Early Civil Rights Movement: Author of Into the Bright Sunshine, Samuel Freedman, at UW–Madison November 13 

October 31, 2023

The widely-known historical narrative of the Civil Rights Movement – one of the essential elements of American history – emphasizes such epic events from the 1950s and 1960s as the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, and the March on Washington. Yet we also should recognize the landmark victories that have been less celebrated, having set the stage for the subsequent breakthroughs. In his new book, Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights (Oxford University Press, 2023), Columbia University professor Samuel Freedman takes an in-depth look at the undeservedly overlooked achievements of Humphrey and, more broadly, the fervent civil rights activism of the 1940s.

On Monday, November 13, Freedman and UW–Madison journalism Professor Kathryn McGarr will discuss the landscape and early political activism of the 1940s Civil Rights movement. Please join them at the Wisconsin Historical Society at 5:00 P.M., with a reception and book signing to follow.  

History often portrays Hubert Humphrey as the disparaged, ridiculed figure from his last dozen years of public life. The former vice president under Lyndon Johnson (1965–69), U.S. senator (1949–64, 1971–78), and mayor of Minneapolis (1945–48) is recalled largely for his controversial support for the Vietnam War and his failed candidacies for president in 1968 and 1972 as the embodiment of an unpopular party establishment. However, this commonplace narrative around Humphrey fails to shine a spotlight on the moral courage and concrete achievements earlier in his political career, most especially his leading role on civil rights and human rights.

Freedman’s deep archival research – some of it conducted at the Wisconsin Historical Society — shows that Hubert Humphrey was an essential figure in this and was wholeheartedly committed to the rights of Black Americans and American Jews. As mayor, Humphrey made Minneapolis one of the first cities in the nation to enact and enforce laws on job discrimination. His dedication and work led to his success in getting the Democratic Party to finally endorse civil rights in its platform in 1948, laying the groundwork for the national civil rights laws that Lyndon Johnson and Humphrey would enact in the 1960s. In Humphrey’s speech to the 1948 Democratic convention, he said:

My friends, to those who say we are rushing this civil rights issue, I say we are 172 years late. 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. People—human beings—this is the issue of the 20th century.

Since graduating from UW–Madison in 1977 with a double-major in history and journalism, Samuel Freedman has authored ten books, worked as a columnist and staff reporter for The New York Times, coproduced a radio documentary, and written numerous award-winning articles for The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and many more publications. His books have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 2017 Freedman won the Goldziher Prize for Journalists and the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia University, where he currently teaches. We caught up with him to ask him a few questions about his upcoming visit to Wisconsin. 

What brings you to UW–Madison? Please take a moment to introduce yourself.  

I will be doing a weeklong residency at UW–Madison—my alma mater, Class of 1977— with the Center for Journalism Ethics. I’ll speak to various journalism and history department classes, meet with Posse students (a national program which provides promising public high school students who may be overlooked by traditional colleges special opportunities for leadership growth and scholarships), and give a public talk about my new book. For that event, I’m delighted to be joined by UW Professor Kathryn McGarr, my student at Columbia Journalism School some years ago.  

What led you to highlight the work of Hubert Humphrey in a way that challenges how we historically perceive his life and work?  

There were two gaps to fill. One was the gap in people’s view of Humphrey, which focused on his much-criticized support for the Vietnam War as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president and on his failed presidential runs in 1968 and 1972. Those perceptions are accurate, but they omit Humphrey’s courageous support of civil rights earlier in his career and especially his pivotal role in getting the Democratic Party in 1948 to fully endorse civil rights for the first time. The second gap was the relative lack of journalistic and scholarly attention paid to the civil rights activism of the 1940s, which was deeply influenced by the global war against fascism and the sacrifices of Black American soldiers. This movement set the stage for the better-known civil rights campaign laws of the 1950s and 1960s.  

How did your time as a student of Journalism at UW–Madison influence your later career and research? Can you describe how you used libraries and archives to research the book?  

I was a double major in journalism and history at UW, so I’ve followed both paths over the years. My books have gradually become more based on archival research and less on observational reporting as I try to keep challenging myself. In the case of Into the Bright Sunshine, probably ninety percent of the research was archival. Humphrey’s primary tranche of papers is at the Minnesota State Historical Society. Still, I did a lot of work at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in the collected papers of the Americans for Democratic Action, a key group of anti-Communist liberals in which Humphrey was a significant leader. The ADA pushed the Democratic Party on civil rights in the 1948 convention, which is the crescendo of my book. To quote Robert Caro (Lyndon Johnson’s prolific biographer), I can’t say that I “turned every page,” but I turned many pages.  

In the book, you mention the vital relationship between Humphrey and Cecil Newman, founder of the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St Paul Reporter. Could you comment on how Newman influenced Humphrey’s political activism?  

Cecil Newman was one of the most critical influences in Humphrey’s life. More than any other person, Newman tutored Humphrey in the ways of racism in the North, and he urged Humphrey to take action against racism, first as mayor of Minneapolis, then as a rising national politician. The very first person to send a congratulatory telegram to Humphrey after his daring and triumphant civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic convention was Newman. And when Humphrey wrote back, he said that the triumph wasn’t his, “but ours.”  

Why do you think there was a shift between Humphrey’s involvement with the civil rights movement and his later support for the Vietnam War?  

Humphrey was a Cold War warrior whose battles against Communists and their sympathizers in Minnesota state politics formed that part of his political personality. So it’s sadly unsurprising that, despite his doubts about the Vietnam War, he could rationalize supporting it until late 1968, when he called for peace talks. But I want to add two points. One is that there were many other liberals—including the great Black leaders and activists Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph—who initially supported the war. And because Humphrey’s commitment to civil rights was so consistent and of such duration, even as many White liberal and left-wing voters reviled him as the Democratic candidate in 1968, Black voters continued to support him.  

Why do you think it’s important to understand this perspective at this time? What similarities or differences do you see within today’s political climate?  

The battle that Humphrey and his allies fought in the 1940s is the same battle that’s still being waged today—the battles of inclusive, multiracial, interfaith democracy against autocracy in the forms of White supremacy, Christian nationalism, and America Firstism. Humphrey’s combination of moral courage and pragmatic political skill shows us how to win that battle.  

The title of your book, Into the Bright Sunshine, was taken from Humphrey’s 1948 speech proposing a better future for all Americans. Have we reached this vision 75 years later?  

America’s racial history is one of cycles of oppression, resistance, liberation, progress, and backlash. We saw backlash after Reconstruction, after mass immigration of Jews, Catholics, and Asians in the 1880–1924 period, after the civil rights movement’s successes in the 1950s and 1960s, and now, after the Obama presidency and the Supreme Court’s endorsement of marriage equality as a Constitutional right. So we have the centuries-long project of two steps forward, one step back. Every generation must get to the political barricades to defend the ground we’ve won and then push the frontier toward ever greater equality.  

For people who want to read the book and are considering attending your talk, what do you think is the most significant thing they will take away from this event?  

That there’s a Hubert Humphrey you never knew, and there’s a Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s that you never heard about. And both those pieces of knowledge are essential.  

Samuel Freedman will continue this conversation with UW-Madison journalism professor Kathryn McGarr on Monday, November 13 at 5 P.M. in the auditorium of the Wisconsin Historical Society, 816 State Street. The public is welcome! A reception and book signing will follow the discussion.

This event will be recorded but not livestreamed.
R.S.V.P. for event reminder and link to recording available after the event: https://go.wisc.edu/820p51

We strive to ensure our events are inclusive and welcoming for all participants. If you need an accommodation, please contact Friends@library.wisc.edu.

Hosted by the Friends of UW-Madison Libraries in partnership with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Center for Campus History, the Center for Journalism Ethics, and the Department of History