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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2008

Humphrey paved way for modern Democratic Party

MINNEAPOLIS - If you have an eye for these things, you might have noticed that Sen. Barack Obama is going to deliver his acceptance speech in a football stadium Aug. 28. The last man to deliver an acceptance speech in a stadium was John F. Kennedy. The last important speech to be delivered on an Aug. 28 was given by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 45 years ago.

Some coincidence, maybe even some poetry?

The Kennedy speech was presented in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It is remembered today for the three words that provided its theme: the New Frontier.

"The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises - it is a set of challenges," Kennedy said. "It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them."

The King speech was delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It, too, is remembered for a handful of words, in King's case the four words that provided his theme: I have a dream.

"And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream," King said. "It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'•"

But there is one more anniversary worth noting in this political summer, an anniversary that, like the other two, showed the way for America. Just last week occurred the little noted, nor long remembered, 60th anniversary of perhaps the greatest speech ever delivered at a political convention by someone who was not the nominee.

In years to come, if Mr. Obama is elected in November, and if he is a successful president, that description might be bent to fit his own speech at the Boston convention in 2004.

"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," said the soon-to-be-elected U.S. senator. "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

But as stirring as the Obama speech was to the delegates in the Fleet Center, it did not challenge the conventional way of doing things - it did not hurl a challenge at the heart of his own party or a sitting president of his party - anywhere near as much as Hubert H. Humphrey did in his speech six decades ago.

Remember that the Democratic Party of 1948, like the Democratic Party of 1928 and 1968, was a party of northern ethnics who leaned to the left and Southern yellow dogs who leaned right and white. In those days, the party that supported civil rights was the Republican Party, and if over the years you haven't read enough assumption-busting remarks about deeply misunderstood Calvin Coolidge in this space, then consider what the 30th president wrote at the high-water mark of Ku Klux Klan popularity in response to a letter bemoaning the possibility that a black man might run for Congress on the GOP ticket in New York:

"I was amazed to receive such a letter. During the war 500,000 colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it," Coolidge wrote, adding that as president, he was "one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party. Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color. I have taken my oath to support that Constitution."

Though African-Americans began to move into the Democratic Party in large numbers after the election of Franklin Roosevelt, six years after the Coolidge letter, there remained many racist strains in the Democratic anthem. It was against that backdrop that Humphrey, then the mayor of Minneapolis and a U.S. Senate candidate, rose to speak at the Democratic convention on behalf of a minority plank on civil rights that defied even the Truman administration:

"To those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."

Humphrey's movement carried the day, prompting a dramatic walkout by half of the Alabama delegation and the entire Mississippi delegation. This led to the establishment of a separate States Rights Democratic Party, known informally as the Dixiecrats, which nominated Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for president. The Dixiecrats won 39 electoral votes and a sad footnote in American history.

Today, Humphrey is remembered as something of a blowhard, or as the near-toady who served as Lyndon B. Johnson's vice president, or as the not-liberal-enough Democratic nominee who managed to lose the 1968 presidential election to Richard Nixon after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Both the left and the right have him wrong.

Humphrey was a giant in Minnesota, where he helped merge the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties (and later drove the Communists out of the DFL), and in the U.S. Senate, where he fought for full employment and foreign aid and laid the groundwork for the Peace Corps, an idea usually attributed to Kennedy. In a classic showdown in the 1960 Democratic primaries, Humphrey was outgunned and outspent by Kennedy, who was the conservative in that race.

"I'm constantly struck at how people get forgotten," Walter Mondale, a Humphrey disciple who followed him to the Senate and the vice presidency, said in a conversation the other day.

"Hubert's generation has largely disappeared. But for thoughtful scholars he has to be marked as one of the greatest and most gifted forces of his time. Our lives today, and our Democratic nominee, would be absolutely inconceivable without what Hubert and Martin Luther King and many others did."



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