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Humphrey’s happy fight for racial equity and harmony

Date Published: 08/09/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


The sweetest and funniest moment for me at the unveiling of Hubert H. Humphrey’s statue last week was former President Bill Clinton’s soaring rhetoric about the economic uplift from racial equity and civil rights, and about Humphrey’s dream-come-true of “a more perfect union.”

Clinton thanked Humphrey for transforming his once segregated state of Arkansas and the American South into a more equal and more prosperous place. And then he added a touch of down-home Ozarks wisdom, with this dismissal of today’s sourpusses, who say our own democratic governments are incapable of further improving our lives. The solutions to our nation’s problems, Clinton said, will not come “from people who look like they spent all mornin’ suckin’ lemons.”

Humphrey’s great life and accomplishments stand as a permanent rebuke to the lemon-sucking cynics who say our nation or state can’t afford to fix its social problems and gross inequalities. Or that all we need is to be left alone on our private property with our guns, an extremely low tax obligation, and new constitutional restrictions that will make it harder for minorities, students, the elderly, and low-income citizens to vote. Those are the very people Humphrey famously described as those in the dawn, twilight and shadows of life, places where most of us will be at some point in our existence.

Growing diversity and economic inequality in our state — 30 percent of our kids under 5 are non-white and disproportionately poor or low-income — is the biggest single challenge and opportunity of our times. Yawning gaps in test scores and postsecondary completion between whites and non-whites, and corresponding gaps in unemployment rates, must be narrowed by all means possible. And we desperately need more Humphrey-esque commitment and optimism (from top leaders down to all us ordinary folks) to close this opportunity gap.
National conservative columnist David Brooks flagged the growing opportunity gap as the nation’s paramount concern in a recent op-ed, and declared that “equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern.” He added that difficult choices must be made by both parties and ideologies “if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it.”

Much was made at weekend events celebrating Humphrey’s bipartisanship and spirit of compromise, fitting for a Minnesotan who probably had more international impact than any other, and to a man who has been described as the most effective legislator of the 20th century. Humphrey was the epitome of the liberal Democrat but also was legendary for his buoyant and cheerful demeanor, his utter lack of animosity, his inability to carry a grudge, and his ability to work with Republicans to get things done.

But at his core, Humphrey was a progressive zealot. He was a passionate, unapologetic advocate not only for the oppressed and the poor, but also for the vast and vulnerable middle class, not only in his state and country, but all over the world.

He was relentlessly optimistic about the reality of improving people’s lives and their economic security through partnerships between open and free democratic governments and free markets. And then he helped make that happen, from civil rights legislation, to Medicare and federal education investments, to arms-control treaties, to fighting brutal communist dictatorships, to the establishment of the Peace Corps. Thus his immortal nickname, “The Happy Warrior.”

By the late 1960s, Humphrey’s corny Midwestern style was sneered at by a new generation of young affluent liberal elites, who ridiculed him not only for his Cold War resolve and his connection to President Lyndon Johnson’s unwinnable Vietnam War, but for his sunny optimism itself. In “Wit & Wisdom of Hubert H. Humphrey,” a collection of his sayings published in 1984, Humphrey addressed his inability to get down with the fashionable despair of the times.

“Sometimes you seem more intelligent if you look highly critical, ponderous and disturbed. But I must say, I never felt that I was a very good pessimist. It never agreed with my temperament.” And he said this: “I am one of the congenital optimists in Washington. I’m accused of it all the time and I want to tell you why I’ve staked out that little preserve. The area of pessimism is overcrowded, and I’m not that good a competitor. When I saw literally virgin territory for an optimist, I moved over to that side.”

Humphrey was not a mindless Pollyanna, however. Just before his death in January of 1978, 15 years after the passage of Civil Rights legislation, he spoke frankly about the work that still had to be done. His warning is as true now as it was then, and it reminds us that we took a wrong turn in the early 1980s toward neglecting social and racial inequity as a top priority for our state and nation. These words were spoken before Humphrey’s death in January of 1978, and today can be applied to all disadvantaged populations, not just black Americans.

After noting that great progress had been achieved since segregation and official discrimination had been outlawed, Humphrey said that “we cannot be satisfied in measuring our progress solely by the distance we have come from the abominable conditions that existed in a period of gross injustice. We must face the facts. For despite our progress a huge valley of shame separates black and white America.”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, August 9, 2012.

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