Commemoration of 1948 Civil Rights Plank with Congressman John Lewis

This summer will mark the first time that the Democratic Party has held its convention in Philadelphia since 1948. ADA is organizing an event to commemorate the adoption of a strong civil rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. Many consider this event the birth of the modern (progressive) Democratic Party.

At the 1948 convention, ADA orchestrated the adoption of the civil rights plank as a minority report to the party platform on the final day of the convention. The Southern delegations strongly opposed the civil rights plank. Alabama and Mississippi delegates walked out when it was adopted. Two weeks after the convention President Harry Truman, whose civil right program was the basis of the civil rights plank, issued executive orders desegregating the military and providing equal opportunity in federal employment. Southern Democrats responded by replacing Truman on the ballot with Governor Strom Thurmond of the States Rights Democratic Party. These “Dixiecrats" carried four states and 39 electoral votes. Nonetheless Truman won the four-way election with 49.55% of the popular vote and 303 electoral votes. The Dixiecrats continued to oppose and block civil rights in Congress through the 1960s.

John Lewis (far right) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (center) marching in 1965.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (center) and John Lewis (far right) marching in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Many Democrats and liberals, including Truman supporters, were concerned a strong position on civil rights endangered the Democratic Party’s chances of election in the fall. Republicans had won control of the House and Senate in the 1946 mid-term election.

Hubert H. Humphrey addressing the Democratic National Convention in 1948.

Hubert H. Humphrey addressing the Democratic National Convention in 1948.

ADA founding member, Hubert H. Humphrey, at the time the 37-year old Mayor of Minneapolis and candidate for U. S. Senate, was convinced by ADA leaders to make the case for the civil rights plank. Humphrey delivered one of the great convention speeches of all time in support of the plank that affirmed his reputation as a great orator. Some of his most powerful words (full text here, audio recording here):

“My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."

ADA, only a year and a half old at the time, included such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Reinhold Niebuhr. The Philadelphia Chapter of ADA (now the Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter) played a central role in hosting the ADA efforts at the convention. After the late night adoption of the civil rights plank and the close of the convention in Blue Law Pennsylvania, Humphrey and the other ADAers retreated to the North Philadelphia home of one of the ADA leaders to celebrate.

The divisions in the Democratic coalition revealed by the fight over the 1948 civil rights persisted. In the 1960 election, some states from the historically Solid South withheld electoral votes from John Kennedy. The Dixiecrats delayed the passage of the full Civil Rights Act until 1964 and the Voting Rights Act until 1965. The Deep South states broke from the Democratic coalition again to vote for Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and independent George Wallace in 1968. Southern states have generally voted Republican since.

ADA National and ADA Southeastern Pennsylvania are planning an event to highlight this historical event, the first adoption of a strong civil rights plank by the Democratic Party, and the role that ADA played. Congressman John Lewis, past President of ADA, will be the featured speaker. Congressman Lewis will speak to the current status of civil rights in the U.S. ADA will coordinate this event with the Democratic National Convention and with civil rights organizations.

Congressman John Lewis