Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Truman and Civil Rights
Jared Werges
American History
Time Frame:
2 periods (50 min. each)
Civil Rights

Grade Levels:

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • After a brief discussion of Truman’s evolving views on race and civil rights, students will predict why Truman decided to desegregate the military.  Students will then work in groups to analyze relevant primary documents to seek clarification for Truman’s decision.  Finally, each student will use evidence from the documents to write an essay arguing why Truman decided to desegregate the military.

  • Truman’s decision to desegregate the military with Executive Order 9981 is a pivotal and often overlooked step in the struggle for civil rights.  Students need to not only understand the Executive Order, but also Truman’s willingness to do the right thing in the face of many potential obstacles, including his own background and contemporary political considerations.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

Show Me Standards

  • 2. Continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States, and the world
  • 3. Principles and processes of governance systems
  • 6. Relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • Taylor, Jon.  Freedom To Serve: Truman, Civil Rights, and Executive Order 9981. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:


  • Document 1: Truman’s early views on race in letter to Bess Wallace in 1911 (last half of the fourth paragraph):



  • Document 2: Truman’s “brotherhood of man” speech in Sedalia, MO (6/15/40).  See segments of the speech from pages 48 and 49 in Taylor, Jon.  Freedom To Serve: Truman, Civil Rights, and Executive Order 9981. New York: Routledge, 2013.  Available at the following link:



  • Document 3: Truman’s statement on Executive Order 9808 (12/5/46):



  • Document 4: Truman’s letter to his sister (third paragraph) (6/28/47):



  • Document 5: Truman’s speech in Harlem (paragraphs 9-29) (10/11/52):



  • Document 6: Truman’s comments on civil rights from Decision: the Conflicts of Harry S. Truman (early 1960s).  See segments of the comments from pages 127 and 128 in Taylor, Jon.  Freedom To Serve: Truman, Civil Rights, and Executive Order 9981. New York: Routledge, 2013.  Available at the following link:


Full description of activity or assignment.
  • Introduce Truman’s desegregation of the military by asking students which events and people they associate with the civil rights movement.  Briefly discuss.  It is unlikely that students will mention desegregation of the military and/or Harry Truman. 
  • Briefly discuss the importance of Truman’s decision to desegregate the military.  Share the following quote from Colin Powell: “The military was the only institution in all of America—because of Harry Truman—where a young black kid, now twenty-one years old, could dream the dream he dared not think about at age eleven. It was the one place where the only thing that counted was courage, where the color of your guts and the color of your blood was more important than the color of your skin.”  Ask students why it would seem unlikely for Truman to be the author of such an important development in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans.
  • Students should take notes during a brief PowerPoint lecture on Truman and civil rights.
  • After the lecture students will work in groups of three to create a pie chart that illustrates Truman’s motivation for desegregating the military (see PowerPoint).  They will then write a brief explanation of their chart.
  • In their groups students will then analyze the six documents listed above.  While examining the documents, students should fill out document analysis worksheets for each document.  Worksheets can be found at http://www.trumanlibrary.org/psource.htm.  Students need to pay attention to Truman’s views on race and civil rights.
  • Students individually will write an essay of at least three paragraphs in which they present an argument for Truman’s motivation for desegregating the military.  They need to refer specifically to the primary documents in their argument.



Powerpoint presentation on Truman and Civil Rights:




Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:

Students’ essays will be assessed according to the following criteria:


A strong, clear, and well-developed argument is present throughout                 (10 points)

Strong support for argument with outstanding analysis of primary documents (10 points)

Intelligent application of primary documents                                                            (10 points)

Effective use of many documents and incorporation of prior knowledge                       (10 points)

Contains only minor errors, is clearly organized and exceptionally well-written (10 points)


                                                                                                                                          Total     /50 points