Truman and Civil Rights: Analyzing Sources

Lesson Author
Required Time Frame
Three 80-minute block class periods along with additional work on the part of the student outside of class.
Grade Level(s)
Lesson Abstract
This is a document-based-question assignment that requires the students to construct a coherent essay that integrates their interpretation of primary source documents and their knowledge of the time period referenced in the question.

This is a document-based-question assignment that requires the students to construct a coherent essay that integrates their interpretation of primary source documents and their knowledge of the time period referenced in the question. Only essays that cite key pieces of evidence from the documents and draw on outside knowledge of the period will earn high scores. Their response should be three pages, double-spaced, Times New Roman 12-point font.

Lesson Objectives - the student will

Analyze a series of primary source documents from Harry Truman’s life over the time period 1911–1963.

•    Evaluate those documents to draw conclusions that will help them answer an essential question.

•    Create a thesis based on the essential question and construct a three-page essay developing that thesis.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met

Kansas Standards for History, Government and Social Studies (adopted April 16, 2013)

1. Choices have consequences.

2. Individuals have rights and responsibilities.

3. Societies are shaped by beliefs, ideas, and diversity.

4. Societies experience continuity and change over time.

5. Relationships between people, places, ideas, and environments are dynamic.

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed

Book: Freedom to Serve: Truman, Civil Rights, and Executive Order 9981 by Jon E. Taylor

•    Textbook: The American Pageant, 13th Edition


Primary sources needed (document, photograph, artifact, diary or letter, audio or visual recording, etc.) needed


DOC A – Letter from Harry S. Truman to Bess Wallace, June 22, 1911

•    DOC B – Taylor (book), pages 45-46, Roy Wilkins speaking of Judge Harry Truman, 1931

•    DOC C – Taylor (book), page 48, Brotherhood of Man speech, June 15, 1940

•    DOC D – Address Before the NAACP, June 29, 1947,

•    DOC E – Taylor (book), pages 128-29, letters between Truman & Ernie Roberts (1948)

•    DOC F – Special Message to Congress on Civil Rights, February 2, 1948

•    DOC G – Executive Order 9981, July 26, 1948

•    DOC H – Taylor (book), pages 127-28, outtakes from Decision: the Conflicts of Harry S. Truman,



DOC A: Letter from Harry S. Truman to Bess Wallace, June 22, 1911

From Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, Truman Papers, Letter from Harry S. Truman to Bess Wallace, June 22,

1911. Grandview, Mo. June 22, 1911

Dear Bessie:

From all appearances I am not such a very pious person am I? The elements evidently mistook one of my wishes for dry instead of wet. I guess we’ll all have to go to drinking whiskey if it doesn’t rain very soon. Water and potatoes will soon be as much of a luxury as pineapples and diamonds.


Speaking of diamonds, would you wear a solitaire on your left hand should I get it? Now that is a rather personal or pointed question provided you take it for all it means. You know, were I an Italian or a poet I would commence and use all the luscious language of two continents. I am not either but only a kind of good-for-nothing American farmer. I always had a sneaking notion that some day maybe I’d amount to something. I doubt it now though like everything. It is a family failing of ours to be poor financiers. I am blest that way. Still that doesn’t keep me from having always thought that you were all that a girl could be possibly and impossibly. You may not have guessed it

but I’ve been crazy about you ever since we went to Sunday school together. But I never had the nerve to think you’d even look at me. I don’t think so now but I can’t keep from telling you what I think of you.


Perhaps you can guess what my other eight wishes are now. If they had no more effect than the one for rain, I am badly off indeed. You said you were tired of these kind of stories in books so I am trying one from real life on you. I guess it sounds funny to you, but you must bear in mind that this is my first experience in this line and also it is very real to me. Therefore I can’t make it look or sound so well as Rex Beach or Harold Mac might.


I am going to send you the book number of Life. There is a page of books in it that look good. Don’t get Ashes of God, for I am going to get it and I’ll let you have it. Every review I have read on it says it is fine. I have thrown my sticks away and use only a cane now. I told Ethel I am going to get me a gold-headed one and an eyeglass, if some one of my friends lent me the coin, and pretend that I had been to Georgie V’s crowning. Don’t you abhor snobs? Think of such men as Morgan paying to be allowed to dance with royalty. You know there isn’t a royal family in Europe that wouldn’t disgrace any good citizen to belong to. I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Wills says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a nigger from mud, and then threw what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Arica, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.


I guess if Frank won’t be satisfied with Kansas City, Memphis is as good as any of them. It is at least in a good old Southern state. Then it only takes one night to get back home. That is better than Mexico or California. I hope he has all kinds of success.


Everybody’s came at last and there was plenty of action, wasn’t there? I am dying to know if he got her. Say, Bessie, you’ll at least let me keep on being good friends won’t you? I know I am not good enough to be anything more but you don’t know how I’d like to be. Maybe you think I won’t wait your answer to this in suspense.


Still if you turn me down, I’ll not be thoroughly disappointed for it’s no more than I expect.


I have just heard that the Masonic Lodge I was telling you of is a success. There won’t be two in our town. The one I

belong to is in Belton six miles away. This one is in Grandview, only one mile. Please write as soon as you feel that way. The sooner, the better pleased I am. More than sincerely, Harry




Jackson County Court, 1931

From Freedom to Serve: Truman, Civil Rights, and Executive Order 9981 by Jon E. Taylor, pages 45 – 46


I had known him when he was a judge back in Kansas City, and one of the things he had done back then was to save a home for Negro boys that the white folks thought was too good for colored children … It was true that he had been a creature of Tom Pendergast’s  Democratic  machine in Kansas City … but I also knew that Truman’s own views on race were border state, not Deep Dixie: he didn’t believe in social equality, but he did believe in fair play. No one had ever convinced him that the Bill of Rights was a document for white folks only.



*NOTE  –  The  Kansas  City  Call  was  a  newspaper   publication   begun  in  1919  for  the  African  American community.  It reported  on topics specifically  of interest  to African  American  people. By 1950, The Call had become one of the six largest black weekly papers in the country and one of the largest black enterprises  in the Midwest. Roy Wilkins, journalist for The Call, later became a national NAACP leader.


DOC C: Excerpts from “Brotherhood of Man” Senate campaign speech, Senator Harry Truman, Sedalia, MO, June 15, 1940

From Freedom to Serve: Truman, Civil Rights, and Executive Order 9981 by Jon E. Taylor, page 48


I believe in the brotherhood of man; not merely the brotherhood of white men, but the brotherhood of all men before law. I believe in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In giving to the Negroes the rights that are theirs, we are only acting in accord with our ideals of a true democracy. If any class or race can be permanently set apart from, or pushed down below, the rest in political and civil rights, so may any other class or race when it shall incur the displeasure of its more powerful associates, and we may say farewell to the principles on which we count our safety.


During the World War the need of men for an Army and for war industries brought more and more of the Negroes from rural areas to the cities. In the years past, lynching and mob violence, lack of schools, and countless other equally unfair conditions, hastened the progress of the Negro from the country to the city. In these centers the Negroes have never had much choice in regard to work or anything else. By and large, they work mainly as unskilled laborers and domestic servants. They have been forced to live in segregated slums, neglected by the authorities. Negroes have been preyed upon by all types of exploiters, from the installment salesman of clothing, pianos, and furniture to the vendors of vice. The majority of our Negro people find but cold comfort in shanties and tenements. Surely, as freemen, they are entitled to something better than this.


From Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, the Public Papers of the Presidents, Harry S. Truman, 1945—1953



June 29, 1947


Mr. Chairman, Mrs. Roosevelt, Senator Morse, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:


I am happy to be present at the closing session of the 38th Annual Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The occasion of meeting with you here at the Lincoln Memorial affords me the opportunity to congratulate the association upon its effective work for the improvement of our democratic processes.


I should like to talk to you briefly about civil rights and human freedom. It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our country’s efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to insure that all Americans enjoy these rights.


When I say all Americans I mean all Americans.


The civil rights laws written in the early years of our Republic, and the traditions which have been built upon them, are precious to us. Those laws were drawn up with the memory still fresh in men’s minds of the tyranny of an absentee government. They were written to protect the citizen against any possible tyrannical act by the new government in this country.


But we cannot be content with a civil liberties program which emphasizes only the need of protection against the possibility of tyranny by the Government. We cannot stop there.


We must keep moving forward, with new concepts of civil rights to safeguard our heritage. The extension of civil rights today means, not protection of the people against the Government, but prote