Truman honor goes to longtime civil rights leader

Jeff Fox
The Examiner

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a longtime leader in Congress and longtime leader in civil rights, is this year’s recipient of the Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Award.

Congressman James Clyburn

Past winners have included two presidents and more than a dozen senators and members of Congress, as well as authors, historians, ambassadors, journalists and others. The award is given to someone who embodies the values of the 33rd president. Last year’s recipient was former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, is the majority whip, making him the third-highest ranking member of Democratic leadership in the House. He was first elected to Congress in 1992 and for nearly 20 years before that was South Carolina’s human affairs commissioner.

The Truman Good Neighbor Foundation traditionally presents the award on or near Truman’s May 8 birthday in the grand ballroom of the Muehlebach Tower in downtown Kansas City, the same place where Truman was honored on his birthday in the years after he left the White House. That event evolved into the Good Neighbor luncheon after Truman’s death in 1972, and the first winner of the award was former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1973.

But the pandemic has scrambled that tradition, and this year’s event will again be virtual. Those details are to be announced in April. 

Clyburn and the late Congressman John Lewis, also a longtime civil rights leader, were honored in that same ballroom four years ago with the Harry S. Truman Legacy of Leadership Award, given by the Truman Library Institute at the annual Wild About Harry dinner. 

Clyburn told the crowd that night that he was only 8 in 1948 but that his family, which followed the news closely, paid especially close attention to the presidential election that year. Truman, who had taken steps to advance civil rights such as ordering the desegregation of the military, was running against Republican Thomas Dewey and two third-party candidates – and was widely considered headed for defeat.

“And he won,” Clyburn said. “And that’s when I said things can change.”

He called Truman’s victory one of the highlights of civil rights progress in the 1940s and early 1950s.

He also told those at the dinner that change in America is seldom direct or consistent but rather “things move left for a while, then right for a while.” 

He added, “I believe in the ability of us to get it right … and lay down the burden of race.”