About the Book by Samuel G. Freedman Titled “Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights”

From a New York Times book review by Khalil Gibran Muhammad headlined “How Hubert Humphrey Tried to Make Minneapolis, and America, Less Racist”:

Minneapolis may be the city most notorious for anti-Black police violence in the world. In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by the police officer Derek Chauvin, tens of millions of people across the United States protested for civil rights in a city once considered a national model of racial liberalism, in a state whose citizens are thought to be “Minnesota Nice.”

Today, Minneapolis is a poster city for extreme racial disparities. Out of the top 100 largest metropolitan areas, Minneapolis ranks 99th in the gap between Black and white earnings.

In June, the Department of Justice cited this statistic in its investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department. From routine instances of excessive (and sometimes deadly) uses of force to everyday racist taunts, the Police Department disproportionately abused Blacks and Native Americans with little to no accountability. Reflecting on these patterns, the U.S. attorney general, Merrick Garland, said, “They made what happened to George Floyd possible.”

And yet, eight decades ago, as the journalist Samuel G. Freedman writes in his riveting new biography, “Into the Bright Sunshine,” the Minneapolis mayor and future presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey made progress in dismantling prejudice in the city’s Police Department.

Little remains in Minneapolis of the trailblazing legacy of Humphrey, an exceptional white liberal for his time. He defended the rights of minorities during the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan, the rise of fascism in America and the ascent of Jim Crow-inspired Nazism in Germany. He is better known as the two-term U.S. senator and vice president to Lyndon Johnson who lost the presidency to Richard Nixon in 1968. But two decades earlier, at the Democratic National Convention, he became a singular figure in the party’s move away from its white supremacist Southern roots toward the cause of racial equality.

Long before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s, Freedman argues, Humphrey led Minneapolis to become “virtually the only city in America” where a victim of racial discrimination could “count on the government as an ally.” Freedman’s book shows how this happened. It is a superbly written tale of moral and political courage for present-day readers who find themselves in similarly dark times.

Nothing about the abundant fields of wheat growing across the prairies of Doland, S.D., where Humphrey came of age, would predict the life he lived. A hard-luck childhood, buoyed by an idealistic father who believed in the social gospel and the inherent goodness of others, molded his sensitivities as a class warrior.

By the mid-1920s, during his teens, South Dakota was awash in ruined farms and bank failures, a prelude to the Great Depression that hit Midwestern farmers before big-city bankers. Out of the economic devastation and exposure to liberal and leftist professors at the University of Minnesota in the late 1930s, he became a lifelong New Dealer.

Drawn by a paid graduate program to Louisiana State University in 1939, Humphrey came face to face with the realities of American racism. In Baton Rouge, Black people made up a third of the population. The usual deprivations abounded — few indoor toilets and scarcely any electricity. Black farmers were excluded from white welfare in the form of New Deal agricultural loans and subsidies.

The L.S.U. sociology professor Rudolf Heberle, a German émigré, made plain that what was happening to Jews in Europe mirrored the hate and oppression Humphrey could see closer to home. “Out of this group,” Heberle said looking around the seminar table, “there wouldn’t be over two of you that would have resisted Hitler.” The implications for Humphrey, Freedman writes, were crystal clear: “The Jew in Germany was the Black in America.”

After returning to Minneapolis, Humphrey chose to enter politics to battle racism and homegrown antisemitism. By the mid-1930s, Minneapolis hosted a thriving Christian nationalist movement called the Silver Legion whose members were known as Silver Shirts, copycats of Hitler’s Brownshirts and antecedents of today’s Proud Boys. They stood for “returning American Blacks to slavery,” Freedman writes, “and disenfranchising, segregating and finally sterilizing American Jews.”

Humphrey ran for mayor in 1943, lost and tried again two years later. The second time around, the key issue in the race was an explosion of violence against Jewish teenagers — some attackers chanting “Heil, Hitler!” — just as the mass killings in Europe had become front-page news. The incumbent said and did little. Humphrey promised to fight and won in a landslide.

Freedman tells a surprising and rare history of Black and Jewish Americans fighting against racism and antisemitism, often side by side, in a Northern city before the civil rights era. His brilliant profiles of these local heroes are gripping and, in many ways, the spine of the book.

“Into the Bright Sunshine” focuses especially on two consequential foot soldiers in Minneapolis’s racial justice movement who pushed Humphrey to live up to his values: Sam Scheiner, an attorney and jazz pianist who led the Minnesota Jewish Council, and Cecil Newman, a founding publisher of the superb Minneapolis Spokesman who agitated against local mob violence, employment discrimination, restrictive covenants and police brutality.

Before becoming mayor, Humphrey met with Newman and read his paper, which offered him praise for his “unusually fair treatment of Negroes.” Two months into his term, in August 1945, two Black women, friends of Newman’s, were wrongfully arrested during a raid of the Dreamland Café, a chic haven for interracial couples. In the middle of the night, Newman called the mayor down to Police Headquarters to do something about it.

Humphrey got the women released, sent some officers to bias training and demoted their bigoted commander. In 1947, he fought for and secured the passage of an anti-discrimination employment law. The measure caught the notice of a half-dozen other cities. Humphrey also created the Mayor’s Council on Human Relations to document and investigate discrimination against racial and religious minorities.

At every turn, Humphrey faced a fierce backlash. Menacing messages poured in from local Nazis. One frigid night, in 1947, Humphrey was fumbling for his keys in front of his door when three shots rang out in his direction. His dog Tippy began to bark. Humphrey survived unscathed, but two weeks later Tippy vanished.

Humphrey’s principled stand for multiracial democracy in Minneapolis quickly elevated his national profile. In 1948, he was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Not since 1924, when Democrats debated the merits of fighting the Klan, or 1860, when they divided over slavery, had the issue of race so threatened to destroy the party. As liberals pushed to end poll taxes and pass anti-lynching legislation, Southern delegates invoked states’ rights and rebelled.

In the book’s final chapter, Freedman gives us a dramatic retelling of the backdoor dealings at the convention over the language of a civil rights plank. In support of a robust pledge, Humphrey delivered a speech to the tens of millions of people who tuned in through their radios and televisions. “The time has arrived,” he said, “to get out of the shadows of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

The stronger version of the civil rights plank won and helped earn Humphrey a seat in the U.S. Senate. Southern delegates walked out of the convention, founded the Dixiecrat Party and made the South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond its presidential nominee. In the presidential race, Harry Truman beat the Republican Thomas Dewey, because Black voters in California, Ohio and Illinois gave Truman the electoral balance of power. Without those states, there likely would have been a contested election decided by a House that was dominated by Southern Democrats. The Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond might have become president.

“Into the Bright Sunshine” appears on the 75th anniversary of Humphrey’s convention speech, two weeks after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in higher education. Minneapolis is no longer the capital of antisemitism, as the journalist Carey McWilliams called it in 1946, but Humphrey’s ascent to the national stage was Minneapolis’s loss: Decades of less courageous political work unwound the progress he and others made. Hatred against Jews is on the rise nationally and the city remains an example of the unfinished work of ending systemic racism in America.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of “The Condemnation of Blackness.”

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