As I write these words, Hurricane Laura is barreling toward the Louisiana and Texas coasts. Hopefully, those in its path will be safe. It's not a coincidence that so many storms make landfall during political conventions -- late summer is the season for both -- but this particular date brings to my mind a human hurricane who made his mark at more than one convention.
Hubert H. Humphrey was his name and on Aug. 26, 1964, he was tapped by President Lyndon Johnson as a running mate.
"Nothing has given me greater support in the past nine months than my knowledge of President Kennedy's confidence that I could continue the task that he began," Johnson said that night in Atlantic City, N.J. "I have found a man that I can trust in the same way. This confidence and this recommendation are not mine alone. They represent the enthusiastic conviction of the great majority of the Democratic Party in the United States."
It was true that HHH was well-known by his fellow Democrats. Although it was left unsaid that night, LBJ's choice of the dynamic Minnesota liberal represented the passing of the torch JFK had spoken about: A president who'd come of age in Jim Crow-era Texas was choosing as his running mate the man most identified with the Democrats' break from their slave-holding and segregationist roots.
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Hubert Horatio Humphrey had burst onto the national scene at a previous convention, one held in nearby Philadelphia when HHH was the 37-year-old mayor of Minneapolis. This was even more momentous than 43-year-old Barack Obama making an evocative speech in Boston at the 2004 convention. What Humphrey did in 1948 was to put forth a historic challenge to his party, nearly breaking it in half.
While civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph picketed the convention carrying a sign reading, "Prison is better than Jim Crow service," Humphrey was preparing to lay down the gauntlet inside the hall when his time came to address the delegates.
"My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late," Humphrey proclaimed in his fiery speech. "To those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!"
Speaking just three years after the end of a world war fought, in large part, over malevolent fantasies of racial superiority, Humphrey proclaimed racial equality the great cause of the 20th century. Southern Democrats didn't see it that way. They walked out of the convention, turning their backs on both Humphrey and President Truman, to run their own "Dixiecrat" presidential ticket headed by Strom Thurmond.
The moment was fraught. "As I walked with the young mayor … out of that hall," liberal activist James Loeb later recalled, "I actually thought he was going to be shot. … It was very tense, very tense."
But there would be no going back. Truman integrated the U.S. forces by executive order 12 days after Humphrey's speech. And despite spotting the Dixiecrats Thurmond's home state of South Carolina, along with Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, Truman would win in 1948. Yet, it would be Thurmond's former Senate majority leader and fellow Southerner who would shepherd groundbreaking civil rights legislation through Congress in the 1960s. And it was Lyndon Johnson's choice of Hubert Humphrey that heralded this sea change.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.