Many people cite the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education as the starting point of the modern civil rights movement.
But there are persuasive reasons for tracing the movement's origin to a date six years earlier, July 26, 1948. That is when President Harry S. Truman caused a political eruption by issuing executive orders banning racial discrimination in the armed forces and the federal civil service. Truman's action was widely seen as dooming whatever chance he had of winning election to a full term that November.The purpose of the military order was to ensure "equality of treatment and opportunity to all persons in the armed services without regard to race, religion or national origin," but it did not specifically mention segregation. The civil order required "all personnel actions" to be "based solely on merit and fitness," with no racial discrimination. Both directives created seven-member boards to help implement the president's policies.
By issuing the two orders, Truman acted in accordance with his own previously stated positions as well as with those adopted by the Democratic Party at its recently completed national convention.
In a special message to Congress in February 1948, Truman presented the first presidential request for a comprehensive package of civil rights legislation.
None of Truman's civil rights program was enacted into law in 1948. Republicans controlled both houses of the 80th Congress, and Southern Democrats were united in opposition to the president's legislative requests.
But Truman never wavered. Years later, in an interview with author Merle Miller, he recalled what he said to a Democratic national committeewoman from Alabama who had told him "She was just sure I hadn't meant what I had said in my message to Congress."
Truman replied, "I said what I said because I meant it, and I have no intention in any way whatsoever in taking back one word . . . (T)he Bill of Rights applies to everybody in this country, and don't you ever forget it."