Robert Taft’s Conservative Proposal for Civil Rights

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party when he announced his support for civil rights legislation. He was the first president of his party to do so, supporting anti-lynching legislation, banning the poll tax for federal elections, and a permanent “mandatory” Fair Employment Practices Committee. This was a marked change from the Democratic Party of a quarter century ago that overwhelmingly opposed anti-lynching legislation and a change in Truman himself. As a senator, Truman had backed anti-lynching legislation but it was strictly for the purposes of winning the black vote as privately he didn’t care for it. Truman’s change was partly motivated by his own sense of horror at the fact that black veterans were getting shot in the South for trying to vote and also partly a recognition of a new constituency in the Democratic Party. Until 1936, blacks overwhelmingly voted Republican, but the GOP’s low prioritization of civil rights left an opening for a Democratic Party willing to court their interests, and FDR did so through the New Deal.

Although FDR had pointedly maintained silence on the question of anti-lynching legislation to not cause a schism in the Democratic Party, he did create a wartime agency called the Fair Employment Practices Committee after being pressured to do so by black union leaders such as A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porter’s union. This committee tackled cases of discrimination in businesses contracted by the government for the war and was bitterly opposed by Southern Democrats. Congress extended the agency until 1946, when a Southern filibuster felled legislation that would have made the agency permanent.

Taft’s Substitute for FEPC Resurrection

In 1948, the GOP’s share of the black vote was less than the Democrats, but they were still able to win around a third of that vote. In 1944, the Republicans actually embraced a “mandatory” FEPC with the power to bring action against businesses for discrimination but, as House Leader Joseph W. Martin Jr. (R-Mass.) stated with striking candor, it was a one-time offer for this election. Because Dewey didn’t win and black voters voted a fourth term for FDR, they dropped support for it as it wasn’t worth causing a conflict with the business interests that supported the GOP. For Republicans, however, this wasn’t the end of their thinking on the FEPC.

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Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) recognized the discrimination black workers faced in employment and thought that before a major federal committee be created to tackle discrimination claims that a conservative and educative approach should be tried first. This would come in the form of the “voluntary” FEPC. This committee would have the power to investigate businesses and report findings and recommendations, but not force businesses to any course of action. I call this measure a “conservative” approach as conservatism doesn’t necessarily oppose change but prefers gradual change and limited uses of federal power, of which the Taft measure satisfied both. The key vote on this subject occurred in the House in 1950, when the measure’s House sponsor, Samuel McConnell (R-Penn.), proposed to substitute the “mandatory FEPC” with the “voluntary FEPC”. His proposal passed, with the conservative coalition lining up behind it. Bear in mind of course that part of this coalition were Southern Democrats, who simply were voting for what was in their minds the “lesser of two evils”, which was demonstrated when they lined up against the bill’s passage. Some conservative Republicans opposed this measure as well out of fear that it would lead to another “New Deal” type of agency. In the Senate, although Taft managed to persuade all but six of his fellow Republicans to support this bill, it went down to defeat in a filibuster.

Given future action on civil rights, the measure’s opponents, at least those who were interested in limiting federal power as opposed to maintaining white hegemony, seem short-sighted in retrospect: by 1964 Taft had been dead over a decade and the nation’s political climate had changed to the extent that the ship had sailed for the idea of a voluntary agency. It is possible that had Taft’s proposal had become law that gradually discrimination would lessen through educating businesses and the public about its effects, and a law as sweeping as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 wouldn’t have been needed. However, we will never know if this would have worked as the voluntary FEPC was never tried.

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