. And participants and supporters routinely challenged the segregation system, a practice that drew national attention when the former vice president came South late in the summer of 1948.
The issue of race overshadowed the candidate’s appeal for an expansion of the New Deal programs and increased federal aid to the poorest region in the nation. Wallace attacked segregation and the one-party system as endemic to the South’s economic problems. He refused to address segregated audiences, and would not patronize hotels or restaurants which excluded blacks. Several near riots and a stabbing marked Wallace’s first full day of campaigning in North Carolina, and captured national headlines. Pete Seeger, the young balladeer of the Progressive Party campaign, recalled that Wallace’s advisors were anxious to cancel the rest of the tour. But Wallace refused to concede to terror and lawlessness. They continued on, deeper into Dixie.
The entourage of campaign workers and reporters traveled alternately by bus, train, and motorcade, taking most of their meals picnic style along the highway. “An integrated group, traveling through the South in 1948…We were sitting targets expecting to be blown up at any minute,” recalled a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American. A Life reporter sported a large “I’m for Thurmond” button in a feeble effort to distinguish himself from the group.
Birmingham, Alabama, previewed the violence and police terror that would distinguish that city fifteen years later. Police Commissioner Bull Connor, “a Horatius at the bridge of Alabama’s states rights,” was prepared for a showdown. A hostile mob of several thousand greeted Wallace’s motorcade armed with pipes and baseball bats. Connor used a rope to segregate supporters waiting for Wallace on the courthouse lawn. A campaign worker read a brief statement, noting Wallace would maintain his policy of not addressing segregated audiences. Police, armed with tear gas, stood by as a jeering crowd surrounded Wallace’s car, and began to rock it, hollering “kill Wallace.” The police finally cleared a path for the motorcade. Palmer Weber, who had instructed everyone to keep their windows closed and not leave the cars, said they could have been killed in Alabama. Those reporters who had viewed the Wallace campaign in the South as a cynical effort to stir up trouble in the South in order to gain votes in the North began to see it differently. “They were terrorized,” Weber recalled. “They knew they had been on the edge of hell. They realized if we wanted to create a riot we could have done it very easily. It was very educational for these reporters,” he said with
a trace of sarcasm, “very educational.”
Wallace went on to Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee and addressed mostly peaceful gatherings on the steps of local court houses, in black churches, and in a baseball park. He reached back to the South’s Populist tradition when he reminded audiences that “greedy men, the Big Mules…have ruled the South for generations and kept millions of common people in economic poverty and political bondage. They have fought trade unions bitterly. They have kept wages in the South below those in the North….Their profits are multiplied by keeping people divided–section against section, race against race, farmers against workers.”
But Wallace reached beyond the economic arguments of Southern populism. Race, he said, was the major obstacle to the South’s economic and political development. He also appealed to the religious tradition of the region, explaining that segregation was more that an economic liability. “Social injustice is sin…segregation is sin,” Wallace said, a violation of “the fundamental Christian and democratic principles in our civilization.” Finally, he warned that, in the postwar world, segregation had serious implications for national security. In a press conference towards the end of the tour, Wallace told reporters that segregation was the nation’s number one problem, threatening America’s position of leadership in a world where the majority of the population were people of color.
James Wechsler of The New York Post reported that Wallace “shattered a wide variety of political precedents during his tour.” He faithfully boycotted Southern restaurants and hotels, sleeping alternately in pullman cars and private homes. He addressed the first unsegregated public meeting in Memphis since Reconstruction. He was the first presidential candidate to address unsegregated meetings in the South. President Truman cancelled his tentative plans to tour the region that fall, and no future presidential candidate would ever address a segregated audience in the South again. Wechsler praised Wallace for “saying a good many things that needed to be said on Southern property, and establishing in at least a dozen…places that unsegregated meetings could be held without a civil war.” A founder of the ADA who had viewed Wallace’s campaign as little more than a communist front, James Wechsler was shaken by the Southern tour. He later recalled, “in that atmosphere, the ideological distinctions I talked about didn’t seem to loom as large. In the South it was a campaign for civil rights.”
Wallace’s civil rights effort is vaguely remembered as a political challenge which forced a reluctant President Truman to address the issue. Beyond the desegregation of the armed forces, however, little action followed at the national level. The primary significance of Wallace’s Southern campaign was twofold. In the shadow of the Cold War, he attempted to educate America about the real and present danger to its democratic system, which was home grown. And, more importantly, he participated in the movement already underway to smash Jim Crow and democratize Southern politics. Palmer Weber reported to Thurgood Marshall, “the various Negro communities were electrified and tremendously heartened to see one white man with guts willing to take it standing up….By and large I find the Negro leadership fighting for the ballot as never before. The only limitation is full-time workers.” Wallace and his supporters engaged and endorsed those Southerners who would carry the struggle forward–at the ballot box, in the courts, and in the streets.
Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign is a measure of how far the country has traveled since Henry Wallace headed South forty years ago. Born of the struggle that finally transformed the South, Jackson is carrying the progressive movement forward. By remembering the early organizing efforts of the 1940s, we can better understand the rich texture of reform politics in America, and the broad significance of the civil rights movement. And, by remembering, honor those civil rights pioneers for, in Palmer Weber’s words, “not faltering on the simple principle of human rights.” Reflecting on the 1948 campaign as the McCarthy decade got underway, he wrote Wallace, “we owe it to ourselves to hold that torch firmly and high regardless of the consequences because that is the way forward. There is more than one way to measure political success.”
Patricia Sullivan is the assistant director of the Center for the Study of Civil Rights at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, Charlottesville, Virginia.