Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

President Truman and  Civil Rights

What factors motivated President Truman in his decisions to form a Civil Rights Commission in 1946 and to desegregate the Armed Forces in 1948?

   African Americans have fought in every conflict in American history.  Almost always, however, they were segregated into their own units.  The 54th Massachusetts in the Civil War, The Buffalo Soldiers of the plains, and the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II are examples of how these men fought with courage and valor in these units.

   It di however limit their ability to be promoted, to have equal treatment, and to be recognized for their contribution.  After World War II, African Americans began to demand that they be given life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in equal portions as white Americans as the Constitution stipulated.

   They could not have been encouraged that the President of the United States, Harry Truman, was known to have the prejudices of his community when it came to views of race.  He used racial slurs, told racist jokes, opposed sit-ins and intermarriage and called Dr. Martin Luther King a troublemaker.

     Whether or not he would act as President as he felt in private was not the question.  It was assumed he would follow the lead of most other politicians of that time period and not act sympathetically toward equal treatment for African Americans.

  These documents trace  what some may call the beginning of the Civil Rights movement through the calling of a Civil Right Commission to the order to desegregate  the armed forces.  You will be asked to read, understand and work with these documents to answer the burning question: What factors motivated President Truman in his decisions to form a Civil Rights Commission in 1946 and to desegregate the Armed Forces in 1948?

    Before you begin, make some predictions about what you think will happen.

1)   How do you think black and white servicemen reacted to the initial order to desegregate?

2)  What role do you think President Truman's own views of race and humanity played in the his decisions?

Understanding and Analyzing Activities:
  • Letter from R. R. Wright, July 18, 1946

  •     A former Major in the United States Army writes to President Truman about     the attack upon a returning veteran, Issac Woodard by white policemen.
  • Letter to Attorney General Tom Clark  - September 20, 1946

  •      President Truman refers to the Issac Woodard incident and asks for a commission to be formed.
  • Freedom From Fear - December 5, 1946

  •      An executive order forming a civil right commission to investigate ways to protect all Americans.
  • To Secure These Rights

  •     The four freedoms listed by the President's Commission on Civil Rights.
  • Letter from A. Philip Randolph - June 29, 1948

  •       Labor Union leader and Civil Right activists threatens a boycott of segregated armed forces.
  •  Executive Order 9981 - July 26, 1948

  •        President Truman issues an executive order to end segregation in the armed forces.