Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

HUMPHREY, HUBERT (1911-1978)

South Dakota native Hubert Horatio Humphrey was vice president of the United States from 1965 to 1969 under President Lyndon B. Johnson and served as U.S. senator from Minnesota from 1949 to 1964 and again from 1971 to 1978. Born in Wallace, South Dakota, on May 27, 1911, Humphrey was the second son and namesake of a small-town drugstore owner with roots traceable to New England and England. His mother, Christine Sannes, was of Norwegian descent, her father having migrated from Norway to South Dakota in the 1880s. When Humphrey was six years old, the family moved from Wallace to neighboring Doland, where in 1929 he graduated from Doland High School.

As a child, Humphrey enjoyed the security and freedom of rural South Dakota. He played in the open fields, watched for the arrival of freight trains, sold newspapers after school, and helped his father in the drugstore. When African Americans migrated to the area for seasonal road-building work, Humphrey made a point to welcome them. This idyllic, carefree childhood was shattered by the arrival of the Great Depression, which forced his father to sell their home to keep the drugstore in business. By 1930 his father's business had failed, and the family moved to the larger town of Huron to begin again with another store.

Humphrey attended the University of Minnesota in 1929 and 1930, but because of his family's economic struggle, he left to work in his father's drugstore. He dedicated the next six years to his father's business, often working without a salary. In 1933 he studied for several intensive months at Denver's Capitol College of Pharmacy to become a pharmacist. Still, Humphrey was unhappy with the direction of his professional life.

In 1936 Humphrey married Muriel Buck. She supported his desire to go back to college. With her financial and emotional support, Humphrey returned to the University of Minnesota in 1937, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science. In 1940 he earned a master's degree from Louisiana State University. He returned to Minnesota to pursue a doctoral degree but was deflected by opportunities to get involved in politics.

Humphrey had always expressed an interest in politics. Because he was dynamic, gregarious, and an excellent speaker, he engaged people's attention. When he became director of a federal workers' education program in Minnesota in the 1940s, he established important connections with the state's labor leaders and made his first bid for mayor (which was unsuccessful). In 1944 he facilitated a critical merger of Minnesota's Farmer-Labor Party with the Democratic Party, creating the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and making it possible for Democrats to win political office. In June 1945 Humphrey won the mayoral election in Minneapolis. In 1948 he took his leadership in the Democratic Party to the national level when he successfully urged Democrats to adopt a civil rights plank. In November of that year, Humphrey successfully defeated incumbent Republican Joseph Ball for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

As a senator, Humphrey was a cold war politician who supported stringent anticommunist legislation while also denouncing Sen. Joseph McCarthy for attacking Communists, or "red-baiting." Humphrey also paid special attention to civil rights, labor, taxes, foreign policy, and agriculture. Initially, Humphrey faced much opposition from southern Democrats for his outspokenness, especially on civil rights. However, he became more pragmatic with experience and especially benefited from his friendship with Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Importantly, after winning only incremental gains for civil rights in the 1950s, he secured Senate support for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Humphrey aspired to the presidency throughout his political career. He sought the vice presidency several times, believing this to be a necessary step to the presidency. When he succeeded as President Johnson's running mate in 1964, however, Humphrey found himself marginalized. Although placed in a humiliating, subservient role–exclusion from National Security Council meetings, for example –Humphrey remained loyal to the president and supported his Vietnam War policy. When Johnson withdrew his candidacy for reelection in 1968, Humphrey won the Democratic Party's nomination. He lost to Republican Richard Nixon by a substantial margin in the electoral vote (301 to 191) but by a narrow margin in the popular vote.

Humphrey returned to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota in 1971 and won reelection in 1976. He ran in the Democratic primaries for president in 1972 but lost the nomination to South Dakota senator George McGovern. A symbol of postwar liberalism, Humphrey has gained recognition for his commitment to civil rights. He died of cancer in 1978 and was survived by his wife, Muriel (who was appointed to complete her husband's Senate term), four children, and many grandchildren.

Linda Van Ingen University of Nebraska at Kearney

Humphrey, Hubert H. The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics. Garden City NY: Doubleday and Co., 1976.

Solberg, Carl. Hubert Humphrey: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton Co., 1984.

Thurber, Timothy N. The Politics of Equality: Hubert H. Humphrey and the African American Freedom Struggle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

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