Oral History Interview with
Special Assistant for Domestic Operations, Office of War Information, 1942-45, and special consultant to the Secretary of War, 1943. Special Assistant to President for minority problems, 1946-52, and an Administrative Assistant to the President, 1952-53. Later served as Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, 1959-61, and as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1961-66.
February 21, 1967
by Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview
Transcript | Additional Nash Oral History Transcripts]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened October, 1973
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices
and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Nash Oral History Transcripts]
Oral History Interview with
February 21, 1967
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: As we have just discussed and if any of the things we put down now we find to be repetitious, we can take care of that when the job of editing comes up.
Looking at our list that we made out when we started our project, I believe that we are down to the subject of the Civil Rights Committee. Our eleventh and last interview was on the FEPC, Fair Employment Practices Commission. So, starting off on the subject of the Civil Rights Committee, can you tell me something perhaps about the background to that -- of the decision to establish such a committee?
NASH: Well, Jerry, it is so long since we had a discussion that I think I will have to go all the way back to the beginning and if it turns out that we are repetitious, we will just have to cope with it some other way.
The idea of having a committee on civil rights goes back to the race tension of the early World War II period. There were mounting numbers of incidents that culminated in the riot of 1943 in August in Detroit; there were very close calls in Washington, D.C. and a number of
other places and some actual outbreaks which increased in frequency.
In the prewar period, or maybe the very early part of the war, there had been tension that broke out into street fighting around the Sojourner Truth housing project in Detroit. There were also rumors that had a lot of circulation -- hostile anti-Negro rumors; there was the story of the "Disappointment Club." As domestic help became scarce and war jobs became frequent in many of the border cities, it was rumored that -- this was when the girl you hired from the employment agency didn't show -- that it wasn't because she had something better to do or a better job, but that she had teamed up with others to "disappoint" the white housekeeper -- the mistress. So, this is a rather primitive era as we look back on it 25 years after, but that kind of thing was going on.
Walter White, then the executive secretary of the NAACP, and others, suggested early in the game to the President, largely through Secretary [Harold L.] Ickes and Attorney General [Francis] Biddle, that a national commission should be created to devise ways and means of dealing with the situation. This was an old
established technique in race relations at that time; it would have been a good idea, it was nearly done several times.
In a sense, the FEPC was balanced off against this commission. The President was reluctant to have two, and FEPC was being accused at that time of, correctly, I think, of not being strong enough, and what was the point of having two weak committees or commissions to deal with different aspects of the same problem. It is generally believed that, nevertheless, a commission would have been created on the basis of a recommendation from Attorney General Biddle; but at the last moment, by means that I don't understand -- have never known, and by a method of thinking that I don't understand -- an additional proposal was put into the memo; and that is that Negro immigration to Detroit be halted. Now, since this goes to a constitutional right of freedom of movement nobody could have given much extended thought to it and it must have been just thrown in at the last moment, but it was such a shocker as a proposal that it had the effect of negating the whole of the rest of the memo and from there on
the idea of a committee was dead. Not only that, but the existence of the memo, which was supposed to be confidential between the Attorney General and the President of the United States, somehow found its way into an obscure Upper New York State newspaper, obviously via a deliberate leak somewhere and I don't suppose anyone will ever know where. And, I have been told that the reason why this leak was made was because of this highly controversial, and really most unconstitutional proposal.
There is no amount of race tension or race rioting or fear of violence that would cause responsible Negro leaders to suggest that they accept quiescently a curb on constitutional liberty, and I think it was felt that the quickest way to kill the proposal was just to leak it, and at that time in the Government there were very few, very few secrets, especially in controversial nonmilitary fields, like that of race relations.
I, myself, have had calls from obscure persons working in the Government Printing Office -- messengers. Bear in mind, at this time there were very few high level opportunities for Negroes in the Federal service and, therefore, you had a large number of well-educated,
highly trained, extremely capable, Negro men and a few Negro women serving in subordinate positions, even in servile positions, as messengers, and so on, who had no individual personal reason to feel any great sense of responsibility about their jobs, and if materials passed through their hands which they thought was detrimental to Negro interests, they had no hesitation whatsoever of turning it over to someone they thought would know what to do with it, and sometimes these were people I knew and was working with.
I recall a pamphlet that was about to be printed for the guidance of Armed Forces in the Pacific, especially in the New Guinea area, and it was sort of a manual on "pigeon," but of course it took such "pigeon" terms as "boy" and didn't say whether this was or was not a respectful thing to do. A preprinted copy of one of these was put into my hands by one of these people who said, "Can't you put a stop to this kind of thing?" As it happened, I didn't even know it was going on, but I did. I didn't leak it because I'm not in the leaking business, but I was in the information business and I went over to the . . .
HESS: And you did put a stop to it.
NASH: Oh, yes -- went over to the Pentagon and I said, "This is very offensive and if anybody had reviewed this that knew anything about it they wouldn't have permitted this to be done; you at least have to make some explanation." And so, it was picked up and corrected. So, this is just by way of explanation that while I was really shocked at the idea of a Cabinet level communication being leaked, it was only an extreme example of something that was very common at that time.
HESS: It was kind of hard to keep things quiet at that time.
NASH: In this area it was impossible. This is a town of very few secret., especially not in a controversial subject matter area like race relations.
Well, now for better or for worse, that memo was killed and the high level race relations commission was never formed. There were, however, very, very many meetings about it. And, it seemed to me that it would be a good idea to create such a commission, and I figured that if it were not going to be done during the war, that it would be essential to have such a commission after the war. I was going at this time
on the basis of the analogy with World War I when the most severe tension, and the largest number of riots, were in the year immediately after the close of hostilities, in other words, 1919 was the year with the largest number of riots and the most people involved in them; and, we instituted at that time a study of all the riots of World War I in order to learn as much as we could about them and see whether there was a pattern as to time, place, issues, what was done, what could have been done better, and so on.
HESS: What did you find out about that?
NASH: Well, in the first place, they were all in the summer, and this gave rise to our feeling that summer was the time you had to worry about the most, which was later borne out by the experience in post-World War II. Also, we noted that in World War I, or immediately after, the locus of the rise was pretty much the border communities of the South, and they were, I felt, although our information wasn't very good on this, wasn't good enough -- I had a feeling that it was, to some degree, connected with the return of World War I servicemen; that is, Negro servicemen who had perhaps had a little better treatment than they had had before and were not about to return to a second-class position.
Now, I didn't assert this very strongly because
I didn't really know enough about what was happening to Negro servicemen in World War I to be very dogmatic. On paper it was a pretty sorry record with segregated companies zoned to the interior and so on. On the other hand, the lot of the rural Negro, or the urban Negro to the extent that there was such in 1918, was not very good either. So, we were dealing with a speculative area. The only reason that I mention this, since I have to be rather indefinite about it, at such length, is that in probing these 1919 riots we were able for almost every case to locate an issue. Now, that is quite important in developing a theory of operation about how to stop them or prevent them or cure them
HESS: To find a cause.
NASH: . . . because the popular theory, the sociological theory about race riots, or at least when we did this work, is that they had no cause, and, therefore, they were both unpredictable and couldn't be remedied except in a very general sense -- if there is no specific cause, there is no specific remedy. In other words, if you have to wait for the whole caste and class system that involves race to be cleansed before you attempt to do
anything about race riots then you are indeed very helpless and all you can do is stamp them out, or wait for the hurricane to go away, so to speak, and I found this to be rather unacceptable. Not only that, the study of the riots of the World War I period indicated that it is not even true because there were very few instances where there wasn't a pretty clear-cut example of denial of access to a facility. This was the big problem. Now, it might be a hospital, it might be a recreation area, park, a beach; it wasn't much about jobs; and it might be in a community where, as I say, the returning servicemen just had forgotten a little bit of how to be humble, and accommodate to the white folks, and so on, and somebody else coming back was going to see that the old order was restored, and none of this, and the next thing you know, we have street fights.
HESS: In 1946, the year after the war, there were several riots in the United States, too, weren't there?
HESS: Two I have down here are Columbia, Tennessee in February of '46 where a Negro woman and her son got into a fight with a white radio repairman and were pushed through
a window and that started a fight, and then a little later on in the year in December of 46 in Redwood City, California, a Negro war veteran, John T. Walker's home was burned and a riot was started.
NASH: Well, those are only two of several. The Columbia, Tennessee was the first big post World War II one, and we were keeping very close track of those. But the pattern of World War I was slightly interrupted, or altered, in World War II because, starting with the tension in and around Detroit and then going on into some Northern cities other than Detroit; Harlem; border cities, and I include Washington, D.C. as essentially a border city, and some of the new Southern industrial centers, Beaumont, Texas; Mobile -- there were pretty severe racial disorders; they look mild compared to Watts and some of these things that we have been seeing recently, but they were severe. Now, the question was, what should be the role of the Federal Government, if any, and Detroit was really the one that touched the thing off . . .
HESS: When was that -- 43?
NASH: That was August of 1943. It started in a park -- Belle Isle Park -- a hot summer Sunday, and here's a park which,
in the horse and buggy and trolley days, was the favorite outdoor recreation spot for downtown urban Detroit dwellers. In the automobile era the poor, the urban poor, moved in and it had become pretty much a Negro park -- then comes gas rationing and the limitation on the free movement and the whites come back to what they thought was their park and here are these other people that have taken it over and there isn't enough of anything to go around anyway, and there is crowding and tension, and so on. And, plenty of agitation; some bigoted preachers; some ethnic attitudes where the guy in the next to the lowest rung looks down on the fellow on the lowest rung. It was a pretty complicated picture, but it was one that you could really see coming pretty well.
So, our unit in the Office of War Information had been warning in memoranda that there would be severe rioting unless something was done about it and when there was -- I think I may have told you the story before -- I happened to be the first one with the information, just because I made it my habit early Monday morning to check the new stickers in the OWI newsroom. So, we used these new stickers really as an intelligence
source for the White House and then our same unit applying just the standard social science research techniques picked up the likelihood of disturbances in the nation's capital, and this was so important to the prestige of the President that the White House, through Jonathan Daniels, and the then commissioner and the then police chief, took an active hand in seeing to it that things were handled in such a way that the possibilities of a disturbance were minimized.
HESS: What did they do?
NASH: Well, there were a number of things. In the first place, the tension provoking incident was a demonstration about fair employment in the streetcar system. One proposal, that was quickly rejected, was just to cancel the demonstration. So, instead of cancelling the demonstration, they let the demonstration go ahead -- it's important to let off steam at a time like this -- but the route was well patrolled and the chief of police marched with the demonstrators and made it plain that he was there to see to it that their right to demonstrate was protected, and not the other way around. If this had been done in some of the summer events in Chicago, for example, in 1966 an open housing, you wouldn't have had
either the injuries or the harrassment or the emotional aftermath.
At any rate, to get back to '43, then in addition to that, liquor stores were closed by order of the D.C. Commissioners; military leaves were all canceled, there was a big effort made to get the crowds out of town and off the streets before the demonstration began. Some of that was negated by a wave of rumors that went around the Government workers on the telephone with the result that many thousands of Government workers left their desks and went home early, thus getting out on the streets instead of off the streets, because there was going to be a race riot that night and so on.
Well, the efforts were crude, but they worked, so you then had two examples, both known personally to Jonathan Daniels at the White House. The one that was anticipated but where no action was taken in Detroit, and the one where there was an effort to find out what was going on . . .
HESS: Here in town . . .
NASH: . . . some lead time and some direct and some indirect action. So, he called me up and he said, "What's that
memo you've been telling me about?" So, I brought him our memo from the Office of War Information on race riots and their care and treatment, and he then opened up the files to me and said, "What do you think about this?" And this was when I first learned that there was a real possibility of a commission.
Well, I said I thought a commission would be a good idea.
And Jonathan said, "Well, what about the FEPC?"
And I said, "Well, it is not going very far, very fast."
And he said, "Yes, but you can't have two." And then he said, "What do you think about a Government agency committee?"
Well I said, "That's better than nothing. I don't think it will satisfy NAACP and the Urban League." These were the groups that were pressing for action then -- they are regarded as the moderates today, but they were not the most moderate then.
So Jonathan said, "Well, I just don't like to recommend to the President that he create a commission with all the attendant publicity and then if something goes wrong, and chances of something going wrong are
better than they are of going right, because nobody really knows what he is doing in this field, then you've got a great big target for everybody to know who's fault it is." He said, "It seems to me what we need is action," he said, "you talk generally, I like to talk in terms of specifics." So, he said, "Give me a memo with some specifics," which I then did.
The upshot of it was that he recommended to President Roosevelt and President Roosevelt then created a "Maypole" committee; that is a committee that never meets. Every agency that had any operation responsibility that could involve race relations, that I could find, was put on the list: Army, Navy, Marines, National Labor Relations Board, War Manpower Board, and so on, Office of War Information, and a lot of them, of course, wartime agencies, now out of business. And, each of them was written a letter by the President, which Jonathan prepared, and I did some of the details, which asked them to designate somebody to work with Jonathan Daniels on the matter of keeping informed about possible tension situations, racially tense situations, and giving him a number to call, and all of that. Then, in addition to that, there
is a police and military side to this thing -- we were at war. I had very little do to with this, but you see, many million dollars worth of property were destroyed and about thirty lives were lost in Detroit after the law and order authorities had concluded that they couldn't control the situation, and they needed help and they asked for help through the military. The military's response to the obvious race tension in Detroit was to provide a battalion of military police. They had practiced deploying around city hall, but this was not exactly the problem. The problem was Negroes and whites burning up each other's cars, and hitting each other over the head, and setting stores on fire and looting them, in an entirely different part of town.
So, the remedy was not appropriate to the situation, and when the commanding general of the 5th Service Command came out the next morning in response to an urgent appeal, in the first place, much damage had already been done but it also took most of that day, which was a Monday, until something like 4 .or 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and maybe even later than that, to find out what the constitutional and legal means were of providing the military assistance without having
the power of the Federal Government to move in unconstitutionally on a state -- there has to be a request and all sorts of things have to be done. The lawyers over in the Defense Department -- well, it was the War Department then -- and the Department of Justice were scratching their heads to figure out what the right way was to do it, and in the meantime people were being killed and property was being destroyed. So, it was also very necessary to get some ready method of making an appeal for help and also of anticipating some of the technical problems in advance. Others worked on that for Jonathan, I worked only on this committee angle. But ultimately, a very rapid fire method of providing police power, and military assistance to police power under appropriate circumstances, was worked out and from that point on we were never again in the situation where you couldn't move with police power if it were necessary.
The "Maypole" committee turned out to be surprisingly effective. Generally speaking, the way it worked was that I would get wind, either through standard intelligence sources reporting to the White House material
which was made available to me, and I was assigned to the White House for this purpose by Mr. Davis of the OWI, at the request of Jonathan Daniels; or, quite frequently, just by the old newspaper tickers. With all the newspaper tickers in OWI, every newspaperman in America was, in a sense, a reporting agent for us, so I simply screened the news reports every day just looking for indications of tensions . . .
HESS: Racial friction?
NASH: . . . racial tensions. And, then trying to find out what the causes were and usually what I would do would be to call over to Jonathan at the White House and say, "Well, here is thus and such and it looks as though it might be getting a little hot."
And he would say, "Well, who's available down there?" Let's say it was Cincinnati or St. Louis.
Well, I would consult my list of agencies and he, would say, "Well, it is just about time to call old so and so over there."
He would then call the man that had been designated at the request of the President to work with him and would say, "You know, I hear so and so is going on in a plant in St. Louis, and you have been handling procurement
for the Signal Corps, and this plant where the trouble is making some cable. Don't you have somebody down there that is an expediter?" And they usually would in wartime, you see, have somebody at the plant. "Well, I wish you would call him up and get a report from him." Quite often just this show of White House interest, they asked for a report, was enough to alert the agencies that are concerned, who would then get on top of the situation, so that they would be able to make a good report. So, the technique of stopping little ones before they got to be big ones was the basic approach that we used.
Well, this method was so effective that from the late summer of 1943 when we were told to go ahead and go to work on this problem until V-J Day we had no more race riots. The instruction was to "Do whatever you have to do to stop the race riots, and I'll back you up all the way." This was FDR to Jonathan. So I worked with Jonathan on it, and some other people did too, and it was effective. Now, the problem, of course, was in the postwar. With the expiration of the War Powers Act you no longer had the ultimate power of Federal seizure. After all, if something was really going
wrong in a plant or any facility that was connected with war production, as long as the War Powers Act was in effect, the Congress had given the President blanket power to seize the facility for the prosecution of the war, and this instrumentality was actually used in Philadelphia in 1944, but I think I told you this story earlier . . .
HESS: That was the trolley lines?
NASH: That was the trolley lines. Then, you get into the postwar and you no longer have this great power and the first big episode, from the publicity standpoint and the size of the trouble, was in Columbia, Tennessee, which you mentioned a minute ago. Now, there were others, but two in particular are outstanding from Mr. Truman's standpoint. One was the blinding of Isaac Woodward in a South Carolina jail.
HESS: That was the serviceman who had just returned.
NASH: This was a man who had just been mustered out; was on his way home. He was beaten so severely that he was blinded; and as a matter of fact, he lost his memory; he didn't know where he was' he was too sick to go anywhere; his relatives were up North waiting for him; he never got there. Eventually he was found in a -- two
or three weeks afterwards -- in a hospital where he was getting medical treatment, but it wasn't a veterans hospital or anything like that, or a military hospital, it was -- as I recall -- not very adequate medical treatment, his memory had returned, or had begun to return, and this became, of course as it should have, a very celebrated case and it outraged President Truman.
Then, there was the murder bpi a mob of two veterans in Georgia in broad daylight -- this was not a masked Klan affair or anything like that -- and there must have been at least a hundred people who were witnesses, but not one of them could be found to come forward and identify any of the assailants. And this caused great indignation and there was a big demonstration in Washington somewhat like the civil rights march of '64, down Constitution Avenue and up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and a mass memorial service for the two men.
HESS: What action can be taken by the Federal Government in cases like that?
NASH: Well, in 1946, which is when this was, with the expiration of the War Powers Act, if Federal
property were involved there would be no question about the ability of the Federal Government to move in. The Federal Government can always protect its property. It is not necessarily the business of the Federal Government to protect the lives of its citizens unless the local authorities ask for assistance, this is not likely to happen, either in Greenville, South Carolina -- I think, is where the Woodard episode took place -- or Macon, Georgia, where the other one took place. There are certain civil rights that may be involved in a case of this kind, but the law is not very good on it even now, and it was considerably poorer in 1946.
For example, there is the Supreme Court's decision in the Screws case. Screws was a sheriff who murdered a prisoner while in his custody. He was eventually convicted under an old -- murder not being a Federal offense, it was not on Federal territory -- he was convicted under an old civil rights statute which made it an offense punishable by a year in prison and I think a thousand dollars fine under the color of state law, which, of course, a police officer is, to deprive or conspire to deprive, something of this kind, an individual of his civil rights.
Now, this was so flagrant that a southern prosecutor and southern jury convicted him, but when the case got to the Supreme Court, the court held that the sheriff couldn't have intended to deprive the man of his civil rights; he obviously intended to kill him, but he couldn't have intended to deprive him of civil rights because there was no indication that he knew he had any. So, in effect, you see, this is good law even if it is unhappy public policy. It is obviously wrong to use the denial of civil rights as an excuse to punish somebody because the law doesn't permit you to punish him for what he really did, so the court said, "No, we can't have that." There are some other civil rights and there are some that had never been used. Let me give you an example, also in the postwar period, when Adlai Stevenson was Governor of Illinois -- by this time we had gained a little experience. Adlai Stevenson was Governor of Illinois and a Negro veteran attempted to move into a house in Cicero.
HESS: In 1951, wasn't it?
NASH: That sounds about right. His neighbors, egged on by the local police authorities burned the whole apartment house down rather than let him move in. Now,
a state jury indicted the Negro and his family, I think it was, at any rate indicted him, for disturbing the peace by attempting to move into this house. We'd had the benefit of some research -- some of which was done by the Civil Rights Committee -- by this time, and had concluded that the right to own, to use, to enjoy, real property without racial discrimination is a statutory right. Accordingly, after some discussions with the Department of Justice, and with good help from the Governor of Illinois, the United States attorney moved to remove the jurisdiction from the state court, to quash the indictment, to remove the case to the jurisdiction of the Federal court on grounds that it was a Federal statute that had been violated when the police chief led the effort to keep him from using the house. The case was heard by a Federal grand jury after the previous indictments were quashed. The police chief of Cicero and his associates were indicted, tried and convicted in Federal court for violating a Federal statute. It is a landmark case as far as open housing is concerned. In my opinion, that Federal statute has not been used adequately since 1941. Much of what we are talking about in open housing
could have been avoided with a few clear -- cut illustrations of the determination of the Federal Government to use the power at its command, which we did in 1951.
Well, let's come back now to the postwar. So, the pattern of 1919 was reappearing; in fairly small towns to start with, in the border communities of the South, in the summer, and mostly involving returned servicemen. We had the experience of the wartime prevention of race riots, but we didn't have the War Powers Act to fall back on. So, the question was then what to do. Because the statutes and our powers were either poorly understood; were weak, had lain idle so many years and were, therefore, not really available for use, not functionally available for use, and because there was great indignation over the Macon lynching, and because the President was personally outraged over what was happening to Negro veterans.
HESS: Did you ever hear him make any comments on that?
NASH: Yes, indeed.
HESS: What did he have to say?
NASH: Well., what he said is, "This isn't easy to do, but 'The Buck Stops Here!"' He said, "The President of the United States just can't pass that buck on to somebody
else; if he doesn't have the power then he has to get the power."
HESS: Did he have any ideas of about how to obtain that power?
NASH: No, I think he relied primarily on his staff. By this time, you see, it was Dave Niles, and I was working for Dave; we had others, of course, who were concerned -- Clark Clifford and many others around -- Charlie Murphy. But you see you had a problem that was more than a staff problem -- then it becomes a political problem. The country is indignant, the country doesn't know what to do, and it seemed to Dave Niles that now was the time to bring out the old wartime idea of a national commission.
So, essentially, we got out these old -- well, we didn't get out these old memos because they had gone up to Hyde Park; these are part of the FDR papers -- but we were all thoroughly familiar with what was in them, and starting from that foundation we conceived a national committee. Of course, it would accomplish two or three things. In the first place, it would be presidential action; in the second place it would satisfy the complainers and it would arouse the national conscience,
and if you needed to have legislation, if you needed an agency, whatever it is you needed to do, they could be relied upon to find out what it was, face the issue and make some recommendations -- it was the task force idea, it wasn't so common in those days, but it is a good one -- in fact, this one was particularly so. At any rate, a meeting was arranged with a group of Negro leaders and President Truman in which they, of course, urged him to have a national commission on it; they had been saying this every year for several years, and they weren't wrong either.
On this occasion the President had been altered to respond to it, and it really looked as though it was about the only thing we could do, and he said he would take it under advisement and we had, of course, already begun work on the "whats" and the "wheres" and the "hows" of it. It was ultimately decided to have a commission of about fifteen, to get a proper balance of Negroes and whites, north and south, of men and women, of the religions, of business and labor, and to create it by Executive order, and to fund it. And the President concluded, as I recall, that he could use his emergency funds for this purpose; this was not, as the case of the
FEPC, the recreation of an agency that had been denied funds, so it was paid for out of the President's own funds -- contingency fund.
HESS: Now this was the meeting that is mentioned by Walter White in his book, A Man Called White. He said it was on September 19 (1946)" . . . six of us went to the White House. Labor was represented by James Carey, Secretary of the CIO, and Boris Shishkin of the AFL. The church was represented by Dr. Herman Reissig of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, and education by Dr. Channing H. Tobias, Director of the Phelps-Stokes Fund. Leslie Perry, administrative assistant in our Washington office, and I completed the delegation." And, he mentioned that David K. Niles, Assistant to the President, entered into the discussion and suggested the appointment of a committee to investigate the entire subject of the violation of civil liberties. He mentioned that in the book.
NASH: That's it -- that's the one. You notice that he didn't use the word "civil rights?" This came about in the course of our staff studies. We thought it advisable to find a term that was slightly fresh, and the word civil rights was not used for this function at that
time, but it was as soon as we created a President's Committee on Civil Rights, it acquired its own meaning.
HESS: Who first came up with the phrase?
NASH: I really don't recall.
HESS: It's a minor point . . .
NASH: If I could recall that it was mine, I would claim credit for it, but I don't think I do.
HESS: Just what power was it thought that the commission would have?
NASH: Advisory and recommending.
HESS: Advisory and recommending.
NASH: This was a policy committee. In other words, what do you do? Make a study of the situation, find out if you have deficient laws. Do you need additional laws? It's a forum. A presidential commission, and especially then when it wasn't so common, is a sounding board for ideas. It's a way of shaping public attitudes; it's a way of exercising presidential leadership; of convincing the country that there is both a problem and a solution, and that neither one is indefinite. Now, I can tell you in Dave Niles' mind he thought it ought to be analogous to the Wickersham Commission which ended
You are too young to remember this, but the nominal excuse for the Wickersham Commission was not to study the merits or demerits of prohibition, but to study lawlessness. The Wickersham Commission, in five volumes, concluded that prohibition was one of the causes of lawlessness, and it then created a framework in which it was possible to go to the Congress with a repealer -- started with Hoover and became fact under FDR. Now, of course, the change of political parties probably made it possible, but the way was paved by a thoughtful study commission which reviewed the general problem, in this case "scofflaws" and gangsterisms and all that, and came up with an analysis that among other things prohibition was a cause, and I do not recall at this moment whether they went so far as to recommend repeal but it certainly led the way to repeal. When I was doing the staff work on it, Dave Niles said to me, "Go get the Wickersham reports and look them up and see what they did and how it was handled, because that's our motto: We are not reformers -- we are not out here to avenge the death of two veterans; we are here to deal
with a national problem and you've got to put it in a national perspective. "
So, we did that and I am just recalling now after some twenty years what I found and how we operated, but that was Dave's thought on it and I am sure it was communicated to Mr. Truman. Well, we went ahead and did the work on it -- I did most of the staff work on the selection -- and we finally came up with what has since been called the "Noah's Ark Committee," because we were so meticulous to get balance that we wound up with two of everything; two women, two southerners, two business, two labor, and many people were there in more than one role, but it was a very carefully balanced commission, of around fifteen.
HESS: Was there anybody that was seriously considered who was not accepted -- some information that might not generally be known? I am going to ask you some questions about the people who were accepted, who were on the commission, but let's cover this first.
NASH: Well, Jerry, coming back to your question about choosing personnel on this committee, that was almost exactly twenty years ago now, and I would be hard put to it to remember all the names of all the members of
the committee, let alone those who were invited to serve and declined. I could tell you one from New Orleans that had just crossed my mind. I had worked for him in the Office of War Information along towards the end of the war, the publisher of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He still has this paper -- I can't think of his name now, it is easy enough to find out who he is because he has been the publisher of that paper for years and years and years [George Healy, Jr.]. He is one of the first citizens of New Orleans, and I always found him a southerner whom I could work with very easily in his field. He was not a professed liberal, but he was a realist and willing to be convinced, and willing to be persuaded, and willing to act and operate directly in this field, and I thought he would be a very good member of a commission like this, and I knew him better than anybody else around so I was authorized to call him up and talk to him about it, which I did. He thought it over for a day or so and then he said, he just couldn't do it.
HESS: Before I head down the list, who else was active in the a election process besides yourself?
NASH: Well, basically it was Dave and me. But we would
check these things out with other members of the staff depending on what their special knowledge or confidence of individuals might be. Some of the people probably would be known to John Steelman; some people might be known to Charlie Murphy; some people might be known to Dave Stowe. We all worked together and you use everything, and the only thing is you make it perfectly clear that the decision on what to recommend to the President is going to go to the man that got the assignment from the President, in this case, Dave Niles.
HESS: I will read off a few of the names and if anything comes to mind, if you think of something important about this particular person we'll put it in the record at this point. I have them down here alphabetically -- Sadie T. Alexander is the first.
NASH: Yes. You know who she is, don't you? A very distinguished woman lawyer from Philadelphia and she and her husband have a law firm up there. I don't recall who first brought her name up. This is far too many years ago, but she is one of the people I had in mind when I said it was a "Noah's Ark Committee" because she was a Negro, a woman and a northerner. So, there you've got three roles taken care of with one appointment.
HESS: Well, the next one is almost self-explanatory -- James B. Carey.
NASH: Yes, he had been part of the original group and was from labor and very active in the civil rights field.
HESS: The third one is a man I'm not familiar with -- John S. Dickey.
NASH: President of Dartmouth College and at that time I think on leave from his presidency to do some work in the State Department. A very, very distinguished scholar and university administrator, and he among other things provided us with our executive secretary, because it was a political scientist from Dartmouth who was ultimately selected as the director.
HESS: Robert K. Carr.
NASH: Bob Carr. Now, the president of Oberlin College.
HESS: Why was he particularly selected?
NASH: The reason for selecting him was that he was not a man with established, or a pronounced set of idealogical views. He had just completed a book on the general subject of civil rights -- or civil liberties as it was called then -- so that he ha