Harry S. Truman photo

Commencement Address at Howard University.

June 13, 1952

Mr. President of the University, Mr. Ewing, distinguished guests:

I am happy to be here today at this Howard University commencement.

Dr. Johnson has asked me to come to your commencement several times, and I am glad that I was able to do it before the end of my term of office.

You who are graduating here today can always be proud of this university. This institution was founded in 1867 to give meaning to the principles of freedom, and to make them work.

The founders of this university had a great vision. They knew that the slaves who had been set free needed a center of learning and higher education. They could foresee that many of the freedmen, if they were given a chance, would take their places among the most gifted and honored American citizens. And that is what has happened. The long list of distinguished Howard alumni proves that the wisdom of those who established this university was profoundly true.

This university has been a true institution of higher learning which has helped to enrich American life with the talents of a gifted people. For example, every soldier and every civilian who receives the lifesaving gift of a transfusion from a blood bank can be grateful to this university. For this was the work of a distinguished Howard University professor, the late Dr. Charles Drew, that made possible the very first blood bank in the whole world.

This is a practical illustration of the fact that talent and genius have no boundaries of race, or nationality, or creed. The United States needs the imagination, the energy, and the skills of every single one of its citizens.

Howard University has recognized this from the beginning. It has accepted among its students, faculty, and trustees, representatives of every race, every creed, and every nationality.

I wish I could say to you who are graduating today that no opportunity to use your skills and knowledge would ever be denied you. I can say this: I know what it means not to have opportunity. I wasn't able to go to college at all. I had to stay at home and work on the family farm. You have been able to get the college education that is so important to everyone in this country. Some of us are denied opportunity for economic reasons. Others are denied opportunity because of racial prejudice and discrimination. I want to see things worked out so that everyone who is capable of it receives a good education. I want to see everyone have a chance to put his education to good use, without unfair discrimination.

Our country is founded on the proposition that all men are created equal. This means that they should be equal before the law. They should enjoy equal political rights. And they should have equal opportunities for education, employment, and decent living conditions. This is our belief, and we know it is right. We know it is morally right. And we have proved, by experience, that the more we practice that belief, the stronger, more vigorous, and happier our Nation becomes.

That is why, 6 years ago, I created the President's Committee on Civil Rights. Nearly 5 years have passed since this Committee made its report to me and to the whole American people. Today, I want to talk about some of the progress that has been made in those 5 years.

Back in 1947 a good many people advised me not to raise this whole question of civil rights. They said it would only make things worse. But you can't cure a moral problem, or a social problem, by ignoring it.

It is no service to the country to turn away from the hard problems--to ignore injustice and human suffering. It is simply not the American way of doing things. Of course, there are always a lot of people whose motto is "Don't rock the boat." They are so afraid of rocking the boat, that they stop rowing. We can never get ahead that way. We can only drift with the current and finally go over the falls into oblivion with nothing accomplished.

If something is wrong, the thing to do is to dig it out, find why it is wrong, and take sensible steps to put it right. We are all Americans together, and we can solve our hard problems together, including the problem of race relations.

The experience of the last 5 years demonstrates clearly that this is true. Now, instead of making things worse, our efforts in the field of civil rights have made things better--better in all aspects of our national life, and in all parts of our country. One of my southern friends said to me the other day, "The last 5 years are the best years in race relations this country has ever had." And the record proves it.

Of course, the forward movement did not begin with the civil rights report. It was already in motion. It had been started in the 1930's, and had gained momentum during World War II.

It looked for a while in 1946 and 1947 as if this progress would come to an end. You remember that, after the first World War, a wave of hate and violence and Ku Kluxism swept over the country. The problem we faced after the Second World War was this: Would we have to go through another experience such as that, or could we hold fast to the gains that had been made ?

We did neither. Instead, we went forward. In many lines we have made gains for human freedom and equal opportunity that go far beyond anything accomplished during the war. And most of these gains have been permanent. They have been written quietly, but firmly, into our basic laws and our institutions. They will never be undone.

These things have been accomplished without dividing our people. None of the talk about the country being torn apart has come to pass. These things were done because people wanted them to be done. There has been a great working of the American conscience. All over the land there has been a growing recognition that injustice must go, and that the way to equal opportunity is better for us all.

The civil rights report and the civil rights program give voice and expression to this great change of sentiment. They are the necessary instrument of progress. They are the trumpet blast outside the walls of Jericho--the crumbling walls of prejudice.

And their work is not yet done. We still have a long way to go.

I should like to turn to the record now, and speak of the progress that has been made, and the tasks that still await us.

First, in the field of political rights. In the last 5 years, two more States, Tennessee and South Carolina, have abolished the poll tax. Now there are only five poll tax States where there were eleven not so long ago.

Opportunities for all our citizens to participate in our political life have increased steadily and rapidly. Court decisions have given protection to the right of equal participation in primary elections.

These are notable advances. But there is still a lot to do. The poll tax and other discriminatory restrictions on voting should be removed in all the States.

Second, let us take the field of education. I am glad to say that the principle of no discrimination--the principle that has always been followed here at Howard University-is the law of this country today in institutions of higher learning supported by public funds. Since the court decisions outlawing discrimination, more than a thousand Negro graduate and professional students have been accepted by 10 State universities that were closed to Negroes before. In the last 5 years legislation has been passed in 10 other States to abolish segregation or discrimination in schools and colleges.

And the gloomy prophecies of the opponents of civil rights have not been fulfilled. The universities have not been deserted. On the contrary, the faculties and students of the universities which are now open to all have welcomed and accepted the new students on their merits as individuals.

This is only one instance of the way educational opportunities have been opening up to Negroes in recent years. Since 1930 the enrollment of Negro college students has gone up eight times. Just stop and think what that means. For every 100 Negro college students enrolled in 1930 there are 800 today.

In the field of housing we have also been making progress. The congested, segregated areas of our great cities are breeding grounds of poverty, delinquency, and poor health. We have been trying to improve conditions in these areas. A major step was taken in this direction when the Supreme Court outlawed the enforcement of restrictive covenants, which so often make bad housing conditions worse.

We have begun to make progress in public housing also. In 1950, 177 public housing projects were freely opened to families of all races and creeds. This is eight times as many as eight years ago. In the last few years nine States and eight cities have forbidden discrimination or segregation in public housing.

Another problem is that of protecting the right to safety and security of the person. There is no more important duty of the Government. We must protect our citizens from mob violence. And here again we have been moving forward.

In the last 5 years two States have enacted antilynching laws, and four States and six cities have passed laws against wearing masks in public. The Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have used their powers to reinforce the State and local law enforcement agencies. The latest instance was in Illinois, where the State Governor stopped an outbreak of mob violence and the Federal authorities brought to justice the local law enforcement officers who abetted the mob.

Now, this kind of action hasn't interfered with States rights or upset our system of government. Most of our citizens, wherever they live, have welcomed it. They want to be helped in suppressing lynching. And they would be helped by Federal legislation to safeguard the fights of the individuals when local law enforcement officers fail to do their duty. Such legislation ought to be on. the books.

Now I want to speak of something that gives me considerable pride. That is the progress in fair employment in the Federal service.

If there is any place where fair employment practices ought to prevail, it is the Federal Government. But experience shows that the departments and agencies of the Federal Government, no less than other organizations, need to be helped and encouraged. Sometimes they need to be compelled. In 1948 I set up a fair Employment Board in the Civil Service Commission. This Board has gone about its task quietly and effectively, and has done a great deal to insure the success of our nondiscrimination policy.

The Federal Government makes billions of dollars worth of contracts every year to buy the things it needs. The money to pay for these contracts comes from all the people, without discrimination. It should be spent in the same way--without discrimination. For over 10 years we have had a policy that every Government contract must contain a clause binding the contractor and his subcontractors to practice nondiscrimination. But it is not always easy to be sure that such a clause is being followed in practice. To meet that situation, I set up a Committee on Government Contract Compliance last year. It is the duty of that Committee to work with the contracting agencies and to help them get better compliance with the rule of nondiscrimination.

States and cities have also been going ahead to see that their fair employment practices are followed in their jurisdictions. In the last few years 11 States and 20 municipalities have adopted fair employment laws. Unions and employers in many places have voluntarily done away with the color bar. And the results have been peaceful and beneficial. None of the disorder that was so freely predicted has taken place.

Some of the greatest progress of all has been made in the armed services. Service in the Armed forces of our country is both a duty and a right of citizenship. Every man or woman who enters one of our services is certainly entitled to equal treatment and equal opportunity.

There has been a lot of talk about the need for segregation in the armed services. Some of our greatest generals have said that our forces had to have segregated units. But experience has proved that this is just plain nonsense.

Quite some time ago, the Navy and the Air force eliminated all racial distinctions, and the Army has been moving step by step toward this goal. For over 2 years every soldier coming into a training unit has been assigned on a basis of individual merit without racial discrimination. In the far East, when General Ridgway took command, he ordered the progressive integration of all the troops in his command, and you have seen the results in the wonderful performance of our troops in Korea. Only recently a similar order was issued by the European Command at the direction of the Secretary of the Army. From Tokyo to Heidelberg these orders have gone out that will make our fighting forces a more perfect instrument of democratic defense.

All these matters have been taken care of in a quiet and orderly way. The prophets of doom have been proved wrong. The civil rights program has not weakened our country-it has made our country stronger. It has not made us less united--it has made us more united.

The progress we have made so far is a source of deep satisfaction to us all. But that does not mean we have reached the goal or that we can stop working. Much remains to be done.

Voluntary action can carry us a long way, and we must encourage it. State and local legislation is necessary, and we must have it. But let us remember this: The President's Committee on Civil Rights led the way. The debate over the civil rights program has stimulated much of the progress of the last 5 years. We still need the legislation I recommended to the Congress in 1948. Only two of the recommendations I made in my civil rights program have been adopted so far. I shall continue, in office and out, to urge the Congress to adopt the remainder.

I am not one of those who feel that we can leave these matters up to the States alone, or that we can rely solely on the efforts of men of good will. Our Federal Government must live up to the ideals professed in the Declaration of Independence and the duties imposed upon it by the Constitution. The full force and power of the Federal Government must stand behind the protection of rights guaranteed in the Federal Constitution.

In this country of ours that we all love so much, we have built a way of life that has brought more satisfaction to more people than any other that has ever been devised. Our American way of life is the envy and admiration of people everywhere in the world. But this fact should not make us proud and arrogant. It places a heavy--a critical--responsibility upon us.

The technical skills and knowledge that have been brought to such perfection in our country depend upon scientific discoveries that have come to us from all over the world. We have used this knowledge to build for ourselves a prosperous and a happy country, but we know that we hold these skills in trust for all mankind. It is not our way to use the power that has come to us to oppress or victimize others. Our way is to use the power that has come to us to lift up the weak and the downtrodden.

In many countries of the world, misery, poverty, and poor health are widespread. Some of these countries were formerly possessions or colonies. Their people are now determined to improve their welfare and to preserve national independence.

And we can help those new countries reach their goals.

One of the means to do this is our point 4 program, through which we are helping to bring better health, more education, more and better food to millions of people. Graduates of this university are working on point 4 teams in many countries throughout the world. Negro professional workers from this and other universities are helping to cure sickness in Burma and Lebanon, to increase the farm output in Liberia, to improve education in Ethiopia and Iran. They are working in India, and Thailand, and Indochina. In these and other countries, Americans are working together, regardless of race, creed, or ancestry, to help the progress of mankind.

This American Nation of ours is great because of its diversity--because it is a people drawn from many lands and many cultures, bound together by the ideals of human brotherhood. We must remember these things as we go forward in our efforts for world peace.

We should realize that much of the trouble in this world today is the result of false ideas of racial superiority. In the past the conduct of the democratic nations has too often been marred by racial pride that has left its scars on the relations between the East and the West.

Today, as we reach a fuller understanding of the brotherhood of man, we are laying aside these old prejudices. We are working with the new nations of Asia and Africa as equals. Anything less would be a betrayal of the democratic ideals we profess. Better than any other country, the United States can reach out, through our diversity of races and origins, and deal as man to man with the different peoples of the globe.

In this way--in this spirit--we can help other peoples to build better lives for themselves. And we can show that free peoples working together can change misery into happiness.

There are those who have said that this is America's century, but we want it to be more than that. We want it to be humanity's century. If all the people of the world, including the people of the Soviet Union, could know and appreciate this fact, lasting peace and universal justice would not be a dream. It would be a reality. With courage, with vision, and with God's help, we will yet make these ideals a reality around the world.

Note: The President spoke at 5:30 p.m. His opening words referred to Dr. Mordecai Johnson, President of Howard University, and Oscar R. Ewing, Administrator of the Federal Security Agency,

Harry S Truman, Commencement Address at Howard University. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/230964

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