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People with racist views can change: Harry Truman did so

President Truman integrated the military in 1948

… racism is generally thought to be learned behavior, but people may evolve

Certain aspects of life reflect learned behavior. Racism is one of those actions that is not innate, something that is learned from others in life.

Or is it?

Some psychologists believe that racism is the result of learned behavior: We learn it from others we see and hear.

Others say that is can actually have a genetic basis, though the research on that is scant.

Others think that it can be a combination of the two.

However, what is clear is that people with racist views can change. A prime example is a former president of the United States who was an avowed racist but later changed and became a champion of equal rights.

That man is Harry S. Truman, an “accidental president” who is now ranked among the top six or seven in historical rankings of the greatest.

Here is his story:

Repost: People with racist pasts can change: Prime example, Harry S. Truman

To continue with my articles about racism and where it originates, this story is one that indicates that some adults with racist childhoods can change.

Harry S. Truman went from a racist family of Confederate sympathizers as a child and young adult to integrating the U.S. Armed Forces as president in 1948. His letter to wife Bess showed how prejudiced he was in 1911, thirty-four years before he became president.

Black soldiers with white officers in World War II

… integration was not popular at first, but now blacks are about half of the U.S. military

I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a n—– or a Chinaman. Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a n—– from mud, and then threw what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.

Letter from Harry Truman to future wife, Bess Wallace, in 1911

During World War II, almost a million black men served in the U.S. military, but they had to be active in units that were not integrated. That was the way that the country was at that time, despite the fact that slavery ended after the Civil War when blacks were nominally given voting rights at that time.

Blacks had served in the military since the days of the revolution, so they had made an impact on a number of wars, but never with white military personnel.

That started to end in 1948 when a president who had a racist past because of parents who loved the Confederacy signed Executive Order 9981, which officially ordered the military to integrate its units.

There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.

“On this day in 1948, President Truman ordered the desegregation

of the services,” Connecting, July 26, 2019

It took a few years for that to take place, but it happened, and how that occurred under a man with Truman’s background is a story in itself.

The move by Truman was resisted by many people in the U.S.,

Truman would become “the first American President to proclaim the equality of blacks,” according to the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo.

The orders show just how quickly Truman evolved on race issues, against a wave of political resistance from members of Congress from the South. His transformation would come as a result of political pressure from black voters — who had voted Republican until Roosevelt — and civil rights activists urging the president to address the rise in violence against black people.

The timing has particular significance.

“He does this in the Summer of 1948, just weeks before launching his reelection campaign,” said Kurt Graham, director of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. “Anybody today would lie low and ride it, get through the election and then do what they wanted to do. But Truman did the right thing even if it would cost him.”

DeNeen L. Brown, “How Harry S. Truman went from being a racist to

desegregating the military,” Washington Post, July 26, 2018

Southerners were outraged

Truman had spent the better part of two terms in the United States Senate serving Missouri, and he carried with him his family legacy of dislike of blacks. Thus, when he became president when Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, many in the southern part of the U.S. were thrilled. It did not turn out that way,

When Truman became president in April 1945 after Roosevelt’s death, Southern members of Congress were delighted, believing they had a president sympathetic to segregationists.

“On the funeral train carrying FDR’s body, the Democratic senator from South Carolina Burnet Maybank assured a Southern friend, ‘Everything’s going to be all right — the new President knows how to handle the n—–s,’” William E. Leuchtenburg wrote in “The Conversion of Harry Truman,” for American Heritage magazine.

But Truman would soon defy the Southerners in his party.

DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post, July 26, 2018

Leuchtenburg is a professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, now 97 years old. He pointed out that Truman actually had divided loyalties regarding the Civil War,

Harry Truman approached national politics with divided memories and divergent loyalties. He was reared in a border-state county as Southern in its sympathies as any Mississippi Delta town and by a family that shared Mississippi’s racial outlook and held dear the hallowed symbol of the Stars and Bars.

Yet Truman also harbored a powerful nationalist strain. He never regretted that the Civil War had ended in a Union victory, and he came to view Lincoln as a man of heroic stature. Perhaps nothing revealed so well the conflicting tugs on him as a letter he wrote in 1941 to his daughter, Margaret: “Yesterday I drove over the route that the last of the Confederate army followed before the surrender. I thought of the heartache of one of the world’s great men on the occasion of that surrender. I am not sorry he did surrender, but I feel as your old country grandmother has expressed it—‘What a pity a white man like Lee had to surrender to old Grant.’”

William E. Leuchtenburg, “The Conversion of Harry Truman,”

American Heritage magazine, November 1991

Perhaps that was what motivated Truman to sign that executive order, but it has to be viewed against his family’s racist past.

Racist family

Leuchtenburg outlined how Truman learned to be a racist,

Truman’s direct ancestors identified strongly with the slave South. All four of his grandparents were born in Kentucky, and when they migrated to Missouri in the 1840s, they brought their slaves with them. Truman’s grandparents received slaves as a wedding present, and in Missouri one of his grandfathers owned some two dozen slaves on his five-thousand-acre plantation. His parents, Truman recalled, were “a violently unreconstructed southern family” and “Lincoln haters” …

Truman literally learned at his mother’s knee to share the South’s view of the War Between the States. He also acquired an abiding belief in white supremacy.

William E. Leuchtenburg, American Heritage magazine, November 1991

The family had good reason to dislike the Union,

As a girl of eleven Truman’s mother, Martha, trudged through the dust with her mother and five other children behind an oxcart carrying all that was left of a once-proud holding. After the Trumans and their neighbors had been evicted, Union forces set the countryside ablaze for miles. In later years Martha Truman would have no compunction about saying, “I thought it was a good thing that Lincoln was shot.”

The women in his family sought to imbue Truman with an intense dislike of the Union cause and its leaders. When in 1905 the twenty-one-year-old Truman, proud of his splendid new National Guard uniform, called on his grandmother, she gave him a onceover, then told him sternly, “Harry, this is the first time since 1863 that a blue uniform has been in this house. Don’t bring it here again.”

William E. Leuchtenburg, American Heritage magazine, November 1991

How he changed

In a letter to one of his friends in Kansas City, who asked him to hold off giving equal rights to blacks, Truman said,

Truman wrote a stern and brief reply on Aug. 18, 1948, “The main difficulty with the South is they are living eighty years behind the times and the sooner they come out of it the better it will be for the country and themselves. I am not asking for social equality, because no such thing exists, but I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings and, as long as I stay here, I am going to continue that fight.”

Truman referred to a list of lynchings, including an attack on July 25, 1946, when two black veterans and their wives were pulled from a car near Monroe, Ga., and executed by a white mob.

“When the mob gangs can take four people out and shoot them in the back, and everybody in the country is acquainted with who did the shooting and nothing is done about it, that country is in pretty bad fix from a law enforcement standpoint.

Deneen L. Brown, Washington Post, July 26, 2018

Truman said that publicly in 1947, a year before he issued the order,

“I’ve got to make a speech to the Society [sic] for the Advancement of Colored People tomorrow,” Truman wrote. “Mamma won’t like what I say because I wind up by quoting old Abe. But I believe what I say and I’m hopeful we may implement it.”

On June 29, 1947, Truman stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and addressed the NAACP. A crowd of more than 3,000 gathered along the Reflecting Pool.

“As Americans,” Truman said, “we believe that every man should be free to live his life as he wishes. He should be limited only by his responsibility to his fellow countrymen. If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American’s achievement should be his ability, his industry and his character.”

Truman emphasized in the speech: “When I say all Americans, I mean all Americans.”

Deneen L. Brown, Washington Post, July 26, 201

Eisenhower opposed the integration of the armed services

One of the major heroes of World War II was Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who eventually succeeded Truman as president in 1952. He did not think that the military was ready to de-segregate,

Eisenhower had told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1948 that segregation was necessary to preserve the Army’s internal stability. Prejudice was a condition of American society, Eisenhower opined, and the Army “is merely one of the mirrors that holds up to our faces the United States of America.” Since society separated the races, he held, it followed that if the Army allowed black and white soldiers to live and socialize together it ran the risk of racial disturbances which could disrupt its vital functions.

Eisenhower added: “I believe that the human race may finally grow up to the point where it [race relations] will not be a problem. [It] will disappear through education, through mutual respect, and so on. But I do believe that if we attempt merely by passing a lot of laws to force someone to like someone else, we are just going to get into trouble.”

Truman Library, Independence, Missouri

However, during the 1950s, after the Brown v. Board of Education to Topeka, Kansas that effectively de-segregated U.S. education, Eisenhower sent federal troops to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.


While racism is something that is taught to children by bigoted adults, Truman’s evolution demonstrates that people can change. From his days as a bigot, he took a courageous stand that split the Democratic Party and was the first move in the split of the racists of the Solid South to the Republican Party, one that took place 20 years later.

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