This Month in History: A split Democratic Party faces the 1948 Election

On this day in 1948, the Democratic Party was on the verge of splitting in two. Less than two months later, a group of southern delegates would march out of the party convention. They were irate about changes to the party platform, and they refused to participate in the nomination of Harry S. Truman for President.

The cause of the split wasn’t too pretty, of course. At the core of the conflict was a disagreement about segregation and civil rights.

Northern Democrats were tired of the bland generalizations about equality in the party platform. They were ready to support specific changes: They wanted desegregation, anti-lynching laws, equal employment opportunities, and the abolition of state poll taxes. But southern Democrats were not on board. They preferred the old, non-specific language.         

When the convention finally began, Hubert Humphrey delivered an emotional speech. “The time has arrived in America,” he argued, “for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

Impugning states’ rights wasn’t going to go very far with some southern delegates, of course, even if the civil rights point was valid. The proposed changes to the platform passed, but only by the slimmest of margins. Then, as Life magazine would report, “the convention blew up.”

Some southerners had had enough! The vice chairman of the Alabama delegation announced that he and others were “compelled to walk out.” All of the Mississippi delegates marched out, along with half of the Alabama delegation. Those southern delegates who remained behind refused to vote for Truman. Instead, they cast a protest vote for Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia.

In the end, many southerners would go on to create a new party, the States’ Rights (“Dixiecrat”) Democratic Party. It tapped then-Governor Strom Thurmond as its nominee. Thurmond was able to get on the ballot in four southern states under the Democratic label. He appeared in several other states under a States’ Rights label.

In the meantime, the wrangling at the Democratic convention went on for hours! Truman had been scheduled to give his acceptance speech at 10:00 p.m. on July 14. His speech was finally given at 2:00 a.m. on July 15.

Conventional wisdom was that Truman’s candidacy was doomed. The Republicans had nominated a “dream team” of Thomas E. Dewey (NY) and Earl Warren (CA). With the Democratic Party split, how could the Republicans lose?

In this instance, conventional wisdom turned out to be incorrect.

Interestingly, Thurmond’s third party candidacy had an unusual effect. It seemed to free Truman from a racist taint that threatened to drag down the Democratic Party. Suddenly, Truman was able to present himself as a reasonable, mainstream candidate who could appeal to a greater variety of voters. He was able to obtain the votes of many northerners who had been feeling unsure about him.

Moreover, Truman worked hard to get people behind him. “Harry was a damned good campaigner,” one Labor leader later said. “He loved to get out and mix with people and he knew how to talk their language. You know, he was no high-falutin’ guy. He could be understood by every factory worker, every coal miner, every textile worker, every housewife.”

Truman pulled it off. In the end, he carried 28 states (303 electors) to Dewey’s 16 states (189 electors) and Thurmond’s 4 states (39 electors).

It might have been a three-man race, but the Electoral College did what it always does: Gives the election to the candidate who works to build the broadest national coalition.