UA Professor Co-organized Truman Civil Rights Symposium

Desktop News | October 2023

Dr. Kari Frederickson, Professor of History at The University of Alabama, recently played a pivotal role in the organization of the Truman Civil Rights Symposium, where President Joe Biden was the keynote speaker.

The symposium held in Washington, D.C. from July 26 – 28, 2023, marked the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of President Truman’s historic desegregation policy for the American Armed Forces established on July 26th, 1948.

As a scholar whose research focuses on the Truman era, Dr. Frederickson has upheld a decade-long association with the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library Institute. She transitioned from receiving a book prize from the library to becoming a member and chair of its research grant committees. Currently, she holds a position on the library’s board of directors.

Two years ago, the board of directors sparked the initiative for the nationwide symposium. They recognized the need to celebrate the desegregation policy and leverage it to discuss “current issues of race, gender, and sexuality,” according to Dr. Frederickson.

Discussing her team’s involvement in organizing the event, Dr. Frederickson stated, “Our job was to find scholars who were going to provide historical context of [Truman’s] decision and shape the panels in a way that will really get the history of it. The other lane was getting the big names.”

She particularly took a prominent role in coordinating two of the event’s six panels. The first panel discussion was titled “The African American Experience in the U.S. Armed Forces” held at George Washington University and the second panel examined the aftermath of Truman’s desegregation policy.

Symposium events were held in four prominent locations: George Washington University, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The panels predominantly featured influential African American leaders, both active and retired from the Armed Forces, and were moderated by prominent journalists. Dr. Frederickson shared valuable insights into the discussions held by the panelists.

“People in different ranks, men and women, talked about their service and what it was like to be a person of color in military service. Many of them came from military families, they had parents who served in a segregated military. They talked about how desegregation opened opportunities for them. They also talked about where we are now and the issues we are still dealing with. High-ranking officials like Admiral Michelle Howard, the first African American woman to command her own ship, talked a lot about issues related to gender and sexuality in the military.”

The keynote speech delivered by President Biden was the highlight of the symposium. Dr. Frederickson enthusiastically recounted how she stood 10 feet away from the president alongside her daughter and watched him give a timely speech at a significant location.

“President Biden spoke at the National Archives, which houses our nation’s founding documents. I found it really special to be in this place that is a monument to our democratic ideals, and to then hear the president speak about those ideals and how we are not there yet. [I was] reminded that that’s the story of this country, the constant striving to achieve those ideals for everyone.”

According to Dr. Frederickson, it took the collaborative efforts of dedicated staff members at the library institute and top professionals to get President Biden to attend the symposium and give such a laudable speech.

Organizing this event required the efforts of people “in different worlds. It included the journalism world, the military world, the academic world… The Institute does an amazing job of pulling people from all these different arenas. [But] what was interesting to me was seeing how long it takes to reach prominent people. There is a whole process you have to go through and that took a year.”

As Dr. Frederickson pointed out, there were also challenges with securing spaces at significant locations in Washington, D.C. for the panel discussions and managing last-minute cancellations that came along the way.

“Usually, they do their events in Missouri,” she noted, “But this had national importance [hence] Washington. For the people who had to do the logistics, that was difficult.”

The event was well worth the effort, going by its long-term national impact. The symposium had 522 in-person attendees and it has achieved an even more impressive online reach, with over 234,892 total video views and more than 19,700 social media mentions of Truman’s desegregation policy. In addition, the national news coverage of the commemoration event holds the potential to reach a vast audience of up to 100,000,000 people.

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