The little-known publisher who tutored Hubert Humphrey about racism
Cecil Newman’s work with the Minnesota politician helped convince Democrats to finally embrace civil rights
Seventy-five years ago, on the afternoon of July 14, 1948, Cecil Newman was listening to a radio broadcast of the Democratic National Convention from Philadelphia as he finished up the weekly edition of the Minneapolis Spokesman, the newspaper he had founded for the city’s Black residents.
Newman had more than a typical journalist’s interest in political news. The young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, was scheduled to address the delegates that afternoon, and he was expected to defy both the moderate president, Harry Truman, and the bloc of Southern segregationists known as the “Dixiecrats” by calling for the Democratic Party to fully embrace civil rights in its platform for the first time. Ever since meeting Humphrey earlier in the decade, Newman had been his friend, political ally and tutor about racism in America.
As both a seasoned editor and a Black man in America, Newman had plenty of doubts about Humphrey’s prospects in Philadelphia. He had already composed an editorial extolling Humphrey for making a “strong fight for a strong stand on civil rights” even while predicting that “in all likelihood he will not be successful.” Still, Newman listened as Humphrey’s voice came over the airwaves, announcing, “I feel I must rise at this time to support a report, a minority report, a report that spells out our democracy. It is a report on the greatest issue of civil rights.”
Newman and Humphrey had come from vastly different backgrounds to form their partnership. Newman had grown up in a thriving Black community in Kansas City, Missouri, as a star student and a precocious teenage journalist. Humphrey was the product of the remote hamlet of Doland, South Dakota, an enclave of German and Scandinavian Protestants who considered even Roman Catholics an alien presence.
About a decade older than Humphrey, Newman had moved to Minneapolis in 1922 at age 19 and ultimately found work as a Pullman porter and a cub reporter. Encountering racism from nearly his first day in the city, when a restaurant spiked his hamburger with a sickening amount of salt, Newman poured his outrage into the pages of the Twin-City Herald, which he partly owned and edited beginning in 1927.
As a member of A. Philip Randolph’s influential Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Newman was especially attuned to the racial discrimination practiced in Minneapolis by management and labor unions. In the very first issue of the Herald, he declared: “As a result of this restriction of the right to work, we are forced to live on insufficient incomes and the penalty we pay is a high rate of mortality, of morbidity and a disproportionate amount of crime. This condition is more acute in Minneapolis than any city of its size in America.”
Four years later, Newman witnessed the defining spectacle of race hate in Minneapolis: the nights-long siege by nearly 5,000 white vigilantes of the home recently purchased by Arthur Lee, a Black postal worker and veteran of World War I. As the Lee family endured vandalism, chants of racial slurs, and the killing of their pet dog, Newman wrote presciently, “How long does the American white man expect the colored man to accept half portions, anyway?” The following year, as Lee’s tormentors went free and he was being prosecuted for supposedly attacking them, Newman sounded oracular once again:
“This case is not the case of Lee alone. It is a case of the people, white and black, who believe in the fundamental laws of the country and the state. It is a case of right against wrong. It is the concern of any man, be he Jew or Gentile, white or black, Protestant or Catholic. This country will never be safe until the rights of every citizen are safe.”
Newman’s ferocity coexisted with a deceptively genteel exterior. He favored tweed suits, wore rimless glasses, spoke in measured tones. But anyone who mistakenly judged him by that veneer was in for a surprise when Newman editorialized, for instance, that Black voters should support the Communist Party on Election Day, because Communists were the only white folks truly committed to equal rights.
After the Herald closed down amid the Great Depression, Newman launched the Spokesman. From its first edition in August 1934, he reported and editorialized relentlessly on police brutality and discrimination by private employers and unions in Minneapolis, at one point organizing a Black consumer boycott of all the local breweries that maintained whites-only workforces. At a time when much of white America was isolationist, Newman repeatedly drew the parallels between the Nazi oppression of Jews in Germany and the Jim Crow system in America. HITLER MUST BE LAUGHING! read the headline over his article about a college-educated Black draftsman who had been refused a job with an aircraft manufacturer.
Newman was a peer of such famed Black publishers as Robert Sengstacke Abbott of the Chicago Defender and Robert Vann of the The Pittsburgh Courier. But given the comparatively small size of Minneapolis’s Black community and thus of his readership, Newman couldn’t match the national reach of the Defender and Courier. And in his home city, no matter how valiantly and eloquently Newman crusaded for racial equality, he lacked a white ally who possessed both a functioning conscience and the necessary political talent.
Humphrey arrived in the late summer of 1940 to fill that gap. Humphrey had already lived in Minneapolis for two periods of study at the University of Minnesota (1929-1931 and 1937-1939) broken by a return to South Dakota to help his family, who had lost both its home and its drugstore business in the Great Depression. During Humphrey’s years at the university, absorbed in classwork and then marriage, he had been oblivious to the racism in the city and on the campus. His political views consisted of the standard, class-based liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.
When Humphrey spent the 1939-40 academic year earning a master’s degree at Louisiana State University, however, he underwent a moral awakening that would shape his entire career in public life. Living near the main Black neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Humphrey was plunged into a Jim Crow society with its segregated facilities and daily indignities for the first time in his life. He began to form insight into the reasons for Black resistance to “the white intruder, so to speak … the white police and the white politician and the white establishment,” as he later put it in his memoir.
Returning to Minnesota after his year in Baton Rouge, Humphrey might have been expected to view race relations like other white liberals in Minneapolis, who were proud that there were no local lynchings and that Black folks could vote. Humphrey, to the contrary, would later write: “No one, I thought, could view black life in Louisiana without shock and outrage. Yet its importance to me was not only what I saw there and what my reaction was to southern segregation. It also opened my eyes to the prejudice of the North.”
Newman and Humphrey, in other words, were predisposed to need one another even before they met. Initially, Newman heard favorable secondhand reports about how fairly Humphrey was administering jobs in the New Deal program he led in Minneapolis. At some point in 1942 or early 1943 — the exact date cannot be determined in the written records of either man — Humphrey began to pay regular visits to Newman in the Spokesman office and occasionally joined him for dinner at the Newman family home.
When Humphrey announced a long-shot, last-minute campaign for mayor in April 1943, the Spokesman delivered a de facto endorsement in the form of a series of positive articles about him. A civil rights activist named Anthony Brutus Cassius made what he proudly claimed was the first contribution to Humphrey’s campaign. And in a rarity for Minneapolis politics, Humphrey spoke at the settlement house that was the central institution of Black Minneapolis.
In the end, Humphrey narrowly lost to the incumbent, Marvin Kline, but put himself on the local political map. With America involved in the war against fascism, Newman recruited thousands of Black workers for a local ammunition factory. He also experienced the meaning of Black America’s Double V campaign — so titled by the Pittsburgh Courier to refer to winning the victory over fascism abroad and then racism at home — when his son Oscar was drafted. In an editorial headlined War Gets Close to Home, Newman wrote some of his most poignant words:
Now that our pride and joy is wearing a uniform, getting ready we hope to do his best, for the greatest nation on earth, our personal approach to the war and victory is no longer academic …
It’s a task to talk to a Negro boy who has been south and who has seen how people of his race are treated, or who is cognizant that democracy means one thing for whites and another thing for Negroes, though America hypocritically contends the same democracy embraces all its people. Attempting to give a Negro boy headed for the Army or Navy … a pep talk filled with platitudes that sound empty, that are empty, is a task which is great …
Sure, son, we don’t expect you to fight for what your people are receiving today, but fight, pray and hope that the sacrifices you and others will make will help raise our common country in reality to the lofty heights described and prescribed in our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.
The war was nearly over when Humphrey won election as mayor in a landslide in June 1945. His ticket included a labor organizer and civil rights activist, Nellie Stone Johnson, whose election to the Library Board was the first citywide victory for a Black candidate. “There must be hope for the unity of people,” Newman wrote, “when people from all walks of life here in Minneapolis … go to the polls and elect a Negro American woman to public office.”
The less salutary side of Minneapolis did not take long to intrude on such optimism. On the night of Aug. 29, 1945, a police inspector notorious for hostile treatment of Black Minneapolitans barged into a café owned by Cassius, purportedly seeking the suspect in a murder. The cop, Eugene Bernath, demanded that all the Black patrons show him identification. When two women refused, Bernath hauled them to the lockup downtown.
One of the women worked for Newman and used her single phone call from jail to alert him. Newman, in turn, dialed Humphrey at home. In the middle of the night, the mayor drove down to police headquarters to order the women released. Then he took them and Newman out for coffee at a 24-hour café.
As personal as Humphrey’s governing style was, he could not address the entrenched bigotry of Minneapolis through such improvised interventions alone. With Newman as a key member, Humphrey formed a commission on human rights, which helped enact one of the nation’s earliest and most forceful fair-employment laws. The mayor brought in two Black sociologists from historically Black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, to lead hundreds of white volunteers in a study of discrimination against Black people, Jews, Nisei, and Native Americans in Minneapolis, a study that shocked the city out of its complacency. Humphrey also began reforming the police force, requiring cops to take college instruction in human relations. (That last endeavor was abandoned when Humphrey ran for U.S. Senate in 1948, and George Floyd’s murder while in police custody in 2020 is a bitter testament to an unfinished agenda.)
Even as Humphrey vaulted onto the Democratic Party’s national stage in 1948, Newman made clear in the pages of the Spokesman that he was not going to obediently endorse the incumbent Democratic president Harry Truman. Newman backed Henry Wallace, running on the Progressive Party ticket, who spoke on behalf of civil rights even in the Deep South. Beyond expressing his individual viewpoint, Newman published a series of opinion polls of Black Minnesotans, showing Truman trailing both Wallace and the Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey.
Humphrey, too, wasn’t enamored with the president, working behind the scenes for months in a “Dump Truman” movement. Only when that insurgency had clearly failed, as no other preferred candidate entered the race, did Humphrey focus wholly on the other goal of liberals in 1948: a genuine, unequivocal civil rights plank in the party platform.
Truman, by contrast, wanted the ambiguous language that Franklin Roosevelt had always used to appease the segregationist Southerners whose electoral votes and Congressional support be believed was essential to advancing his New Deal agenda. Against Truman’s own wishes, Humphrey and his allies crafted language endorsing such key civil rights goals as a desegregated military, a permanent federal fair employment commission, and the outlawing of lynching and the poll tax. Outside the convention hall, Newman’s longtime friend Randolph was leading a protest march threatening mass-scale draft resistance by Black Americans if Truman did not integrate the armed forces.
It was Humphrey’s speech on behalf of the civil rights plank that Newman was listening to as he put the finishing touches on the Spokesman on the afternoon of July 14. He heard Humphrey declare, “To those of you, my friends, who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them, we are 172 years too late.” Then, a few minutes later, he heard Humphrey shout out the clincher: “The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
After an adjournment to calm the roiled convention hall, the delegates took their roll-call vote on the civil rights plank, and, stunningly, it won. With the rest of the Spokesman already typeset, Newman managed to overhaul the front page, topping it with the banner headline, HUMPHREY WINS BATTLE FOR REAL CIVIL RIGHTS PLANK. Two weeks later, Truman issued executive orders desegregating the military and the federal workforce. On Election Day in early November, he upset Dewey thanks to a surge of Black voters in swing states. Again, Newman was ready with the front-page headline: TRUMAN’S CIVIL RIGHTS STAND WINS.
On the day when Humphrey had delivered his “bright sunshine” speech, listeners around the nation began deluging him with telegrams and letters, some laudatory and many contemptuous. The first piece to be sent, time-stamped by Western Union at 1:32 p.m. Central Time, was from Newman: “ADDRESS WAS MAGNIFICENT. MOST OF MINNESOTA IS PROUD OF YOUR COURAGEOUS FIGHT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS. MAY GOD BLESS AND STRENGTHEN YOU.”
It took Humphrey nearly two weeks to answer all the mail and he saved the most personal responses to his oldest and dearest friends for last. “You know that the Philadelphia victory was ours — not mine,” he wrote to Newman. “It’s people like yourself who have labored patiently in the vineyards for years who prepared the moral climate that made my speech and its acceptance at Philadelphia possible.”