Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Truman, Civil Rights and the Desegregation of the Military
John Kerr
American History
Time Frame:
One class period
Civil Rights

Grade Levels:

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • This activity will employ selected primary documents to explore Truman’s views on the race question, from his days of courting Bess Wallace through his post-Presidential years.


To demonstrate that people’s attitudes and perspectives can change over time, presenting historians with the difficult task of trying to explain why they may have changed.

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

UCLA’s National Center for History in the Schools, Historical Thinking Standard 3


  • Hold interpretations of history as tentative, subject to change as new information is uncovered, new voices heard and new interpretations broached.


  • Distinguish between unsupported expressions of opinion and informed hypotheses ground in historical evidence.

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • Letter from Harry to Bess, quoted in “Dear Bess, The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910-1959,” edited by Robert Ferrell, p. 39.
  • Truman’s “Brotherhood of Man” speech, delivered on June 15, 1940 in Sedalia, MO.  Congressional Record, 76th Congress, 3rd Session, 9140, 86, pt. 16:  4546-4547.
  • Remark by Mary Jane Truman during an interview conducted by Jonathan Daniels.  Citied by Robert Ferrell in “Harry S. Truman:  A Life,” University of Missouri Press, 1994, p. 293.
  • Transcript of an interview with George Elsey, conducted in 1969 by Jerry Hess.  (Oral history, Truman Library)
  • Transcript of an interview with Charles Murphy, conducted in 1969-70 by Jerry Hess.  (Oral History, Truman Library)
  • Entry from the Max Lowenthal Dairy, May 18, 1948.  University of Minnesota Archives.
  • Truman speech delivered in Haarlem, NY on October 11, 1952.  Public Papers of the Presidents, Harry S. Truman, 1952-53, pp. 798-800.
  • Outtake from TV series, “Decision:  The Conflicts of Harry S. Truman.”  Cited in “Freedom to Serve,” by Jon E. Taylor, Routledge, 2013, pp. 127-128.

Full description of activity or assignment.

      The teacher will provide a brief background on Harry Truman, emphasizing the era and environment in which he came of age and sketching his political career up to April 12, 1945, when he became President. 

      The teacher will then ask students about what they suppose are his feelings on the “race issue.”  (No doubt most will feel that his is a typically southern point of view.)  The teacher will seem to strengthen this conclusion by passing out and briefly discussing the first document.

      The teacher will then provide the students with document number two—which suggests that Truman felt much differently—and document number three—which is a sharply differing opinion on the subject offered by Truman’s sister.  These will lead into a discussion of how to rectify conflicting evidence and how to assess that evidence.  Why, students will be asked, would Truman change his opinion on the subject; (Some will point to “political expediency;” since he was running for re-election to the Senate.)

      Then the teacher will briefly discuss Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces and pose the question, why?  (Again, since this was in July, 1948, some will suggest political motivation.)  Documents four through six will then be passed out, which deny any political motive and argue that Truman had adopted, by this time, a different perspective.  (Students will no doubt be leery of accepting this idea.)

      Document number seven will then be passed out and briefly discussed, which seems to strengthen the argument that Truman had no political motive(s) in his support for the plight of Black Americans, since he was not running for any political office at the time of this speech (1952).

      Finally, the teacher will briefly discuss the so-called “modern civil rights movement” through the early 1960s, and pose the question, how do you suppose Truman felt about these developments?

After a brief discussion, the teacher will pass out the final document, and students will be asked how they reconcile the opinions expressed by Truman with all that has gone on before.  

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:
  • This will be a non-graded in-class assignment/discussion.