University of Minnesota Alumni Association


The Education of Hubert H. Humphrey

Humphrey was a tireless champion of civil rights.

A NEW BIOGRAPHY by Samuel G. Freedman, Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights, has put Humphrey and his legacy back in the spotlight.

Freedman makes the case that before Martin Luther King Jr. and Brown v. Board of Education, it was Humphrey who sparked the Civil Rights movement with his speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, exhorting his party to walk into “the bright sunshine of human rights” by adopting a civil rights plank.

In 1948, Muriel and Hubert Humphrey receive a congratulatory telegram following the senatorial election.
Photo Courtesy of Zuma Press/Alamy

Throughout his political career, which began as mayor of a racially divided and often antisemitic Minneapolis from 1945-1948, and continued as a U.S. senator, vice president under Lyndon Johnson, Democratic presidential candidate in 1968, and national chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action, Humphrey supported legislation that would improve the lives of the underdog and the oppressed. His father, Hubert Sr.—a small town businessman, mayor, and South Dakota legislator— “had bred into me an interest in government,” Humphrey wrote in his autobiography The Education of a Public Man. The University of Minnesota, where he was an undergraduate in the ‘30s, also gave shape to his politics.

President John F. Kennedy in 1962 with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Sen. Humphrey, and guests
Photo courtesy of National Archives/Wiki Commons

When 18-year-old Humphrey arrived on campus in the fall of 1929, the boy from the South Dakota prairie was thrilled by the enormity of the five-story Folwell Hall and the number of mailboxes in the administration building. Everything seemed “fantastically large, as though I were viewing everything through a giant magnifying glass,” he wrote. “No country boy was ever more wide-eyed.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice-President-elect Humphrey in 1964
Photo public domain/Wiki Commons

That first year, Humphrey made average grades; earned 20 cents an hour washing dishes at Swoboda’s drugstore; joined the debate team but was turned down by the newspaper; cheered Bronko Nagurski, the Gophers’ All-American fullback and defensive tackle, at Memorial Stadium; and lived in a boarding house just off campus, where the landlady’s daughter taught him to dance. When he felt homesick, he hitchhiked the 300 miles home to Doland, South Dakota, on the weekends, catching rides with trucks hauling grain and cattle.

The Depression interrupted his education. Instead of returning to school in the fall of 1930, he stayed home to work at his dad’s pharmacy. An uncle gave Humphrey $50 to resume classes winter quarter, but in March 1931, Hubert Sr. drove to campus to tell Hubert Jr. he was relocating his pharmacy to the larger town of Huron. He also needed his son to work there as its pharmacist.

Two professors made particularly deep impressions. Evron Kirkpatrick taught American Constitutional Government and Humphrey eagerly engaged him in discussions. The otherwas Benjamin Lippincott, who taught political theory and modeled for Humphrey how to be “the kind of intellectual who engaged in the real world.”

The ever-ambitious Humphrey completed a two-year pharmacy course in six weeks at a Denver school and became a pharmacist at the family store. In Huron, he also met and married Muriel Buck, a Presbyterian deacon’s daughter.

After six years, he was itching to get on with his life and broke with his father to resume his studies at the U of M. He signed up for 21 credits (though the normal load was 15). When then-Dean Edward Nicholson objected, Humphrey explained that at 26, he was in a hurry to complete his education.

Humphrey with Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964
photo public domain/Wiki Commons

Humphrey returned to a politically charged campus. Students were speaking out about the local union wars, the Depression, and the war brewing in Europe. They had staged a series of peace strikes to abolish the compulsory military training required at land-grant institutions just before Humphrey returned. But Humphrey was too busy with his studies, traveling with the debate team, and working a part-time job as a pharmacist at Brown’s, the campus drugstore, to engage in activism. “I didn’t have much time to join a protest movement,” he wrote. “I was concerned with being able to earn enough to eat.”

Muriel found a job as a bookkeeper for 50 cents an hour (later raised to $65 a month). Before leaving for work in the morning, she made ham sandwiches that Humphrey sold to his classmates at lunchtime for a dime apiece. The couple rented a third-floor apartment overlooking Van Cleve Park with a shared kitchen and subsisted on White Castle sliders (three for a dime!) and Bisquick pancakes.

Humphrey would later look back on those times with fondness. “Each moment was saturated with the essence of my future life: politics, debate on issues, change in society,” he wrote. “It was a joyous time. That period provided me with ideas and direction.”

Humphrey during a 1965 visit to Mission Control at Cape Kennedy
Photo courtesy of Imago History Collection/Alamy

Despite being too busy for protests during his final two years at the U of M, Humphrey still “lived and breathed politics,” talking endlessly with friends and teachers about current events, government structure, and political ideals. His political science instructors proved especially influential in shaping him into the politician he became. Asher Christensen made American government “come alive” for him. “He gave it spirit and zest and taught me that government, among other things, could be both entertaining and serious,” Humphrey wrote.

He also credited Oliver P. Field with providing him with a solid foundation in constitutional law. “What I learned from him did not quite make me the equal of later colleagues in the Senate like Sam Ervin of North Carolina, but it surely helped,” Humphrey wrote. 

Two professors made particularly deep impressions. Evron Kirkpatrick, who had recently completed his doctorate at Yale and was three months younger than Humphrey, taught American Constitutional Government. Humphrey eagerly engaged him in discussions during class, in the hallways of Burton Hall, and over sodas back at the Humphreys’ third-floor apartment. The other was Benjamin Lippincott, who taught political theory and modeled for Humphrey how to be “the kind of intellectual who engaged in the real world,” according to Freedman. In turn, Lippincott “respected his student’s inherent compassion and innate resistance to dogma, an early pragmatism that he had learned from lived experience,” Freedman writes.

Still, Lippincott had to rein in Humphrey during class, when he got carried away espousing his views “in the machine-gun delivery of the Huron soda slinger,” as earlier biographer Carl Solberg described it. At least once, Lippincott interrupted his student, barking, “You sit down.” Humphrey complied, grinning. Lippincott gave Humphrey a B in his course. Humphrey otherwise earned As in all of his other political science courses.

Gov. Jimmy Carter and Humphrey in 1976 after Carter captured the Democrartive Party nomination
Photo public domain/Wiki Commons

Humphrey graduated in June 1939 as a father (his daughter Nancy was born four months earlier) and with magna cum laude honors. He earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and won the William Jennings Bryan prize for the best political science essay. He left with lifelong friendships like his debate team partner Orville Freeman (B.S. '40, J.D. '46), who would become secretary of agriculture while Humphrey was vice president, and Arthur Naftalin (B.A. '39, M.A. '42, Ph.D. '48), who became Humphrey’s assistant when he was mayor of Minneapolis.

Humphrey had hung a portrait of his hero Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the bedroom of his third-floor apartment and believed the 32nd president’s New Deal would lift Americans out of their economic despair.

“What the U gave Humphrey was a deeper feeling for the New Deal,” Freedman told this writer. “He was already a New Dealer in his gut, based on what his family had endured during the Great Depression in South Dakota, but his studies at the U with professors like Evron Kirkpatrick and Ben Lippincott gave him a more academic understanding of activist government.”

John Rosengren is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

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