Someone who hasn’t yet heard much about Samuel G. Freedman’s new book, “Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights,” might wonder why the journalist and historian, who generally writes about Jewish subjects, would choose to write about Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Horatio Humphrey Jr.
And that person might wonder why the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University would choose to invite Mr. Freedman to talk about his new book. What’s Jewish about it?
When you begin to read, though, you do understand why Mr. Freedman chose his subject. Humphrey was a compelling character with a surprising, generally forgotten story. His life has the story arc of a modern tragic hero. As the book begins, Humphrey, happy warrior, is withering away and dying, knowing that most of his work is coming undone.
But when you get a little further into this deeply researched book, you also get the Jewish part. You see that Humphrey was deeply, genuinely passionate about both racism and antisemitism, which both were potent forces in Minneapolis, where he spent his young adulthood and whose mayoralty he won.
Wait, what about “Minnesota Nice”? Wait, we’ll get to that.
Hubert Horatio Humphrey Jr., the second of four children, grew up in a tiny, remote town in South Dakota, deep in wheat country, damagingly reliant on the vagaries of the world economy whose unpredictable swings dictated wheat prices and therefore the local economy.
His father, Hubert Sr., the younger brother of two successful academics, was a charming, genuinely big-hearted ne’er-do-well; his mother cleaned up the messes. His father became a pharmacist — eventually Hubert did too — and the family lived for a time in a lovely old house that would have been at home on Disney World’s Main Street. H.H., in fact, sounds a bit like the other H.H. – “The Music Man’s” Harold Hill, after he settled down with Marian the librarian. The pharmacy at one point had marble floors and a soda fountain.
H.H., as senior was called, was a Democrat in a town of Republicans, an idealist in a town of hard-hearted pragmatists. The town, whose citizens descended from Northern Europeans, was overwhelmingly Protestant H.H. was a nominal Methodist and a real-life atheist.
H.H. taught his children about the importance of treating people properly, both because it’s right and because it’s smart. “If you treat people like dogs, expect to be bitten,” he told his children.
He also became involved in the Social Gospel, a Protestant theology that believed that the Bible literally was God’s word, but that God’s desire was for peace and justice, and that “the kingdom of God on earth should be a place of economic and racial and social justice,” Mr. Freedman said in a phone interview. “They thought that the work of a good Christian was to get involved in labor unions, to reach out to other religions.
“They were still successionists” — they still believed that their New Testament replaced the angry demands of what they called the Old Testament — “but they urged social improvement. As a young man, Humphrey was very affected by that.”
Mr. Freedman tells the story of the time that young Hubert, a smart, bookish, well liked and generally tolerated child, got to meet Black men.
The roads around the town were old and impassable in bad weather, but at one point, when wheat was fetching real money, the town’s leaders decided to grade and gravel them. They contracted with a company owned and staffed by black men. Hubert was entranced by their work; he made friends with them, and they more or less adopted him as their mascot. The relationship ended when the road was finished, but the feelings of friendship, of being accepted, and also of the inherent romance of hard, physical, self-directed work, stayed with him.
It was hard for Humphrey to earn his undergraduate degree — money was thin to the point of nonexistence — but eventually he finished it and got a graduate scholarship to Louisiana State University. He was out of the cold, gray northern Midwest for the first time.
In bright, hot, openly corrupt Louisiana, he saw overt racism. He also learned about antisemitism. One of his teachers, Dr. Rudolf Heberle, a non-Jewish German and strong anti-Nazi who fled his country well before the war, talked about the situation there, and so did a friend, Alvin Rubin, whose extended family he correctly predicted would be murdered during the war.
After grad school, Humphrey, his wife, the very smart, resourceful, efficient Muriel Buck Humphrey, who was his soulmate, and their young children moved back to Minneapolis. Humphrey, who was socially gifted and had a strong background in debate, became politically active.
The city’s reputation as a leading source of “Minnesota Nice” seemed — and still seems — ironic, but according to Mr. Freedman, it’s the term itself that’s ironic, sort of like a Southerner’s “Why bless your soul.”
“It’s passive-aggressive,” he said. “It’s pretending to be nice but thinking nasty thoughts underneath. It’s like seeing someone wearing something hideous and saying, ‘Oh! How interesting.’”
Minneapolis was a nasty place, Mr. Freedman said, full of overt racism and antisemitism, even though it was full of neither Blacks nor Jews. In 1946, the journalist Carey McWilliams wrote a story for a journal called “Common Ground.” The piece, “Minneapolis: The Curious Twin,” examined the difference between Minneapolis and its twin, Saint Paul, which was home to a greater mix of people — ethnic Catholics as well as Blacks and Jews. Those groups were able to make alliances with others, albeit reluctantly, at least at first, while the northern Europeans in Minneapolis saw no need to lower themselves.
“Minneapolis had welcomed the Silver Shirts,” a homegrown Nazi group based on Germany’s Brown Shirts, and Gerald K. Smith, a hate-filled minister whom Humphrey confronted, telling him “You can’t be an antisemite and Christian because Jesus was a Jew,” Mr. Freedman said. “Humphrey got incredible hate mail after that.”
Humphrey’s allies in this fight were a Black social activist, Cecil Newman, and a Jewish lawyer, Sam Scheiner, who couldn’t get work in WASP Minneapolis and supported himself by playing jazz piano in nightclubs. (Apparently he was a very good jazz pianist.) “He acted as a one-man ADL,” Mr. Freedman said. He investigated, planted informants in meetings and rallies. He compiled a database. And he fought disinformation campaigns against Jews.”
Humphrey was elected on his second run as mayor and took office in 1945. “During the war he met with refugees, and after the war he got letters over the transom, some from DP camps, addressed to Mayor, USA,” Mr. Freeman said. “He read every letter. It was a priority for him. They’d say something like, ‘I think I have a second cousin in Minnesota named Goldberg. Or Stein. Or some other Jewish name. Humphrey would hand it to an aide with a note saying, ‘Get right on this.’”
He also took on such issues as police reform, which takes on even more resonance now, after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers.
“Humphrey was so daring that he was the subject of an assassination attempt,” Mr. Freedman continued. “He was shot at by a racist and antisemite.” The bungling assassin fired three times but missed each time; probably he was startled by hearing the Humphrey family’s dog, Tippy, bark. Two weeks later, Tippy disappeared. “This wasn’t a one-off,” Mr. Freedman said. “There were other attempts and tons of antisemitic and racist mail addressed to Humphrey, his wife, and other allies.”
Humphrey’s fights against racism and antisemitism eventually propelled him to the Senate, and then to become Lyndon Johnson’s sad vice president. It is likely that it was his willingness to support Johnson on the war in Vietnam that doomed his presidential bid in 1968 and brought Richard Nixon to the office. “It is a painful counterfactual to think about,” Mr. Freedman said. “If he had won, he wanted to start peace talks.”
Humphrey was a committed Christian and an ardent Zionist. “His son — officially Hubert III but really Skip — told me that when he was in college, his father insisted that he go to Israel. Skip also is deeply attached to the Jewish community in Minneapolis.
“His secular idealism was in tandem with his religious beliefs,” Mr. Freedman said.
“He was a genuinely warm person. His politics were based on his gut. He had a great brain for synthesizing information, but what he saw motivated his political stances on issues, not the other way around.
“His concern about people was real. He could be ruthless when he had to be. He could be pragmatic when he chose to be. He was ambitious. When he was vice president, he a took some stands that contravened his own beliefs. But his concern for humanity was soul-deep.
“For years, there was a barber in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. He was a huge admirer of Hubert Humphrey, and his shop was filled with photos of Humphrey. I saw so many letters that said, ‘I was just in Israel and I went to get my hair cut and you’ll never guess what I saw? A barbershop that was a shrine to Humphrey.’”
Since Mr. Freedman, who teaches journalism at Columbia, will be speaking at Rutgers, it seems fair to position him as a Jersey boy. “I grew up in Highland Park, right across the Raritan from Rutgers,” he said. “I went to Rutgers. I started my career at the Courier News in Bridgewater in the late 1970s. I lived in Metuchen for many years. My beloved sister, Carol, still lives in Highland Park.
“I don’t live there anymore, but it is my ancestral homeland.”
Who: Samuel G. Freedman
What: Will talk about his new biography, “Into
the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights.”
Where: At Rutgers’ Douglass Student Center, Trayes Hall, 100 George St., New Brunswick
When: On Monday, October 16, at 7:30 p.m.
For whom: The Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers
For more information and to register: Go to
bildnercenter.rutgers.edu and follow the links or call (848) 932-2033.