Stephen J. Spingarn Oral History Interview, March 28, 1967

Oral History Interview with
Stephen J. Spingarn

Attorney, U.S. Treasury Dept., 1934-41; Asst. to the Attorney General of the United States, 1937-38; Special Asst. to the Gen. Counsel, Treasury Dept., 1941-42; Comdg. Officer, 5th Army Counter Intelligence Corps, 1943-45; Asst. Gen. Counsel, Treasury Dept., 1946-49; Alternate Member, President's Temp. Comm. on Employee Loyalty, 1946-47; Dep. Dir., Office of Contract Settlement, 1947-49; Asst. to the Special Counsel of the President, 1949-50; Administrative Asst. to the President, 1950; and Commissioner, Federal Trade Commission, 1950-53.

Washington, D.C.

March 28, 1967 (Eleventh Oral History)
March 28, 1967 (Twelfth Oral History)

By Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Spingarn 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. [45]) 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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 April, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Stephen J. Spingarn

Washington, D.C.
March 28, 1967 (Eleventh Oral History)
By Jerry N. Hess


Eleventh Oral History Interview with Stephen J. Spingarn, Washington, D.C., March 28, 1967. By Jerry N. Hess, Harry S. Truman Library.

HESS: All right, Mr. Spingarn, what would you like to discuss this morning?

SPINGARN: Well, quite a few things, but I'm going to start with something that is so contemporaneous that the last development was a phone call a half an hour ago, which involves Mr. Truman directly.

President Truman was a strong supporter of home rule for the District of Columbia. He recommended it repeatedly to Congress. I can remember in one of the papers which I believe I have turned over to you, it's a memorandum, I think, for the file, which I wrote saying that I had reported to the President (this would have been 1950), that there were over two hundred signatures on the discharge petition in the House to discharge the House District Committee on the home rule bill. That committee has always been the stumbling block and the bill has passed the Senate over and over again, but it's hard to get it out of the House Committee, especially when it's usually chaired by a conservative, Deep South Democrat, with a segregationist outlook.


In any event, I reported to Mr. Truman that there were over two hundred signatures on the discharge petition, two hundred and eighteen being required to bring the bill to the floor -- discharge the committee and bring the bill to the floor. He told me to go ahead and do whatever we could do to get these other signatures. And I recall that Dave Lloyd and I and others did work on that.

But we didn't quite make the grade before adjournment. In any event, it is only one of many instances of Mr. Truman's interest in Home Rule. I recall writing letters to Congress for his signature on the matter and other related activities on that.

Well, I'm a strong proponent of Home Rule for the District of Columbia, as I think every sensible citizen in the District of Columbia should be, and all the straw votes here and the referenda show overwhelming support for Home Rule, although the Board of Trade and some of our more well-to-do citizens are timorous about it because they think it's going to mean a raise in taxes, among other things. Also the hidden factor is the fact that in a city with a population that is about sixty-five percent Negro, we


obviously are going to have a preponderantly Negro Home Rule government, and this frightens some people.

And I say to them, "We have the outstanding Negro leadership in the entire United States, probably in the world, in the city of Washington -- Howard University, and men like President [James M.] Nabrit of Howard, and Dean Clarence Ferguson of the law school, and Robert Martin up there -- many, many others, Frank Snowden,, a Republican, I think, by the way, a friend of mine who is the dean of the liberal arts college, we have Cabinet officers, a Cabinet officer in Robert Weaver, there's Thurgood Marshall, the Solicitor General, and so on down the line.

There's so many brilliant and able Negroes in this city that if we could produce a hundred percent Negro government composed of our best Negro leadership we'd probably have the best municipal government in the United States, and while there's always the risk that you may have some demagogues, I believe that preponderantly you will get a pretty good leadership in any municipal government, and it will be, I suppose, at least, probably more than half Negro. And I personally would be delighted to go before any Negro


electorate and present myself as a candidate for whatever was available in Home Rule government, and I think I'd have a pretty good chance.

I get along famously with the Negro politicians of this city and with most Negroes that I meet. If you present yourself as a human being to another human being, there's no problem, any more than there would be with a human being of any other color. You may have your differences but they're not ethnical, they're based on individual human relations.

So, I'm a member of the Home Rule Committee, and the president of the Home Rule Committee is David Carliner, a distinguished Washington lawyer, very able, with a very fine record in the field of civil rights. He has long been -- he is no longer -- but he was until recently the president of the District chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and he's handled a lot of civil rights cases.

Some weeks ago, some time back, Dave Carliner asked me -- it is his idea (and I think he's right), that one of the troubles, one reason why the District has not been able to get Home Rule, is that there is no support, or very little support outside the


District of Columbia in the rest of the country.

So to improve that situation, and to gather support from other areas, the idea is to form a national committee on Home Rule for the District of Columbia with representation from all over the country. And it is his thought, and it makes absolute sense to me, that we should try to get President Truman and President Eisenhower as honorary co-chairmen of that national committee.

So he asked me some time back, I would say a couple of months or more, if I would help in trying to get Mr. Truman to accept the co-honorary chairmanship of that committee, and I said I would.

I didn't know what the situation was. I know that the President's health is not as good as it has been in the past, and that he therefore should and does limit his commitments, but on the other hand, this would be purely honorary and there would be no work involved. It would be symbolic for both him and Mr. Eisenhower.

I said I would do whatever I could. So about three weeks ago the Home Rule Committee gave a reception on the Hill for the members of the District Committees


of the House and the Senate, which I attended, and again Dave Carliner spoke to me about this. I suggested to him then that he prepare a letter to Mr. Truman and that he give it to me. I told him that Charlie Murphy was going out to Independence and was going to make a speech to the trustees of the Harry Truman Library Institute, of which I'm a member, and that that would be an excellent opportunity, because Charlie Murphy is, I believe, outside the President's immediate family and immediate entourage, the man closest politically in the whole world to President Truman, at least that's my impression, outside of the immediate entourage, and the family. And he has worked with him all through the years since he left the Presidency. So Charlie Murphy would be the perfect man to ask the President if he would be willing to do this and he was going to be there on the spot, which is the best way to do anything, not do it by mail, or even by telephone.

I suggested to Dave Carliner that he cover three points in the letter: One, naturally, explain what it was all about, why Mr. Truman's sponsorship would be helpful, and that Mr. Eisenhower would also be


solicited; two, explain that there would be absolutely no work involved, it was purely honorary so that Mr. Truman and his family wouldn't feel that he was making another work commitment; and three, remind him, which is almost unnecessary, of his own repeated efforts and activities on behalf of Home Rule for the District of Columbia while he was President, and even since.

And this morning, just about half an hour before I came over here, a woman from the Home Rule Committee called up and said they had the letter, where should they send it, and I told them to send it by messenger to me here and I will receive it sometime this morning. I will then turn it over to Charlie Murphy. I've already talked to Charlie and he's agreed to take the letter out there, and sound out Mr. Truman on the situation. So, this is quite contemporaneous. Of course, I don't know whether Mr. Truman can or will accept, but we'll see.

While I'm on the subject of Home Rule, which is a civil rights matter, and which, by the way, was one component of the President's civil rights message of February 2, 1948, I have before me page 5 of a paper by Professor Alonzo Hamby of Ohio University at Athens,


Ohio. On December 29, 1966, Professor Hamby and I were guest speakers and commentators at the first major session held on civil rights in the Truman administration by the American Historical Association. It was at their convention in New York attended by 6,000 historians last December. On December 29, their principal session was on civil rights in the Truman administration.

Professor Barton Bernstein, whom I have already adverted to, delivered the main paper, and Professor Hamby and I then commented. We were originally scheduled to have fifteen minutes each, but I asked for and got thirty minutes, and so Professor Hamby had fifteen and I had thirty, and perhaps took forty, and he criticized Professor Bernstein's paper in polite, professorial and academic terms -- I thought Professor Hamby's paper was excellent; and mine was in, shall we say, less polite and less academic terms, but it was highly critical.

Subsequently, Professor Hamby sent me a copy of his paper, which he had read, and here from page 5, I read a statement which makes complete sense to me, and which I think is interesting in the terms of what


Professor Bernstein said too, in the context of what Bernstein said, and which to me is a picture of the real world as distinguished from the world of the ivory tower perfectionist, who doesn't understand that the best is the enemy of the good, and that all advances in human progress are made by compromise and barter, as Edmund Burke once put it -- all of them. I'm quoting now, from Professor Hamby's paper:

It is probable that much of the legislative portion of the Truman Civil Rights program, as distinct from the executive action, was symbolic and rhetorical in design. It advanced without serious expectation of its passage, as a way of showing that the Administration wanted to give recognition and endorsement to Negro aspirations.

Now, I wouldn't fully agree with that passage. I'll comment on it when I get through.

For example, in May, 1950, Mr. Stephen Spingarn, then a White House Assistant, sent a memorandum to Charles Murphy, Special Counsel to the President. He wrote, 'My own view is that we cannot win the FEPC cloture fight in this Congress, but that it will be pretty important in November how we lost it.' (That's the end of the quote.] He [that's me] recalled the importance of Negro votes to the Democrats in the 1948 election and warned, 'That could change, especially if the Democratic Administration looks as if it were not backing up its fine words about civil rights with hard-hitting efforts to get action, but only apathetically going through the motions.' This memorandum, of course, did not indicate a lack of commitment


or sincerity, as Mr. Bernstein remarks [that's Professor Barton Bernstein] in a footnote, 'Perhaps no member of Truman's staff was more committed to civil rights, [that's myself, he means]. It was rather a dispassionate analysis of a political situation and a call for a symbolic action. Any historian who discusses Truman's legislative leadership on civil rights must come to grips with the analysis that the vote simply did not exist.

Now, with that last statement, I fully agree. I don't think the action was quite as symbolic as Professor Hamby would put it, because there were real efforts, but I think every one of us knew that the vote simply didn't exist and the best we could do was to do our best. And it is true that in 1950 we made two efforts, task force efforts (I've described them in previous recordings), to break the filibuster and to bring the bill to a vote (that was the FEPC bill, and I was in charge of the, task force that made this effort). But the votes just weren't there. I don't believe that the Almighty himself could have run the bill through the Senate in 1950. That's my opinion.

I will also note that we were doing other things, outside the legislative field, to make it clear that the Truman administration meant business. There was the desegregation of the Armed Forces, the Army particularly; there was the amicus curiae


briefs by the Department of Justice in private civil right litigation; there was the beefing up of the civil rights section of the Department of Justice, and all these were meaningful things. There was desegregation within the Government itself -- Government facilities. I'll give you that to Xerox and return to me. That's the paper I just read from.

Now, yesterday, I believe it was yesterday, wasn't it, that I dealt with the secret meeting of the temporary commission, or was it earlier?

HESS: Friday, I believe, but that's of little matter.