Of all the things that happened here—appearances by Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela; performances by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead; boxing matches featuring Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier (his pro debut); Atlantic Ten Conference and Big Five basketball games; and concerts on the hall’s monster M.P. Moller pipe organ—of all of these events, and more, what would be the most memorable, the most worthy of being considered a great moment in history?
Civic Center’s 1931 Convention Hall Auditorium also hosted four national political conventions. The Democrats nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt for a second term there in 1936, and in 1940 the Republicans nominated Wendell Willkie. No earthshaking memories there. Then, in 1948, there came conventions of both major parties. Thomas Dewey left as the candidate for the GOP, and the Democrats confirmed their choice of Harry Truman after “a huge floor fight.”
What took place 68 years ago when the Democrats met is worth remembering—big time. The incumbent Truman hoped to sail to his first nomination unruffled. But in working out the party platform issues that would come to define the second half of the 20th century, drama intervened.
Late into the July Philadelphia night, in a proverbial smoke-filled room, Democratic leaders debated the planks of their platform. And the next day, the 37-year old mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, delivered the speech of a lifetime to a packed, tense, hall. It’s considered one of the top moments in American political convention history.
“Because good conscience, decent morality, demands it—I feel I must rise at this time to support…the great issue of civil rights,” declared Humphrey.
He later filled in the story of the night leading up to his speech. “All we knew was that we, a group of young liberals, had beaten the leadership of the party and led them closer to where they ought to have been… I had taken on our establishment and won. It was a heady feeling.” But some delegates reacted to Humphrey’s speech with significant grumbling on the convention floor.
Now let me say this at the outset that this proposal is made for no single region.” He continued: “Our proposal is made for no single class, for no single racial or religious group in mind. All of the regions of this country, all of the states have shared in our precious heritage of American freedom. All the states and all the regions have seen at least some of the infringements of that freedom—all people—get this—all people, white and black, all groups, all racial groups have been the victims at time[s] in this nation of—let me say—vicious discrimination.”
“We have made progress … But we must now focus the direction of that progress towards the… realization of a full program of civil rights to all.”
“Friends, delegates, I do not believe that there can be any compromise on the guarantees of …civil rights…” Humphrey’s handwritten addition on his typescript, seen in this .pdf of what he wrote and read that day, conveys raw exuberance. He added powerful phrases, made them extra-large, and emphasized them with single and double underlining.
“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. …This is the issue of the 20th century,” declared Humphrey.
“I ask you for a calm consideration of our historic opportunity. Let us do forget the evil passions and the blindness of the past. …we cannot and we must not turn from the path so plainly before us. …now is the time to recall those who were left on that path of American freedom.” …
“My good friends, I ask my Party, I ask the Democratic Party, to march down the high road of progressive democracy.”
A contingent of Southerners objected to the party’s position demanding anti-lynching laws, school integration, anti-discrimination in employment and universal access to restrooms.
NPR’s Ron Elving later told what happened next: “The Mississippi delegation walked out in its entirety, about half of the Alabama delegation. About three dozen delegates in toto walked out of the convention and vowed to nominate their own Dixiecrat candidate for president, Strom Thurmond from South Carolina” with their own Dixiecrat platform. Knowing this, and knowing how the issue is still very much with us, it’s riveting to hear Humphrey’s delivery.
This wouldn’t be the first time, nor would it be the last, when a major, memorable speech on race and rights was set in Philadelphia, a place whose associations with freedom and independence always seem to flavor the rhetorical stew. Humphrey’s masterpiece—he never had another quite like it—ranks with other great oratorical moments on the subject in Philadelphia. They include presidential candidate Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union”speech delivered at the National Constitution Center in 2008. And we cannot forget another, by Angelina Grimké at the opening of Pennsylvania Hall in 1838. As Grimké spoke, Pennsylvania Hall was under siege by a mob opposing her convention’s anti-slavery position. And a few days later, they’d burn the building to the ground.
The 1948 the drama looked different, but the confrontation about civil rights as human rights was eerily similar.