Classroom Activities

  1. After reading the text of Truman’s speech to the NAACP, listen to the audio of the address (available online here) and watch the Universal Newsreel coverage of the address (available online here). Imagine listening to the president’s speech over radio and then seeing the newsreel footage a few days later. How do the visual images change your perception of the speech (if at all)? How do Truman’s frequent references to the place or location of his address work to persuade his audience?
  2. Discuss how Truman’s argument for civil rights legislation also articulated his Cold War foreign policy. How does he describe the role the United States should assume for the rest of the world? Do the connections Truman makes between his Cold War policy—including its role for the United States—and civil rights strengthen his overall argument or weaken it? Why?
  3. Visit the Harry S. Truman Library Website (here) to see the president’s own insertions into the 4th draft of his speech to the NAACP. What do these handwritten notations reveal about Truman’s role in writing this speech?
  4. Why do you think many media outlets (especially the black newspapers) made note of Truman’s agreement to address the NAACP in person (see pp. 29-34 of the interpretive essay)? Why was his presence rhetorically significant?
  5. Read the citizen letters printed in the interpretive essay (pp. 34-41) and discuss what these responses teach us about the nation’s view on civil rights and the hostile opposition Truman encountered from Southerners.
  6. Read the letter written by Mrs. Dorothy Chance (pp. 40-41). Why is this missive so powerful? How does it reflect the broader experience of African American citizens at the time?

Student Research

  1. Read William Leuchtenberg’s American Heritage article, “The Conversion of Harry Truman” (available online here) and write an essay that answers the following question: “How is it that someone who grew up in such a racist family, town, and state could take such a radically different view of civil rights and race relations as President of the United States? What were the motivating factors for this shift?”
  2. Contemporary audiences most often associate the Lincoln Memorial with the civil rights movement but, as the interpretive essay notes, this was not the original intent. Read the dedication speeches delivered by Taft and Harding (in Concklin) and write an essay describing their vision for the monument and how they articulated Lincoln’s stance on slavery and emancipation.
  3. Truman’s bold stance on civil rights in 1947 almost cost him the 1948 presidential election. Do some research on the States’ Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) in your university library on the formation of this group (start with works by Buchanan, Frederickson, and Karabell) and consider the following question: “What role does (and should) the president of the United States play in defining the moral conscience of a nation—even at the cost of political expedience or personal gain?”
  4. Another Southern Democrat, Lyndon B. Johnson, signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 after some of the most turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement. Read the statement Johnson delivered at the signing ceremony (on the American Presidency Project). What similarities in argument are there between Truman’s speech to the NAACP and Johnson’s statement? Are these similarities important? Why or why not?

Citizenship Resources

  1. In his speech to the NAACP, Truman argued that the federal government—and not just state governments—should work to extend civil rights to “all Americans.” Today, politicians often debate the role of the federal government in deciding political and social issues such as marriage equality, access to birth control, immigration, carbon emission standards, and drug use. What is the role of the federal government in such issues? In your view, what would have happened if Truman had not ordered the federal government to investigate civil rights abuses and maintained the sovereignty of individual states?
  2. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered an important speech discussing race and civil rights in the United States. Read the speech (via the New York Times) and discuss how, like Truman, Obama’s drew on the nation’s history and founding documents as evidence. Consider how we as citizens should remember the past—including painful and troubling aspects such as slavery, the Civil War, and disenfranchisement of non-white citizens—so that we can change the present and future.
  3. In 2013, President Barack Obama delivered a statement after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. Read or watch the president’s remarks and consider how Obama’s own personal ethos contributes to his argument. Why is he uniquely qualified to speak on this issue? How does he make his case?