President Harry Truman integrated the armed forces by executive order in 1948.
But it was Henry Wallace, running against Truman as the Progressive Party presidential nominee, who that year personally brought his integration message to the South.
There was no questioning Wallace’s personal courage during the weeklong tour of seven states. More than once, taunting spectators pounded him with eggs and old vegetables; outside an auditorium in Decatur, Ala., an entrepreneur parked a truck filled with tomatoes. Sometimes Wallace and staff members had to flee.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that Wallace was risking his life,” said Thomas Devine, author of “Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism.”
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And yet the former vice president often seemed detached from everyday realities. It’s unclear whether he ever imagined anti-integration sentiment would run that high.
“What I took away from this research was that I just couldn’t believe that someone who had made it that high in government could be so staggeringly naive about almost everything,” Devine said.
And when discussing crop yields or local food supplies, the former agriculture secretary got details wrong.
Addressing audiences in North Carolina, Wallace would refer to those who “have not had enough to eat,” causing local journalists to wonder if Wallace really believed residents were starving. At another stop, Wallace declared that farmers should be getting a bale of hay out of each acre when local farmers routinely were getting two or three.
And when the discussion turned political, Wallace resorted to boilerplate.
“He would use cliches and Scripture verses,” Devine said.
Such performances didn’t make him a credible speaker on integration. Many African-American residents, while acknowledging Wallace’s admirable ambitions, decided that voting for him would be a waste of time.
“Black voters saw that even though Truman might not have such high-sounding rhetoric, he was the only one in position to create change,” said Devine, a professor at California State University, Northridge.
Devine speaks at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St. Devine’s appearance is presented by the library with the Truman Library Institute, which has designated Devine’s book as the recipient of its 2014 Harry S. Truman Book Award. For more information, go to kclibrary.org.