OPED: For Dems, a chance to promote human rights

Tribune News Service

As the nation watches the Democratic National Convention this week, we should recall the history made the last time the Democrats met in Philadelphia.

A sign atop a post to mark a delegation area is seen in the convention hall before the start of the 2016 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, Saturday, July 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In July 1948, a group of liberal activists engineered the adoption of the Democrats' first strong civil rights plank. This was an important milestone in the long and ongoing struggle for civil rights and, in many respects, the beginning of the modern Democratic Party.

After World War II, civil rights emerged as an important national issue. President Harry Truman appointed a committee on civil rights in 1946. Truman embraced the committee's recommendations in his 1948 message to Congress.

Party leaders, however, opposed the inclusion of these recommendations in the party platform, mostly out of fear of defection of Southern states as Republicans had won control of the House and Senate in the 1946 midterm elections.

As a result, the civil rights plank was shouted down in committee. A group of liberals, though, led by the Americans for Democratic Action and hosted by the group's local chapter, persisted with a proposal from the floor of the convention even though Democratic leadership had attempted to deny liberals access to the convention.

The group sought a strong sponsor for the civil rights plank and focused its efforts on ADA co-founder and vice chairman, Hubert Humphrey, at the time the popular 37-year-old mayor of Minneapolis and candidate for U.S. Senate.

The "Happy Warrior," was a reluctant warrior at first but agreed to make the case for the civil rights plank to the convention floor.

With hardly any sleep, Humphrey wrote a speech, then rose to deliver one of the great convention speeches of all time. The plank declared its belief "that racial and religious minorities must have the right to live, the right to work, the right to vote, the full and equal protection of the laws, on a basis of equality with all citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution."

Humphrey closed his speech with words that confirmed his reputation as an orator: "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."

President Truman seized the moment by issuing executive orders desegregating the military and providing equal opportunity in federal employment.

The Truman campaign used the civil rights plank to mobilize voters and win upset victories in Ohio and Illinois, presaging the crucial role of minority voters to the modern Democratic Party. The result was one of the most famous come-from-behind election victories in U.S. history.

Once again, our nation is plagued by tensions inflamed by violence and discrimination against African-Americans, immigrants, religious minorities and LGBT Americans. To make matters worse, we have a presidential candidate who seems determined to divide our nation along these lines with bigoted rhetoric.

During this year's Democratic National Convention, Americans for Democratic Action will be celebrating the historic adoption of the first Democratic civil rights plank as well as contemplating action to remedy the ongoing struggle for civil rights in America.

We are excited about the Democratic Party adopting what is likely the most progressive platform on a wide range of issues that our nation needs to address and having this again be a defining moment for the future of human and civil rights.

It's beyond time to stop making excuses for hate. It's beyond time to correct inequities plaguing our nation. Indeed, it's time to once again walk into the "bright sunshine of human rights."

— Bruce Caswell, a Philadelphia native, is a national board member of Americans for Democratic Action and is a professor emeritus of political science at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.