Truman and Sedalia: Documentary explores how 33rd president’s civil rights legacy began with Brotherhood of Man’ remarks
Sedalia City Administrator Gary Edwards was nearing the end of his tenure as news director for KDRO in 1974 when he first noticed the photograph.
There, in black and white, was then-U.S. Senator Harry S. Truman speaking from a bunting-decorated podium set up on the west entrance to the Pettis County Courthouse. Above Truman’s head were campaign posters of himself and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret, were seated on the speaker’s platform to his left. Clearly visible in the photo are KDRO microphones placed to pick up Truman’s remarks.
“I saw that picture of Truman at that podium with the KDRO insignias and thought ‘What is that about?’ ” Edwards said.
As he was departing KDRO, he found a framed copy of the photo and left it at the station as an interesting piece of memorabilia, leaving the question of the picture’s context and backstory unresolved for nearly 40 years.
After returning to Sedalia as city administrator, Edwards took part in the Sedalia Area Chamber of Commerce Leadership Sedalia program and its group project of placing historic markers at downtown sites, including one at 313 S. Ohio Ave., now the site of Total Look Salon. As the marker indicates, in 1940 the building served as the campaign headquarters for Truman’s re-election bid to the U.S. Senate.
“As we were working on that, I started to wonder ‘Why was Sedalia selected for the state headquarters and what is the significance of that speech at the courthouse?’ I thought it would be nice to do some research and collect a few pictures. It began to explode from there,” Edwards said.
That explosion culminated in a 44-minute documentary, “The Edge of Radical: Truman & Sedalia,” written and narrated by Edwards and produced and scored by his wife, Catherine.
“What I found was a fascinating story that involves Sedalia extensively. It is a local story with strong state and national implications,” Edwards said.
June 15, 1940
Truman was no stranger to Sedalia.
In fact, after serving two terms as Jackson County Presiding Judge, Truman was summoned to a fateful meeting at the Hotel Bothwell in 1934 with political boss Tom J. Pendergast, whose Kansas City Democratic machine had helped propel Truman to his judgeship. It was during this meeting that Pendergast informed Truman he had been chosen to run for the Senate in 1934.
With the aid of Jackson County votes, Truman won the 1934 general election against Republican Roscoe C. Patterson by a 20-point margin. Although he entered Washington, D.C., regarded as the “senator from Pendergast,” Truman made a name for himself as a loyal supporter for FDR’s New Deal programs, a strong critic of greed and financial speculation and as a reliable steward of public money as the chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Programs, which provided oversight of federal spending as the nation began to ramp up military production. However, six years later, the political landscape shifted dramatically beneath Truman’s feet, beginning on April 7,1939, with Pendergast’s indictment for tax evasion. On May 22, the former king of Kansas City pled guilty, and with that, his political empire collapsed along with the votes and money that had helped Truman secure victory.
In addition, Truman was receiving lukewarm support from Roosevelt and statewide Democratic leaders were counseling him, according to Edwards’ film, that “he had no chance of winning.”
Truman also faced a three-way primary that included U.S. Attorney Maurice Milligan and former Missouri Gov. Lloyd Stark, both of whom were attempting to take credit for Pendergast’s downfall. Although Truman had survived the scandal without being implicated in Pendergast’s years of graft and patronage, he entered the race viewed as the weakest of the three candidates and both opponents looked to paint him as guilty by association.
While many associate Truman with the iconic “Dewey Defeats Truman” Chicago Tribune headline from his successful 1948 presidential election, Edwards’ documentary notes that Truman would forever regard 1940 as his most difficult campaign.
Internal campaign politics and the desire to distance himself from Pendergast’s shadow prompted Truman to headquarter his campaign in Sedalia.
“Sedalia was kind of a laboratory for Truman’s new campaign,” Edwards said. “He had to take a totally different approach. He had to reconstruct his entire political life here.”
June 1940 editions of the Democrat featured news items and advertising for a public reception for Truman slated for June 15, 1940, one day after Paris fell to German forces.
Truman was joined by Oregon Sen. L.B. Schwellenbach, city officials and a host of prominent supporters at the courthouse after an initial appearance at the groundbreaking of Sedalia Hospital No. 2, a medical facility for the city’s black population.
As Edwards’ film details, between the two appearances Truman delivered what came to be known as his “Brotherhood of Man” speech — remarks considered by Edwards and other notable Truman historians as a landmark civil rights speech that established Truman’s credentials as a committed reformer well before his rise to the presidency.
‘The Brotherhood of Man’
Although historians have often assumed that Truman delivered the speech to a nearly all-white audience of about 5,000 during his reception at the courthouse, Edwards’ film points out that there is no complete record of the speech he delivered there. Much of it was recorded by Democrat reporters at the time, but there are indications that the full “Brotherhood of Man” speech was actually delivered at Hospital No. 2 to an integrated audience of local black civic leaders and city officials.
The full text of the speech was preserved when Schwellenbach had Truman’s remarks entered into the Congressional Record, only noting that the words came from a speech delivered in Sedalia on July 15, 1940.
Regardless of where Truman spoke the historic words, while in Sedalia fighting for his political life, Truman said:
“I believe in the brotherhood of man; not merely the brotherhood of white men, but the brotherhood of all men before law. I believe in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In giving the Negroes the rights that are theirs, we are only acting in accord with our own ideals of a true democracy.
“If any class or race can be permanently set apart from, or pushed down below, the rest in political and civil rights, so may any other class or race when it shall incur the displeasure of its more powerful associates, and we may say farewell to the principles on which we count our safety ...”
“Negroes have been preyed upon by all types of exploiters ... The majority of our Negro people find but cold comfort in shanties and tenements. Surely, as free men, they are entitled to something better than this.”
While it remains unclear if reporters ignored the passage or if the remarks came from earlier in the day, the Democrat did report that Truman told the courthouse crowd:
“The relation of colored and white people in this community and this state is one that should be given our interest and attention. We all desire to see proper and helpful relations exist between all classes of people.
“Certainly there should be no injustice, no contemptuous or unfair treatment allotted by any class to any other class. Most of all, the stronger group should not impose upon the weaker, obnoxious conditions or situations. In all matters of progress and welfare of economic opportunity and equal rights before law, Negroes deserve every aid and protection.”
Among the historians and authors appearing in Edwards’ film is Michael Gardner, a communications policy attorney from Washington, D.C., who taught on the American presidency at Georgetown University and authored “Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risk,” released in 2003.
Gardner told the Democrat by telephone that “Truman stands out and deserves glory he never got,” noting that many of his later accomplishments, including the desegregation of the U.S. military, have their philosophical origins in the Sedalia speech.
“While at Georgetown, most students thought of (John F.) Kennedy or (Lyndon) Johnson as pioneering civil rights leaders,” he said. “But Harry Truman, who came from a racist background and was not college educated ... was a beacon for civil rights reform.”
Edwards and Gardner agree that the remarks proved a bold and risky re-election strategy in a still very segregated state and nation.
“Keep in mind that in the ’40s, when the Sedalia speech was made ... the civil rights movement was largely nonexistent. You did not have riots, or editorial pressure to reform. Segregation was widespread, and not just in the South,” Gardner said.
“For Truman to take the enlightened position he took all the way back to his time in the Senate is quite remarkable and little documented. It shows that he was convinced early on of the evils of segregation. It was certainly not a proven vote-getter to make the remarks he made, and it showed a commitment early on to reform a county that was largely segregated.”
‘Sedalia will always
be in my heart’
According to Edwards’ film, Truman later remarked: “I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Sedalia. I feel the 1940 U.S. Senate campaign that began right here in Sedalia ... got me into more trouble than I have ever known before.”
As the August primary drew near, Milligan’s campaign began to lose steam and the contest became one between Truman and Stark. Truman had an innate sense for people and campaigns, Edwards said.
“Stark was his own worst enemy. He was a cold personality, while Truman was more of the people. He believed he could make the argument that he wasn’t overly influenced by Pendergast and that he could run on the strength of his record in the Senate,” Edwards said.
On election night, Truman reportedly went to bed believing he was going to lose, but as returns from Kansas City, St. Louis and other portions of the state came in through the night, he eventually overtook Stark and narrowly defeated his opponent by about 8,000 votes, though he ultimately lost in Pettis County.
“This was Stark country,” Edwards said.
He went on to win in November against Republican Manvel H. Davis by a final vote of 51 percent to 49 percent.
Four years later, he was tapped as Roosevelt’s running mate, and was sworn in as vice president in 1945. He served in that role for only 82 days, rising to the presidency following Roosevelt’s death on April 12.
“It is amazing it was successful. I don’t see how he won that race. I have managed campaigns with (former U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton) and others. That would have been an extremely tough race to fight. FDR said ‘You can’t win that race.’ Everybody said that,” Edwards said. “He knew that and had a perseverance you frequently do not see. That is what helped him win what should have been an impossible race, and Sedalia was right in the middle of that.”
Truman would eventually forego a full second term, and was followed in office by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Truman returned by train to Missouri with Bess at his side, including a short stop in Sedalia on his way back to Independence. From the back of the train he reportedly told the crowd that greeted him: “Sedalia will always be in my heart. It has been for many years.”
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