One of the most famous convention speeches in American history is Hubert Humphrey’s 1948 address to that year’s Democratic National Convention, where he called on the delegates to approve a stronger civil rights plank over the opposition of everyone from President Truman on down. Humphrey’s victory catapulted him to national fame.
Robert Caro retells the story of the speech in “Master of the Senate,” volume three of his magisterial LBJ biography, and then describes the vote (emphasis mine):
In the vote on Humphrey’s minority plank, Truman’s Missouri, [Senate Minority Leader Alben] Barkley’s Kentucky, Democratic Chairman Howard McGrath’s Rhode Island, and of course the southern delegations all voted no.
Missouri, Kentucky, the Old Confederacy and … Rhode Island? Strange company.
The reason was McGrath, who had quite a career. A New Deal Democrat from Woonsocket, he got his start in public life as Central Falls’ city solicitor, then served as FDR’s Rhode Island U.S. Attorney (1934-1940), Rhode Island’s governor (1941-1945), Truman’s solicitor general (1945-1946), Rhode Island’s U.S. Senator (1947-1949) and finally Truman’s attorney general (1949-1952).
As the above anecdote notes, McGrath was also Truman’s DNC chairman and the campaign manager for his surprise 1948 victory. From the sounds of it, though, McGrath was no Dixiecrat – he fought lonely, often losing battles for civil rights legislation as a senator and as attorney general. But his personal finances apparently caused him some political problems.
A sad coda to McGrath’s career came in 1960, when he ran against Clabiorne Pell and Dennis Roberts (Elizabeth Roberts’ uncle by marriage) in the Democratic primary to succeed T.F. Green as U.S. Senator. Pell won, of course, and kept the seat for 36 years; McGrath died six years later at 62. The McGrath Judicial Complex in Wakefield is named for him.
(photo: Truman Library, via Wikipedia)