Following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945, Harry S. Truman became the 33rd president of the United States, after serving only 83 days as vice president. Martin Luther King had admired Truman’s record on civil rights until 1960, when Truman made defamatory statements linking the sit-in demonstrations with communism.
Truman was born 8 May 1884, in Lamar, Missouri. After graduating from high school in 1901, when his family could not afford to send him to college, Truman worked a variety of jobs before enlisting in the Missouri National Guard in 1907. He was discharged as a corporal in 1911, and shortly after the United States entered World War I Truman enlisted in the Missouri Field Artillery, serving in France and later achieving the rank of colonel in the reserves. Returning to Missouri after the war, in 1922 Truman was elected judge of the Jackson County Court, a position he held for two years. He later served as presiding judge of the same court from 1926 to 1934.
Following his judgeship, Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate to represent Missouri. During his 10 years in the Senate, Truman supported Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, as well as legislation that aided farmers and labor unions. Although he was openly racist when among his Senate peers, he lobbied for an end to legalized racial discrimination because it violated basic American ideals. Truman served as Roosevelt’s running mate in the 1944 election, and the two men won 53 percent of the popular vote. After Roosevelt’s death Truman assumed the presidency, and served until 1953.
During his presidency, Truman issued Executive Order 9808 (1946), which established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights; Executive Order 9980 (1948), which established a fair employment board to eliminate discriminatory hiring within the federal government; and Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the U.S. armed forces. Truman’s civil rights record was well received by African Americans, including King, who sent Truman an autographed copy of his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, in 1958.
A few years later Truman made public accusations that southern lunch counter demonstrations were orchestrated by Communists, and argued that: “If anyone came into my store and tried to stop business I’d throw him out. The Negro should behave himself and show he’s a good citizen” (Papers 5:437). In response to Truman’s comments, King wrote him, acknowledging his previous admiration for Truman’s civil rights record and expressing his confusion and disappointment over the former president’s statement. King stated: “It is a sad day for our country when men come to feel that oppressed people cannot desire freedom and human dignity unless they are motivated by Communism.… When the accusations come from a man who was once chosen by the American people to serve as the chief custodian of the nation’s destiny then they rise to shocking and dangerous proportions” (Papers 5:438). King then asked Truman for a public apology, but no reply from Truman has been located. Following his tenure as president, Truman retired to Independence, Missouri. He died on 26 December 1972.