Harrying Harry

Like any president, Harry Truman took a few licks from voters during his years in office, often on the subject of civil rights, where he caught it from every direction. Many white southerners hated him because—as I explore in-depth in my account of the Willie McGee story—he actually did something about the fundamental rights due to African-Americans, getting behind a push for legislation on then-controversial measures such as a federal anti-lynching law and abolition of the poll tax. (These failed, but he tried, and of course he did successfully desegregate the armed forces.) Communists weren’t especially thrilled with him, either, arguing that the federal government singled them out for abuse during the early years of the Cold War.

One of my most pleasant days of research while working on The Eyes of Willie McGee took place at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, where they make it very easy to find what you’re looking for in the vast record related to Truman’s presidency. Among the artifacts I came across was a letter sent by an African-American woman from Kansas City on April 13, 1945, the day after FDR’s death put Truman in the Oval Office. Written by Mrs. Lora J. Haynes and addressed to FDR aid Stephen Early, it was basically a demand for intervention, because Haynes was convinced Truman was a hopeless racist.

“I am so hurt, I can hardly set hear a rite,” she said, “but I am speaking for 13 million negros . . . The thing I am riteing you for, is will you try to make clear to Mr. Truman what the negroes want and that is first class citizen ship. We know Mr. Roosevelt would have give us that.” As Haynes went on to indicate, she put more hope in FDR’s former Vice President, Henry Wallace, who would run against Truman from the left in the historic election of 1948. That same year, he faced a revolt on the right (from the Dixiecrats) and a formidable Republican opponent in Thomas Dewey. It’s a miracle he won.

When the McGee case reached its climax in the the early months of 1951, Truman heard a lot about it, from people all over the U.S. and the world who demanded that he step in and pardon McGee. He had no intention of doing so—the support McGee got from the Communist Party was, by itself, enough to make that a certainty. In this letter, he gets scorched by woman in Richmond, California, who had supported him in 1948.

Truman Letter


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