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Beyond Civil Rights

by George B. Tindall on Oct 24, 1997

When President Clinton named historian John Hope Franklin to chair the Advisory Board of the President’s Initiative on Race in June, commentators greeted the news with low expectations. Fifty years ago, the same thing happened.

In 1947, when President Truman named Charles E. “Electric Charlie” Wilson of General Electric to chair his Committee on Civil Rights, few people expected much from his committee or from the President, a lame-duck, border-state Democrat of Confederate lineage facing a Republican Congress. 

Yet the committee’s report, “To Secure These Rights,” released 50 years ago on Oct. 29, was a political bombshell, calling for the “elimination of segregation based on race, color, creed, or national origin, from American life” as well as measures to strengthen voting rights, equal opportunity, and the safety of persons and their rights of expression. With this report, the nation gained a new civil-rights agenda, and despite the defection of both right and left wings of the Democratic party in 1948, Truman staged the greatest upset in the history of presidential elections.

In the train of the report the biggest step taken by Truman was desegregation of the armed forces and the civil service. Other actions, many delayed for years, required acts of Congress and decisions of the Supreme Court, and of course pressure from the NAACP and from Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement. The towering landmarks of the civil rights revolution were the 1954 school segregation decision, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

By the mid-1960s, however, the momentum for further progress was running out. The Civil Rights Movement was following the pattern of all revolutionary movements: rise, climax, decline, reaction. In 1968 President Johnson’s Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders, chaired by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, filed a report that was soon shelved. But its focus on “the central city ghettos where there is . . . a critical gap between the needs of the population and the public resources to deal with them” pointed up a crucial problem which still festers 30 years later.

The chair of the new Advisory Committee, Professor John Hope Franklin, author of the basic textbook, “From Slavery to Freedom,” probably knows more than anybody else about the cycles of black advancement in America — the rise of revolutionary reform once a century, then the relapse into reaction before the century ends. It happened in the 1700s, for instance, when the Spirit of ’76 inspired gradual emancipation in the states north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Congress soon afterward outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory north of the Ohio River. But by 1800 the momentum had faded. 

In the next century abolition triumphed in 1860s when the war for the Union turned into a crusade for emancipation. Then Reconstruction Amendments ended slavery and guaranteed equal protection of the laws and the right to vote. But after the overthrow of the Reconstruction governments in the South, reaction led to white-supremacy campaigns at the century’s end which limited the black vote and made Jim Crow segregation universal in the South. Nor was it uncommon in the North. And each descent into reaction spurred also campaigns of bigotry against aliens and immigrants.

Now the Advisory Board is starting in our own century’s time of reaction and, despite press notices that it is just planning a season of dialogue, the announced goals of the President’s Initiative include an intention “to find, develop, and implement solutions” in a comprehensive variety of areas.

The greatest issue facing the Advisory Board is a vestigial remnant of slavery itself: continuing economic dependency. It is related to what was slavery’s main purpose: a supply of cheap unskilled labor. The Civil Rights Movement put the focus on legal rights; it did not put food on the table.

The Advisory Board’s agenda should move beyond civil rights and focus on dependency — illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, urban decay, slums — things which are more complex and not entirely the burden of one race. Sooner or later the country must confront such problems.

Franklin and other board members have suggested a special concern with education and economic opportunity. That would be a start. The timing may not seem right, but the timing did not seem right fifty years ago either. And look what Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights accomplished.


George B. Tindall is Kenan Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a writer for the History News Service.