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Eric Schwartz

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Lessons from a Happy Warrior for Social Justice

Posted: 07/20/2012 12:16 pm

On August 4, a civil rights champion will be memorialized in a Minnesota ceremony that
merits the attention of anyone who cares about civil rights, social justice, and the future of our
country.

On that date, a bronze statue of "the Happy Warrior," former Mayor, Senator and Vice
President Hubert Humphrey, will be unveiled at Minnesota's State Capitol in St. Paul.

As it happens, the dedication ceremony will occur shortly after the July 15 anniversary of
then-Mayor Humphrey's appeal for civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. In
that historic and courageous speech in Philadelphia, Humphrey successfully urged the Democrats
to adopt a landmark civil rights plank, calling on the Party to "get out of the shadow of states'
rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."

The adopted language was followed by a Convention walk-out of southern Democrats
and the "Dixiecrat" candidacy of segregationist Strom Thurmond. Far more importantly, it
pushed the Democratic Party in the right direction and communicated solidarity with those
Americans victimized by racism.

Later, in the Senate, when Humphrey worked with Republican Senator Everett Dirksen
to break a filibuster and secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he demonstrated both his
understanding of politics as the art of the possible and his steadfast commitment to keeping faith with disenfranchised and disadvantaged populations.

In short, this Minnesota politician from small town South Dakota was imbued with a
remarkable sense of decency, grace and compassion that compelled him to action in the face of
inequality and injustice, and that fostered a reservoir of goodwill with minority communities in
general and the African American community in particular. In fact, nearly four decades ago, the
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights honored the former vice president by establishing the
Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Award. Today, it stands among the civil rights community's
highest honors.

Humphrey was distinguished by his profound belief in both the human spirit and the
obligation of government to promote the conditions for prosperity and well-being for all. He
said that "each of us can make a difference; that what is wrong can be made right; that people
possess the basic wisdom and goodness to govern themselves without conflict." He also
declared that while "it is easy for a society to measure itself against some abstract philosophical
principle or political slogan... in the end, there must remain the question: What kind of life is
our society providing to the people who live in it?"

As we prepare to honor Hubert Humphrey here in Minnesota, it is worth reflecting on
how he might view the state of progress and dialogue on social justice in the United States.

I think he'd be worried -- in particular, by the fact that our increasing diversity as a
nation coexists with substantial and persistent income and wealth gaps between minority and
non-minority communities, and by the implications of this situation for our future social and
economic well-being. Minorities now constitute more than one-third of all our citizens, and, within the next three decades, America is likely to become a "majority minority" country, where
minority racial and ethnic groups make up more than half our overall population. But if current
trends reflecting economic disparities continue -- including a recent widening of the wealth gap
between communities of color and white Americans -- much of the new majority is likely to
face a very dismal economic future.

These numbers are more ominous in light of recent research identifying significant
obstacles to upward mobility for Americans of modest means. Hubert Humphrey would have
been particularly alarmed by these barriers, especially in light of his own comment that "you
cannot tell a poor boy from a small country town from the plains of South Dakota who has had
the opportunity to be a teacher, a mayor, a senator and a vice president, that America is not a
nation of promise."

These critical issues have hardly been absent from the political debate in this election
season. While President Obama and Mitt Romney have very different ideas about how to
promote progress for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the fact that prominent
Democrats and Republicans are now debating inequality and social mobility is a welcome sign.
It may be far too much to expect that this debate will yield more light than heat during the
current Presidential campaign. But after November, Democrats and Republicans should reach
across the political aisle to engage a national conversation on economic opportunity and social
mobility in a rapidly changing America. In short, they should take a page from the playbook of former Vice President Humphrey, whose willingness to work with political adversaries was key to the most important social progress of his generation.

That would be a fitting tribute to the memory of this extraordinary American hero.

Eric P. Schwartz is dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of
Minnesota.

 
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