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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James P. Coleman, September 5, 1990. Interview A-0338. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Mississippi Democratic delegates walk out of the 1948 Democratic National Convention

Here, Coleman identifies the Democratic National Convention of 1948 as a watershed moment in Mississippi politics and the Democratic Party's views on race issues. Whereas two Mississippi counties had "bolted the ticket" in 1928 over the issue of prohibition, the party became polarized to an extreme when the entire Mississippi Democratic Party chose to walk out of the DNC, primarily because of Truman's decision to integrate the armed services. According to Coleman, it was this moment, rather than the school desegregation issue, that truly polarized Mississippi Democrats and served as a catalyst for bringing the issue of race to the forefront of politics.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James P. Coleman, September 5, 1990. Interview A-0338. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

But I think that the real whirlwind began in 1948 when the southern states walked out of the Democratic Convention. That was what poured the gasoline on the fire. It'd been a rumble off in the distance. It was a kind of a monster that was hiding around the bend. I'm talking about from the standpoint of upsetting everything and tearing everything up, even getting ready to abolish the public schools and all that kind of stuff. Well, I'm a product of the public school system, and in these latter days I've got five grandchildren and they've all gone to the public schools, and they educated me and they've educated my grandchildren as well. But I would say that the real high water mark was when they walked out in '48. I'd been a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1940, and I was a presidential elector for Roosevelt and Truman in '44, the last time Mississippi went Democratic victoriously until Jimmy Carter in 1976, thirty-two years later. Of course, Mississippi went democratic in '52 and '56 because John Stennis and Jim Eastland and myself got out and campaigned for the ticket. Which reminds me, I'm going to tell you this, show you about the ups and downs and why there's always a tomorrow in politics. Most politicians forget that. There is always a tomorrow, and a lot of what happens tomorrow is governed by what already happened today, naturally. But in 1928 in the big bolt on account of the liquor question and the Catholicism question, there weren't but three people in Mississippi of any stature that dared speak up for the democratic ticket-Pat Harrison, BilBo, and old man Paul Johnson, later governor. In the meantime, as I pointed out while ago, men like Heflin and Simmons, after a long career, they got ushered out of office because they had bolted the ticket. But in 1948, you remember, they carried a bunch of places. They carried Mississippi, carried South Carolina
JOHN EGERTON:
Carried five states. Were you a delegate to the convention?
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
I wouldn't go in '48. I knew they were going to walk out.
JOHN EGERTON:
You knew what was going to happen.
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
I knew, just as well as I see you sitting in front of me, that they were going to walk out, and I wasn't going to do that. And I didn't do it. Well, of course, we finally got straightened out and got back in. I was Democratic National Committeeman from Mississippi in '52. But after all, all you had to do was just read the history of the Charleston Convention of 1860 and that taught you right on the front end, that was a futile undertaking. I did not get out and campaign in 1948 for the Democratic ticket for the simple reason that it was easy to see that the hysteria had grown so high that there wasn't any way you could cool it off. I was a judge at the time too. I was state circuit judge. In any event, when we went back in '52, you know they tried to throw Mississippi out of the convention of '52 because we had walked out in '48. But Governor White was not a "walker-outer." I went up there, I was attorney general, I made the argument on the convention that kept Mississippi in the convention. Of course, they threw Virginia out, you know. Gordon Browning ended his political career in Tennessee by voting to do so. In any event, if anybody could write a real history of this thing, this has been a potboiler of a thing for a long time.
JOHN EGERTON:
Fascinating time.
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
In many incidents, it boiled over, and darn near put out the fire, you know. Lot of differences between now and back then.
JOHN EGERTON:
Did you have the feeling, or maybe it's looking back, that I'm asking, but you mentioned '48 as being. . . .
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
I think it's a watershed.
JOHN EGERTON:
That's when it busted. Was there a period of time between the end of the war and '48 when the more progressive forces of the South might have been able to kind of turn this in a more progressive direction, or is that just impossible to imagine that could have happened?
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
I honestly do not think that it was an impossibility. I think the historical fact is that nobody put enough emphasis behind it have any chance of success at that time. You remember, in '48, when we walked out, that's the year that Truman, surprisingly, defeated Tom Dewey. It's an interesting thing how life keeps meeting itself coming back. Got to talking in the post office lobby one morning down here several years ago, something came up about '48. And I believe Truman and Barkley got 19,000 votes in the whole darn state of Mississippi, and of course, I was one of the 19,000 and said so. There were two preachers in there, and they said, "Well, we voted for Truman and Barkley, but obviously we did not announce it from the pulpit." That was how hot things got, see [laughter]. Well, what's that on the front of the Archives and History Building in Washington-"The past is prologue." You can't explain anything without knowing what is going on before, except we cross-divide. We get on the mountain top; we get down in the valley. We've got to climb out again. But I would say, this will have to be checked, I don't know whether Truman had ordered the integration of the Armed Forces before '48 or not. I rather suspect that he had.
JOHN EGERTON:
Yes, I believe he had.
JAMES P. COLEMAN:
And that was one of the great bones of contention.