Perhaps the most influential year for Hubert Humphrey, the Minnesota civil rights hero and U.S. vice president, is the 1939-40 academic year at a Louisiana State University graduate program. Humphrey is “plunged into a Jim Crow society for the first time in his life, sees American racism in action, and is deservedly appalled by it,” said Samuel Freedman, a Columbia Journalism School professor and author of the new book “Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights.”
At the same time, Humphrey makes his first Jewish friend, who tells of five uncles trying to escape Nazi Germany – all of whom are later murdered in the Holocaust. Humphrey also studies with Rudolf Heberle, a German professor who researched how Germany went from democracy to dictatorship within a few years by eroding civil rights.
“Heberle is drawing the parallel between what the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and what Blacks are suffering under the Jim Crow system in the United States,” Freedman said.
For Humphrey, it’s a lesson that launches him into the Black-Jewish civil rights alliance of Minneapolis in the 1940s, which propels him from activist to mayor, and then to national prominence as a senator and vice-president who helps get the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.
That journey is revisited in Freedman's new book where he writes about how Humphrey’s time in Minneapolis set the stage for the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights.
“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,” Humphrey famously declared at the 1948 Democratic National Convention in a speech credited with getting President Harry Truman re-elected. Shortly after the speech, Truman desegregated the U.S. armed forces.
For Freedman, the book is an opportunity to reevaluate Humphrey’s legacy, marred in his later years by support for the Vietnam War and ill-fated campaigns for president.
“Depending on your age, people either barely know who he was, or tend to remember the later disparaged and defeated Humphrey,” Freedman said. “Not this valiant, idealistic man of the early part of his career.”
An overlooked era
A prolific author and award-winning New York Times columnist (who also lives part-time in the Twin Cities), Freedman had wanted for years to write a book about the period from the mid-1940s through the early ‘50s.
“There was this kind of complacent view that [World War II] ended, and next thing you know, it’s the mid-50s, and everyone’s mowing their lawn in suburbia,” Freedman said. That view overlooks important civil rights activity that laid the foundation for later victories.
But Freedman didn’t know what specific story to write until a 2015 talk by Julian Zelizer about his book, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.”
During the 2015 Q&A, Freedman’s wife – being a “good Minnesotan” – asked about Hubert Humphrey’s role as Johnson’s vice-president. As soon as Zelizer mentioned the influence of Humphrey’s 1948 speech, “the proverbial light bulb went off,” Freedman said.
“When my wife and I went to dinner after the book event, I said to her, in those words, ‘that’s the book I’ve been looking for.’”
At first, Freedman thought he was writing “Into the Bright Sunshine” just as a book revisiting Humphrey’s legacy. But as the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 dug up a new wave of white supremacy, Humphrey’s early days in Minneapolis felt increasingly – and eerily – relevant.
Humphrey “was in a battle of inclusive democracy against forms of white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and America First-ism,” Freedman said. “Those were the exact terms used, then and now. So it’s important, when we’re in this battle for the sake of our democracy, to realize that it’s a battle that recurs. That we have to be ready, in every generation or two, to fight it again.”
In 2020, Freedman saw another example of Humphrey’s unfinished work left to a new generation: The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Department officers.
MPD had been notorious for their racism, antisemitism, and brutality even in the 1930s and 40s, with several stories of police violence featured in Freedman’s book. At the behest of Black and Jewish communities, Humphrey took on the police once elected as mayor of Minneapolis in 1945.
Humphrey, and his chosen police chief Ed Ryan, “were in the process of meaningfully reforming the Minneapolis Police force, not only getting rid of the corrupt cops, but sending police officers for human relations training,” Freedman said.
“Humphrey would personally intercede into cases of police brutality. [But] unfortunately for the cause of police reform, Humphrey’s upward mobility into the U.S. Senate, and Ryan’s upward mobility to become Hennepin County Sheriff, meant that they never got to follow [the reforms] through.”
Black-Jewish partnership key to Humphrey
After his time in Louisiana, Humphrey, “instead of coming back [to Minneapolis] and thinking, ‘I’m glad I’m out of the Jim Crow South, the North is so much more enlightened,’ he can see what’s present here in Minneapolis in terms of bigotry,” Freedman said.
Black and Jewish Americans faced housing and job discrimination, a bigoted police force, racism and antisemitism from political figures and university administrators alike, and a variety of white supremacist and Nazi groups.
But, as Freedman puts it, Humphrey still needed more tutelage to understand how to fight discrimination. To that end, he connected with Cecil Newman, founder of the Black newspaper the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, and Sam Scheiner, a lawyer and jazz pianist who led what became the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Newman and Scheiner “knew each other very well and collaborated,” Freedman said. “They both understood the interplay between antisemitism and racism, and that they had a lot of enemies in common.”
Still, they didn’t have the political capital to pursue meaningful change in Minneapolis – until Humphrey came along. The three were a perfect match.
“They have something [Humphrey] needs, which is knowledge, and he has something they need, which is the combination of idealism and political power,” Freedman said. “It’s the confluence of these three people that really makes what Humphrey does as mayor possible.”
To Freedman, there are many takeaways from Humphrey’s early years, from the potency of the Black-Jewish civil rights alliance to the recurring threat from white American reactionaries.
But maybe most important is that Humphrey’s accomplishments show how young people can make a huge difference in local and national politics, even when the odds seem stacked against them.
“If you think of Humphrey as this old warhorse, you miss something important – if you are a young person now – that … he made major positive change in this city, in this country, when he was in his 30s,” Freedman said.
Humphrey “was less than 10 years out of a bachelor’s degree when he was at the ‘48 convention” and changed the course of the Democratic Party, Freedman said.
Republished with permission from TC Jewfolk.