Hubert Humphrey was born in Wallace, South Dakota in 1911 to a homemaker and a small-town pharmacist. He entered the University of Minnesota in 1929, but because of his family’s financial struggles had to leave after his freshman year. Instead of pursuing a college degree, he completed a two-year, pharmaceutical licensure program in just six months, and then spent from 1931 to 1937 helping his father run the family drugstore.
Despite nearly a decade-long break in his education, Humphrey dreamed of becoming a professor of political science. In 1937 he returned to the University of Minnesota to earn his bachelor’s degree, in 1940 he completed a master’s program at Louisiana State University, and then he returned to the University of Minnesota to begin a doctoral program. During that program he became so active in local politics that he ended up dropping out; in 1943 he ran for mayor of Minneapolis and lost, but in 1945 he ran again and won in a landslide victory. He remained mayor for three years. During his tenure, he worked tirelessly to reduce bigotry in a city then known for its high levels of racial and religious discrimination.
At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Humphrey delivered a stirring speech in support of civil rights that defied the aggressive pressure of President Truman’s advisors to avoid forcing the issue on the Convention floor. This prompted a walkout by Southern delegates – but Humphrey’s speech persuaded the Democratic Party to adopt a pro-civil rights plank, and it contributed heavily to Harry Truman’s stunning upset victory over his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey. In rallying support for Truman through that speech, Humphrey effectively demonstrated that history was on the side of Americans who embraced the concept of civil rights. Here are a couple of memorable quotes from that speech:
“To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years [too] late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!”
“We cannot use a double standard for measuring our own and other people’s policies. Our demands for democratic practices in other lands will be no more effective than the guarantees of those practiced in our own country.”
Here is an audio recording of the entire speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nwIdIUVFm4
That speech granted Humphrey instant, national recognition – and in that same year he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Over fifteen years, he established himself as one of the country’s most effective legislators, swaying both public and congressional opinion on topics such as fair employment, civil rights, the Peace Corps, nuclear test bans, organized labor, and domestic agriculture.
In 1960, Humphrey campaigned for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination but lost to John F. Kennedy. He remained in the Senate, where he served as Majority Whip. From 1965 to 1969, he served as Vice President under Lyndon Johnson.
In 1968 he ran for president again and won the Democratic Party’s nomination, but then lost to Richard Nixon in the general election. He returned to the Senate in 1971, was reelected in 1976, and held office until he died of cancer in January 1978.
In a eulogy at Humphrey’s funeral, President Jimmy Carter remarked: “From time to time, our nation is blessed by the presence of men and women who bear the mark of greatness, who help us see a better vision of what we can become. Hubert Humphrey was such a man.” Two months later, Carter established the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship to honor the late senator’s exemplary leadership, devotion to public service, and courageous efforts to promote greater global justice and peace.
Other memorable statements:
“In this time of national crises…perhaps we would do well to spend a few minutes in considering projects which grace and embellish the earth, instead of shaking it.” 1962
“The leadership for civil rights has to take place in the White House or it is going to take place in the streets.” 1964
“This is the first generation in all of recorded history that can do something about the scourge of poverty. We have the means to do it. We can banish hunger from the face of the earth.” 1965
“I am not here to judge whether people are locked in poverty because of themselves or because of the society in which they live. All I know is that they are there and we are trying to do something about it.” 1966
“It is all too easy for a society to measure itself against some abstract philosophical principle or political slogan. But in the end, there must remain the question: What kind of life is one society providing to the people that live in it?” 1966
“What do we want for people? Human dignity, personal expression and fulfillment, justice, freedom.” 1967
“Be clear where America stands. Human brotherhood and equal opportunity for every man, woman, and child, we are committed to it, in America and around the world.” 1967
“I believe 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.” 1968
“What you do, what each of us does, has an effect on the country, the state, the nation, and the world.” 1968
“My philosophy has always been that benefits should percolate up rather than trickle down.” 1971
“The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” 1976
“The message of the United States is not nuclear power. The message of the United States is a spiritual message. It is the message of human ideals; it is the message of human dignity; it is the message of the freedom of ideas, speech, press, the right to assemble, to worship, and the message of freedom of movement of people.” 1977
“There is no such thing as an acceptable level of unemployment, because hunger is not acceptable, poverty is not acceptable, poor health is not acceptable, and a ruined life is not acceptable.”
“In the minds and hearts of the American people, there is a great hunger for peace based on a universal recognition of the values of freedom and human dignity.”
“The gap between the rich and the poor is the most dangerous threat to world peace we have.”
“The road to freedom—here and everywhere on earth—begins in the classroom.”
“Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, debate and dissent.”
“Peace is not passive, it is active. Peace is not appeasement, it is strength. Peace does happen. It requires work.”
“You can always debate about what you should have done. The question is what are you going to do?”