Proud Days: Henry Wallace's Campaign for the Presidency

Magazine cover with "Elections" in blue text against white background, and "grassroots strategies for change" in black text

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

During the last days of summer in 1948, Henry Wallace went South campaigning for the presidency and challenging the segregation system head on. Starting in Virginia and on through North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee, Franklin Roosevelt's second term vice-president encountered violent street scenes and mob protest as he carried his message of political reform and racial justice to more than 20 nonsegregated gatherings — a first for a presidential candidate. This Southern campaign, now almost forgotten, broke new ground in the South and paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement that began in the 1950s.

As Progressive Party candidate for the presidency, Henry Wallace made racial issues second only to his peace plank, which challenged the emerging Cold War polarization between the U.S. and Soviet Union. But in the South, civil rights was the central focus of his strategy. This was due largely to the influence of Wallace's Southern supporters who had struggled for more than a decade to promote economic, political, and racial reform in the region. The Progressive Party effort in 1948 provided a platform for appealing directly to the Southern electorate across racial lines.

Henry Wallace's key advisers included two decidedly atypical Southern Democrats who were at the forefront of New Deal reforms under Roosevelt. C.B. "Beanie" Baldwin of Radford, Virginia, had worked for Wallace in the Department of Agriculture and was involved with some of the most innovative programs initiated under the New Deal. As head of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Baldwin was especially sensitive to the plight of tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the South. He believed that the long-term solution to the problems of poor farmers depended on their becoming an active part of the Southern electorate. Because a "poll tax" prevented even many white farmers from voting, Baldwin authorized funds for payment of the poll tax through FSA loans.

Another Wallace adviser was Clark Foreman, a native of Atlanta, who began his term in Washington in 1933 as special adviser to the president on negro affairs. President Roosevelt consulted Foreman when he launched his ill-fated attempt to purge from office conservative Southern Democrats, the strongest opponents of the New Deal. Foreman's recommendations to the president triggered the study which led to the 1938 Report on the Economic Conditions of the South. The far-reaching list of recommendations in the study became the "Bible" of liberals, North and South, who wanted to transform the region. Shortly after its publication, Southern New Dealers joined in establishing the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), an organization devoted to building a political base of support for New Deal reforms in the South.

Before this could take place, however, liberals had to challenge the complex structure of voting restrictions which disfranchised the majority of blacks, poor farmers, laborers, and others who stood to gain the most from New Deal reforms. As the first step in a campaign to increase the electorate, the SCHW spearheaded a drive to abolish the poll tax. This led to the establishment of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax (NCAPT), directed by Virginia Durr. The NCAPT built a nationwide network of support and succeeded in getting anti-poll tax legislation passed by the House of Representatives several times. But each time the House approved the bill, Southern senators successfully filibustered to defeat it.

Toward the end of World War II, efforts to mobilize liberal Southern voters were invigorated by the establishment of the Congress of Industrial Organizations Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC). Low voter turnout in 1942, CIO analysts thought, contributed to the election of the most conservative Congress in more than a decade. This threatened the gains made by labor under the New Deal. Clark Foreman, who directed CIO-PAC's affiliate, the National Citizens Political Action Committee (NCPAC), observed that too many Americans still failed to understand "the relationship of politics to food, clothing, and shelter."

With their sights set on the 1944 election, CIO-PAC and NCPAC initiated a nationwide voter education drive. In many cities, CIO-PAC moved registration booths right into the factories. This campaign was a huge success; several conservative congressmen and senators who were opposed by CIO-PAC went down to defeat in the primaries. And one of the most prominent conservatives, Martin Dies, head of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, declined to run in the face of organized CIO opposition. Political analysis credited the PACs with causing a much larger voter turnout than expected, and this was critical to Roosevelt's re-election.

Clark Foreman and James Dombrowski, one of the founders of Highlander Center (see S.E. July/ August 1982), took leave from SCHW to work with the PACs on the successful 1944 campaign. After the election, CIO-PAC and SCHW formally joined forces in a nationwide voter education and registration drive. With financial assistance from the CIO, SCHW established state offices throughout the South to organize liberals and labor around a program of social and economic reform. The focus on expanding the electorate faced a two-fold challenge: to overcome legalized voter restrictions, and to break through the tradition of not voting.

Expansion of the Southern Conference's efforts to conduct statewide voting campaigns coincided with the Supreme Court's momentous decision in the case of Smith v. Allwright in April 1944 outlawing white-only primaries. With the greatest legal obstacle to black voter participation thus removed, Southern black leaders immediately set about organizing black registration and voting drives. Within two years, black voter leagues were established in almost every Southern state. In this period, black voter registration tripled from an estimated 200,000 in 1944 to 600,000 in 1946.

Increasing black political activism stimulated the efforts of the SCHW and CIO-PAC in the South. Unlike traditional Southern liberals, who continued to pursue a more gradual approach to race issues, those working with the Southern Conference and CIO-PAC welcomed the expanding black political involvement. Clark Foreman, Virginia Durr, and James Dombrowski were among those who not only opposed segregation on moral grounds, but believed it had to be confronted before the broad range of Southern economic problems could be effectively considered. Prepared to challenge the segregation system, they realized the black vote would hasten the demise of Jim Crow and encourage progress toward racial justice in the South.

Believing the black vote would provide solid support for their programs, SCHW and CIO-PAC had joined with the NAACP and black voter leagues in promoting registration drives in black communities in 1944. The NAACP publicly praised the SCHW and adopted a resolution endorsing its work. SCHW hired Osceola McKaine, co-founder of the Progressive Democratic Party in South Carolina, to work with local black organizations throughout the region. CIO-PAC similarly hired Henry Lee Moon, a native of South Carolina, to encourage and assist Southern black voter leagues.

During the postwar period, SCHW and CIO-PAC were part of the broad liberal coalition within the Democratic Party dedicated to preserving and advancing New Deal reforms. Most liberal Democrats seriously questioned Truman's ability to follow through on Roosevelt's program for the postwar period, which was charted in his "Economic Bill of Rights." This concern, however, was soon eclipsed by the issue of Communism, brought to the forefront by the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). For those joining the ADA, priority was given to routing Communist Party members and sympathizers from labor and liberal organizations. This coincided with a basic support for President Truman's hard line toward the Soviet Union.

Others, represented by the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA), continued in the tradition of the popular front. PCA opposed Truman's foreign policy as a departure from Roosevelt's conciliatory approach toward the Soviet Union. Moreover, they remained doubtful of the President's commitment to the promise of the New Deal. Henry Wallace had long been heralded by liberals as heir apparent to the Roosevelt legacy, a political leader of vision and conviction. When it became clear that Truman would be renominated by the Democratic Party in 1948, Beanie Baldwin, Clark Foreman and several other advisers urged Wallace to run on an independent ticket. On December 27, 1947, Wallace announced his presidential candidacy.


Wallace's Progressive Party provided more than a platform for his political views. As an independent candidate, Wallace demonstrated his uncompromising commitment to basic social reforms in contrast to Truman's hollow pronouncements.

Nowhere was this contrast more striking than in the arena of civil rights. One day before the official announcement of his candidacy, Wallace elaborated his position on civil rights in a speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma: "I am here to say, Jim Crow in America simply has got to go," he began. While praising the report of Truman's Special Committee on Civil Rights, he argued that it was no substitute for action. Wallace called on the federal government to use its influence, through appropriations, to enlarge and equalize educational opportunities in the South and desegregate the schools. Regarding jobs, he urged Truman to put the full weight of his administration behind a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to end job discrimination within the federal government by executive order. Wallace concluded by saying the Justice Department "must use its full resources to stop the whole bagful of tricks by which Southern registrars and other officials deny Negro citizens the vote," and added, "We can't demand free elections in the Balkans and be passive about restrictions at home."

Support for Wallace's candidacy emerged in every Southern state. Although small in numbers, it represented a notable variety of black and white individuals including a scattering of old Populists, local CIO organizers, preachers, white collar workers, small businesspeople, and college students. J.P. Mooney, Charlie Wilson, and Mike Ross, white Southern organizers, had been at the forefront of implementing the CIO's policy of integrated unions in the South, as well as active in the PAC's Southern effort to organize black voters. Each took an active role in organizing Southern states for Wallace. Asbury Howard, black organizer for the Mine Mill and Smelter Workers, was active on Wallace's behalf in Birmingham, Alabama. The Price sisters from North Carolina, who worked for the Southern Conference, took charge of coordinating statewide efforts, Mary Price in North Carolina and Branson Price in Georgia. A Committee for Wallace was established early on in Georgia by Larkin Marshall, black editor of the Macon Daily World, and Reverend Isaiah Dumas, pastor of the First Unitarian Church in Atlanta.

Herman Wright, a Houston attorney, led in organizing support for Wallace in Texas, building a core group of campaign workers from Homer Rainey's 1946 gubernatorial race. J. Lewis Henderson, son of a tenant farmer and former public relations director for the Farm Security Administration, organized a Wallace for President Committee in his native state of Mississippi. Support for Wallace in Arkansas centered in Little Rock, where Daisy Bates played a pivotal role, working out of her husband's newspaper office (The Arkansas State Press). Virginia Durr led in organizing the Progressive Party in Virginia, and the Food and Tobacco Workers Union provided an important base of support. Dr. Alva Taylor, former professor of sociology and religion at Vanderbilt, and Clara Vincent, a Chattanooga housewife, led the early effort for Wallace in Tennessee. They were joined by Reverend D.V. Kyle, who organized a base of support for the Progressive Party among blacks in Memphis.

Activist Palmer Weber agreed to coordinate the Southern campaign effort on the condition that Louis Burnham, black civil rights activist and director of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, could join him as co-director and that they have the freedom to run the campaign as a head-on attack against the segregation system. Weber, a native of Smithfield, Virginia, never accepted Jim Crow as a fact of Southern life. While a student at the University of Virginia during the 1930s, he was active in a well-publicized attempt to integrate the graduate school. And in 1938 he wrote a magazine article on "The Negro Vote in the South," anticipating the potential of the black vote as a force in Southern politics.

Weber's early career paralleled Foreman's and Baldwin's. As an adviser to several congressional committees and liberal senators, he promoted progressive social and economic legislation — including anti-poll-tax legislation and a bill creating a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission — in the face of strong opposition from the Southern bloc. Weber left Capitol Hill to join the CIO-PAC, ultimately directing its research division. He also served on the board of the SCHW and helped to coordinate the efforts of both organizations to expand the liberal electorate in the South. Recognizing that race discrimination remained the greatest stumbling block to political and social progress, Weber viewed the Wallace effort as another avenue for pressing the fragile limits of the segregation system and breaking the long tradition of political disfranchisement and apathy.

The Progressive campaign in the South was a pathbreaking interracial effort. Blacks actively participated in organizing support for Wallace in every Southern state, and many ran as Progressive Party candidates for public office. Black ministers, funeral home directors, and college administrators played crucial roles by providing facilities for integrated meetings. Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., opened his church in Atlanta to Progressive Party organizers and personally invited members of his congregation to sign the petition for securing a place on the ballot. Noting that only registered voters were eligible to sign, King used the opportunity to urge people to register and instructed them on how to do so. Many other established black leaders took part in the Wallace campaign, some openly and some behind the scenes. Even for those who maintained their bases within the major parties, a primary political goal was to get blacks to the polls. Consequently they appreciated the Progressive Party as the only political organization committed to securing voting rights for blacks and gave it their unofficial support.

The immediate objective of the Wallace effort in the South was to get on the ballot. Requirements for third parties varied from state to state: Tennessee required a petition with 15 signatures; Mississippi, 50 signatures; Virginia required 250; and Alabama, 300. North Carolina required 10,000, and Georgia, 55,000 signatures. The Progressive Party focused its energies on the petition drive in North Carolina and Georgia. Student volunteers covered both states with petitions. Since only registered voters qualified to sign, the petition drive was another vehicle for promoting voter registration, as well as publicizing the Progressive Party. In North Carolina, over 35,000 signatures were collected while in Georgia the number exceeded 80,000. The Progressive Party succeeded in getting on the ballot in every Southern state.

In addition to promoting voter registration, the Progressives responded to the system of fear and intimidation used to keep blacks from the polls. The Isaiah Nixon case in Georgia serves as an example of this response. On September 8, 1948, Isaiah Nixon, a 28-year-old black man, attempted to vote in the Democratic primary. At the polling place in Alton, Georgia, the sheriff told Nixon that he had the right to vote, but advised him not to. After Nixon chose to exercise his right, two white men pulled up to his home, and shot him dead in front of his wife and six children. Branson Price, head of the Progressive Party in Georgia, recalled that the incident was well-timed to serve notice to blacks that they had better stay home on election day. Price contacted Nixon's widow to get a positive statement from the family. After affirming Price that they would vote and refuse to be intimidated, the Nixons taped statements for the Progressive Party to broadcast on election day.

During the campaign, Paul Robeson, vice-presidential candidate Glen Taylor, and Henry Wallace toured the South, bringing the platform of the Progressive Party directly to the Southern people. Following the policy of non-segregated meetings established by the SCHW, the speakers for the Progressive Party implicitly challenged Jim Crow in city after city. Wallace's fall tour attracted the most publicity. As the first presidential candidate to tour the South on an anti-segregation platform, Wallace was accompanied by a host of newspaper reporters, representing most of the major white and black national newspapers. Wallace's personal secretary, Edith Roberts, a black woman originally from Kansas City, accompanied him.

While the tour was well received at its first stop in Virginia, a violent outbreak in Durham, North Carolina, set the tone for the remainder of the tour. Wallace was the target of rotten eggs and tomatoes from jeering crowds. A rally in Burlington, North Carolina, verged on a full-scale riot. Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor personally monitored an explosive crowd in Birmingham, with a large supply of tear gas on hand. And the Ku Klux Klan staged a cross-burning to coincide with Wallace's appearance in a black church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Throughout the trip, the candidate and his supporters were called Reds and communist sympathizers. Nevertheless, the integrated entourage continued traveling together by bus through most of the South, refusing to patronize segregated businesses. Instead they picnicked and stayed with local supporters along the way.

Angry opposition to Wallace did not deter his supporters, who turned out in more than 20 Southern cities. This fueled Wallace's determination to be heard. Echoing the Report on the Economic Conditions of the South, he spoke of the region's great potential, which had been "held back by a wall of privilege resting on the twin pillars of segregation and poll taxes." Wallace challenged those moderate liberals who were committed to working within the limits of separate but equal justice. Believing segregation was inherently unequal and a sin, Wallace attacked Jim Crow with evangelical fervor, hoping to appeal to the fundamental Christian principles he thought he shared with the great majority of Southerners.


The significance of third party efforts is often viewed in terms of their impact on the two major parties. Henry Wallace made civil rights a major issue of the 1948 presidential campaign. Wallace clearly influenced a reluctant President Truman to adopt a strong civil-rights program, after three years of wavering in the face of the Southern bloc in Congress. Truman could not afford to lose black votes to Wallace, particularly in Northern cities, in what promised to be a close race with Republican candidate Thomas Dewey. On November 2, 1948, Wallace received 1,157,172 votes, Truman got 24,105,812, and Dewey narrowly lost with 21,970,065.

The Progressive Party, however, had a larger significance. It provided a focus for early stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement, rallying Southerners of both races who were prepared to challenge segregation and who recognized voting reform as essential to achieving racial justice in the South. In 1948 Henry Wallace provided Southern New Dealers and black civil rights activists with a platform with which to reach out to all Southerners. Douglass Hall, a black reporter who covered Wallace's Southern trip for the Baltimore Afro-American, recalled the experience as "an historic, pioneering tour in race relations and civil rights." For Daisy Bates, who went on to lead the desegregation of Little Rock public schools, Henry Wallace inspired hope: "I had been waiting all my life to hear someone say what he said."

The Progressive campaign of 1948 represented an uncompromising commitment to basic principles that characterized the political careers of Beanie Baldwin, Clark Foreman, Palmer Weber, Virginia Durr, and others who joined in the effort. This spirit would survive the increasing challenges during the decade ahead, and ultimately carry the Civil Rights Movement to its legislative victories of the 1960s.

Just a year after the '48 election, Weber wrote of hopeful signs to Wallace. "The general struggle for civil rights is mounting to the view and pitch you set in your campaign." Weber cited the appointment of William Hastie as the first black federal district judge, the Supreme Court's agreement to review three civil-rights cases early in 1950, and the fact that the Senate would be forced to consider civil rights when Congress convened in the new year. "All of this we owe to your not faltering on the simple principle of human rights . . . which underlies the American Revolution of 1776 . . . and the whole vast panorama of the world today. We owe it to ourselves to hold that torch firmly high regardless of the consequences because that is the way forward. I suppose the proudest days of my life were those we spent in the South last year. There is more than one way to measure political success."