President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights

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Statement by the President

Freedom From Fear is more fully realized in our country than in any other on the face of the earth. Yet all parts of our population are not equally free from fear. And from time to time, and in some places, this freedom has been gravely threatened. . .

Today, Freedom From Fear, and the democratic institutions which sustain it, are again under attack. In some places, from time to time, the local enforcement of law and order has broken down, and individuals – sometimes ex-servicemen, even women – have been killed, maimed, or intimidated.

The preservation of civil liberties is a duty of every Government–state, Federal and local. Wherever the law enforcement measures and the authority of Federal, state, and local governments are inadequate to discharge this primary function of government, these measures and this authority should be strengthened and improved.

The Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws clearly place on the Federal Government the duty to act when state or local authorities abridge or fail to protect these Constitutional rights.

Yet in its discharge of the obligations placed on it by the Constitution, the Federal Government is hampered by inadequate civil rights statutes. The protection of our democratic institutions and the enjoyment by the people of their rights under the Constitution require that these weak and inadequate statutes should be expanded and improved. We must provide the Department of Justice with the tools to do the job.

I have, therefore, issued today an Executive Order creating the President’s Committee on Civil Rights and I am asking this Committee to prepare for me a written report. . .

Executive Order 9808 Establishing the President’s Committee on Civil Rights

WHEREAS the preservation of civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution is essential to domestic tranquility, national security, the general welfare, and the continued existence of our free institutions; and

WHEREAS the action of individuals who take the law into their own hands and inflict summary punishment and wreak personal vengeance is subversive of our democratic system of law enforcement and public criminal justice, and gravely threatens our form of government; and

WHEREAS it is essential that all possible steps be taken to safeguard our civil rights:

Now, THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States, it is hereby ordered as follows:

1. There is hereby created a committee to be known as the President’s Committee on Civil Rights . . .

2. The Committee is authorized on behalf of the President to inquire into and to determine whether and in what respect current law-enforcement measures and the authority and means possessed by Federal, State, and local governments may be strengthened and improved to safeguard the civil rights of the people.

3. All executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government are authorized and directed to cooperate with the Committee in its work . . .

4. When requested by the Committee to do so, persons employed in any of the executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall testify before the Committee and shall make available for the use of the Committee such documents and other information as the Committee may require.

5. The Committee shall make a report of its studies to the President in writing, and shall in particular make recommendations with respect to the adoption or establishment, by legislation or otherwise, of more adequate and effective means and procedures for the protection of the civil rights of the people of the United States.

. . .



December 5, 1946

To Secure These Rights: The Report of President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights

The Committee’s first task was the interpretation of its assignment. We were not asked to evaluate the extent to which civil rights have been achieved in our country. We did not, therefore, devote ourselves to the construction of a balance sheet which would properly assess the great progress which the nation has made, as well as the shortcomings in the record. Instead, we have almost exclusively focused our attention on the bad side of our record-on what might be called the civil rights frontier.

This necessary emphasis upon our country’s failures should not be permitted to obscure the real measure of its successes. No fair-minded student of American history, or of world history, will deny to the United States a position of leadership in enlarging the range of human liberties and rights, in recognizing and stating the ideals of freedom and equality, and in steadily and loyally working to make those ideals a reality. Whatever our failures in practice have been or may be, there has never been a time when the American people have doubted the validity of those ideals. We still regard them as vital to our democratic system.

If our task were to evaluate the level of achievement in our civil rights record, mention would have to be made of many significant developments in our history as a nation. We would want to refer to the steady progress toward the goal of universal suffrage which has marked the years between 1789 and the present. We would want to emphasize the disappearance of brutality from our society to a point where the occurrence of a single act of violence is a shocking event precisely because it is so out of keeping with our system of equal justice under law. And we would want to point to the building of our present economy which surely gives the individual greater social mobility, greater economic freedom of choice than any other nation has ever been able to offer. . . .

At an early point in our work we decided to define our task broadly, to go beyond the specific flagrant outrages to which the President referred in his statement to the Committee. We have done this because these individual instances are only reflections of deeper maladies. We believe we must cure the disease as well as treat its symptoms. . .

For our present assignment we have found it appropriate to consolidate some individual freedoms . . . to omit others altogether, and to stress still others which have in the past not been given prominence. Our decisions reflect what we consider to be the nation’s most immediate needs. Civil rights, after all, are statements of aspirations, of demands which we make on ourselves and our society. We believe that the principles which underlie them are timeless. But we have selected for treatment those whose implementation is a pressing requirement. . .

This report deals with serious civil rights violations in all sections of the country. Much of it has to do with limitations on civil rights in our southern states. To a great extent this reflects reality; many of the most sensational and serious violations of civil rights have taken place in the South. . . .

In addition to this seeming stress on the problems of one region, many of our illustrations relate to the members of various minority groups, with particular emphasis upon Negroes. The reasons are obvious; these minorities have often had their civil rights abridged. Moreover, the unjust basis for these abridgments stands out sharply because of the distinctiveness of the groups. To place this apparent. emphasis in its proper perspective one need only recall the history of bigotry and discrimination. At various times practically every region in the country has had its share of disgraceful interferences with the rights of some persons. At some time, members of practically every group have had their freedoms curtailed.

In our own time the mobility of our population, including minority groups, is carrying certain of our civil rights problems to all parts of the country. In the near future it is likely that the movement of Negroes from rural to urban areas, and from the South to the rest of the country, will continue. Other minority groups, too, will probably move from their traditional centers of concentration. Unless we take appropriate action on a national scale, their civil rights problems will follow them.

The protection of civil rights is a national problem which affects everyone. We need to guarantee the same rights to every person regardless of who he is, where he lives, or what his racial, religious or national origins are. . . .

From all this and our own discussions and deliberations we have sought answers to the following:

  1. What is the historic civil rights goal of the American people?
  2. In what ways does our present record fall short of the goal?
  3. What is government’s responsibility for the achievement of the goal
  4. (4) What further steps does the nation now need to take to reach the goal?

Our report which follows is divided into four sections which provide our answers to these questions.

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