Date of Award

Spring 5-5-2012

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

First Advisor

Michelle Brattain

Second Advisor

Clifford M. Kuhn

Third Advisor

Glenn T. Eskew

Abstract

At the close of 1946, a year marked by domestic white-on-black violence, Harry S. Truman, in a dramatic move, established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR). Five years before, his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt had formed the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), under pressure from civil rights groups mobilized against racial discrimination in the defense industry. The FEPC was the first major federal civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. However, when race riots later erupted in cities across the country in 1943, Roosevelt ignored his staff's recommendation to appoint a national race relations committee. Instead, he agreed to a “maypole” committee, which was, in actuality, a decentralized network of individuals, including Philleo Nash, whose purpose was to anticipate and diffuse urban racial tensions in order to avert further race riots. Superficially, Truman's PCCR seemed to resemble Roosevelt's rather conservative race relations strategy of appointing a committee rather than taking direct action under the authority of the federal government. But, as this project will argue, Truman's PCCR represented a major, historical change in the approach to civil rights that would have a profound effect on activists, such as Dorothy Tilly and Frank Porter Graham, and the movement itself. Where FDR's committees were created to avoid further racial confrontations, Truman’s committee invited and ignited controversy. Its groundbreaking report, To Secure These Rights (TSTR), unequivocally declared the federal government as the guardian of all Americans’ civil rights. In essence, Truman’s PCCR elevated the civil rights dialogue to a national level by recasting the civil rights issue as an American problem rather than just a black-American problem. Moreover, TSTR attacked segregation directly, and challenged the federal government to take the lead by immediately desegregating the armed services. These radical recommendations came only six years after a reluctant FDR formed the FEPC and six and one-half years before the Unites States’ Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and the ensuing backlash. Thus, Truman’s PCCR and TSTR, in 1947, forged a new “civil rights frontier.”

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