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HOME > ARTICLES > AUGUST 2003

HUBERT HUMPHREY -
"EVERYTHING I KNOW I LEARNED FROM MY FATHER."


by Jeannine Coup

Hubert Horatio Humphrey was always ambitious and desired to right enormous wrongs. Humphrey said:

"You know, when I was a young man in South Dakota, everything-everyone-even the state itself seemed so anonymous. ...I always felt-- gosh, I'll live and die out here and nobody would even know that I ever was. I had to get out. But it wasn't only that. I just thought that somebody should know what all of those good people are all about. Who's going to help them with their problems if no one knows they're here?"

Humphrey needed to be loved by everyone, craved recognition, remained personally naive, and always wanted to make life easier for the average person. This unusual combination of characteristics gave HHH his political and private personality. And what a personality it was!

To understand Humphrey the man and the senator, you look back into his humble childhood and to his father.

Hubert H. Humphrey was born in 1911 in South Dakota. He began washing glasses in his father's drug store at the age of seven. He later said he would have started earlier, but was not tall enough to reach the glasses. This was a bad time for farmers and small store owners alike since no one had any money. Humphrey's father was forced to sell the family home to pay his debts when Hubert was sixteen. Yet, as always, no sick person was ever turned away from the drug store for lack of money. In his autobiography, The Education of a Public Man, Humphrey regarded this incident positively:

It is something I have never forgotten, not just because it moved me so deeply, but because what I followed was so typical of my father's approach to life. The family simply moved to a smaller house and began anew.

...my father never looked back. He showed not a discernible ounce of acrimony, apology or defeatism...he plunged on...he had an undiminished appetite for life, accepting the bitter, enjoying the sweet.

Like his father, Hubert gathered knowledge from his errors and forged ahead. His father gave him not only character but also ideas on social issues, politics and politicians. The drug store was the center of heated discussions on politics and Hubert sensed that his father was the professor. Humphrey said, "As soon asã I was tall enough to stand on a box and lean over the marble counters I heard debates on many issues. Hubert said he, "learned more from what I heard behind the marble counter than any thing I learned in Locke or De Tocoqueville or at both universities I attended."

After Hubert graduated from high school, his father sent him to the University of Minnesota for an education in pharmacy. He was forced to leave the university to help in his father's store during the depression and did not finish his education. At age 24 Humphrey was given a chance to escort a group of local Boy Scouts to Washington, D.C. and upon visiting the city recognized that the pharmaceutical life was not for him. Humphrey wrote his new bride from the Capitol, "I set my aim at Congress. Don't laugh Muriel...I know others have succeeded. Oh, gosh, I hope my dreams come true."

To achieve his dream he re-entered college and graduated with honors receiving a degree in political science. He felt that if by working as a janitor and waiter, being married, going to school and graduating Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa could be done by himself, then anyone could make it in this world. Humphrey changed his mind when he studied at Louisiana State University and was able to see up close "that being black...could be as devastating as depressions and dust storms." Dr. Edgar Berman states that from this point "the kernel of his civil rights zeal took root."

Like his father, Humphrey wanted to help "the people" and knew politics was the way to accomplish this. Humphrey was excited about what FDR's "New Deal" policies could do to elevate people's poverty and pain. He joined the work force with a job in the early 1940's as director of a Workers Education Program, part of the WPA in Minnesota. The job brought him into contact with local labor leaders, who in 1943 were looking for someone to be mayor of Minneapolis. Humphrey tells the story that on a Sunday walk he bumped into a pair of labor officials and asked where they were going. "To a meeting. We're trying to find a candidate for mayor," one man said. It then occurred to them that the right man for the job was me. Humphrey ran and lost that year. He learned from his mistakes enough that he won in 1945 and 1947.

Humphrey's father gave him more than just an exposure to political ideas. He also supported him in his early venture into national politics. Humphrey, Sr. Had been a member of South Dakota's delegation to several Democratic National Conventions. In 1948 he was the chairman of that delegation. Humphrey, Jr. Was a candidate for U.S. Senate and led the Minnesota delegation to the convention that same year.

Hubert Humphrey always wanted to correct injustice so he was determined to force a strong civil rights platform through the convention. Soon a fix' was set. A Southern "States Rights" plank would be introduced and defeated. When Humphrey proposed his version it would also be defeated and then Truman's own compromise would succeed. Humphrey was promised that within the party he would be a player,' since he had kept the party together by placating the Dixiecrats. But Hubert would not back down from what he felt was right. Powerful Democrats warned him, "You may tear the party apart," and that he would go from here "to pip-squeak oblivion." When Hubert consulted his father, Humphrey Sr said, "You've got to go with it. You can't run away from your conscience."

From the speaker's platform Humphrey spoke in favor of a strong civil rights plank in a "fiery speech, full of passion and conviction. It may have been the most persuasive speech he ever delivered," says author Hays Gorey. Humphrey began his speech with the now famous line, "The time has arrived for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of States' Rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."

The Democratic Convention followed Humphrey's lead. He became a hero to liberals and civil rights advocates throughout the country. From 1948 until 1964 the liberal agenda in America was Hubert Humphrey's agenda. In a footnote, Humphrey's speech did force the Southern Rights' group to leave the party, led by Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. This split helped, not hurt, Truman in the election by making him seem moderate when compared to Thurmond.

Small town Mayor Hubert Humphrey became so well known throughout Minnesota and the nation during the convention that he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Dr. Edgar Berman in his book, Hubert The Triumph and Tragedy of the Humphrey I Knew" said,

Much of his legislation stemmed from his childhood experiences. The thought of those farm families who came into the drugstore, eyes lowered in the shame of poverty, later goaded him to press the Senate on price supports and liberal crop loans. Memories of the embarrassed mother getting yet another prescription filled on the cuff from his father helped him push Aid to Dependent Children and Medicaid. And it was no wonder, after delivering medicines to the aged homes and poorhouses of the bankrupt towns of Huron and Doland, South Dakota, he'd spent hours on the Senate floor pleading for Medicare and better Social Security benefits.

During those years in Washington, DC, Humphrey compiled a record as one of the most influential Senators in U.S. History. According to Hays Gorey,
In 1949, after many years of fruitless congressional debate, Humphrey won passage of a federal anti-lynching law;
He wrote the bill that set up the first federal Commission on Civil Rights;
As early as 1951, he introduced legislation setting up a Fair Employment Practices Commission;
A decade before the Freedom Riders traveled South, Humphrey introduced federal legislation prohibiting segregation in public transportation;
in 1951, Humphrey offered legislation to outlaw the poll tax in national elections;
The Peace Corps, the cornerstone of President Kennedy's foreign policy toward the Third World, was appropriated from Humphrey;
The first generation of a series of health-care bills that finally emerged into law as the Medicare program was introduced by Humphrey during the Truman administration;
He proposed Project Head Start;
The Department of Housing and Urban Development was established after passage of a Humphrey-sponsored bill.

The list of his legislative landmarks is seemingly endless; the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; the Alliance for Progress; the Federal Scholarship Program; the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the 1964 Civil Rights Act; the Council on Youth Opportunity; Vista; Food for Peace; the Job Corps; the Municipal Fair Employment Act; the International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act; the Supplemental Food Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children; the Solar Energy Research Act; the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act; and the Forest and Rangeland Environmental Management Act. And on and on.

Each government legislation which Humphrey sponsored or helped pass had its political and philosophical beginnings in a little drug store in South Dakota. Humphrey said, "I believed I helped bring out a social consciousness in people. I always stressed things important to people. I had been taught that the way you treat people is the way you treat God. I was taught that religion should have something to do with your daily life- -not just with Sunday."

When Hubert spoke of his father he could find nothing negative to say. When he described his father it sounded much like himself,

My father was a booster, a puritan, an independent who believed in hard work. The older I got the more I saw my father in me- -even some of his weaknesses. He was a romantic and never emotionally cautious.

Humphrey hated disputes, violence, vulgarity and confrontations of any kind. Dr. Edgar Berman says that trait was inherited from his father. Both would rather talk it out.' For years Humphrey represented an optimistic outlook, a sense that it was possible to live in the cut-throat world of politics and still be a "good man."

Hubert's personal hero was his father; his political hero was F.D.R. I believe they both would have been proud of Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

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