In 1948, Humphrey became his party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate. He was running against incumbent Senator Joseph Ball, a strongly anti-labor politician who had helped sponsor the Taft-Hartley Act that was hated by organized labor. In that year, he was also a delegate to the Democratic Convention. It was there that, in a now-famous speech, Humphrey spoke in favor of the controversial civil rights plank. Humphrey declared to the convention, “The time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!” Some southern states left the convention and formed the Dixiecrat Party, which ran Strom Thurmond for President. Humphrey became very popular in Minnesota for his courageous stand in favor of civil rights, and was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Humphrey’s courageous stand for a strong civil rights plank in the 1948 Democratic platform earned him strong support from the liberal Minneapolis voters, and his opposition to the Taft-Hartley Act and support of the Marshall Plan won him the support of farmers and labor. Humphrey won a landslide victory over incumbent, conservative Senator Ball. Humphrey became the first democrat elected from Minnesota to the U.S. Senate since 1901.
Humphrey entered the Senate the same way he entered everything else, at full speed. He already had a reputation as a strong champion of civil rights, but also as an impulsive, long-winded, sanctimonious, self-righteous liberal. Humphrey was used to discussing policy matters openly and candidly, which was not the way of the Senate. He quickly ran afoul of the “good old boy” Senate leadership. Senate leaders considered Humphrey rigid, uncompromising, undignified and impulsive, and he found himself ostracized for his brash and abrasive comments. In later years, Humphrey described these first years as the most miserable in his life because of his ineffectiveness and ostracism. But Humphrey was also quick and intelligent, and realized what he had to do. He worked hard to master the details of the legislative process as well as the ways and traditions of the Senate. By the time he ran for re-election in 1954, Humphrey had become part of the “Inner Club” of the Senate.
The worst of Humphrey’s first missteps was on February 20, 1950. Humphrey decided to take on powerful Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. of Virginia. Byrd was, among his other positions, chairman of The Joint Committee on the Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures.” Humphrey rose to make his attack on the committee while Byrd was away, which was, in all likelihood, an unintentional breech of courtesy and decorum. Humphrey implied that Byrd’s committee was hypocrisy in that the committee was itself a nonessential and wasteful expenditure and a waste of the taxpayers’ money. He demanded the committee be abolished. His speech was made with a great deal of emotional intensity and righteous indignation, clearly an over-reaction to the subject at hand.
In addition to the manner in which he gave his speech, Humphrey annoyed the Senate for other reasons. His speech was made in the middle of a debate by very senior Senators, two from Missouri and one from Florida, on the issue of cotton and peanut acreage allotments and subsidies. These and other Senate leaders did not appreciate the interruption by the freshman Senator from Minnesota, especially given the undignified and abrasive manner of his speech. A few days later, Senator Byrd rose to make his reply. In a dignified and quietly restrained speech, Byrd, ever the master of the dramatic moment answered Humphries charges and pointed out a number of inaccuracies in his charges. Byrd then dramatically offered to resign, which triggered a round of important and senior Senators rising to defend Byrd, his record, and his service to the Senate and the country. Humphrey was humiliated, and any chance he had for leadership or influence in the Senate was severely damaged. As a result of the incident, he found himself even more isolated and ineffective. Humphrey later called it the worst mistake of his Senate career. But this episode was very much an example of Humphrey’s natural style throughout his career. He always spoke his mind, attacking impulsively whenever he saw something he thought was wrong. Only later, if ever, would he ever consider the consequences of his actions. It was not the last time his impulsive manner of speaking would get him into political trouble.
In the next article, we will see how Humphrey recovered from his disastrous start in the Senate to become one of its most beloved and effective leaders, and the growth of his relationship with Lyndon Johnson.
An Interesting Note on the 1948 Election:
Truman’s civil rights stand and Humphrey’s inspiring speech in favor of it actually helped Truman in ways unseen at the time. Truman had been an advocate of civil rights, even going so far as to order the U.S. armed forces desegregated. This cost him the support of the segregationist south. When the Humphrey plank was adopted, most of the southern delegates walked out of the convention. These right-wing southern Democrats formed the Dixiecrat Party and nominated Governor Strom Thurmond (now a Republican Senator and former President Pro Tem of the Senate) for President.
The left wing of the party had already bolted. They were rallying around the candidacy of Henry Wallace, former cabinet member and Vice President who had been replaced on the ticket by Harry Truman in 1944. They called themselves the Progressive Party.
The other parties helped Truman more than they hurt him. The Progressive Party removed the taint of communism from the Democratic Party; the Dixiecrat revolt convinced northern blacks, not sure about Truman, to give him their overwhelming support. (For more about this election, read Election Surprises – Truman’s 1948 Victory)