3400 Civic Center Blvd, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
The Philadelphia Convention Hall has hosted a number of political conventions over the years. Beginning in 1936, there have been Party assemblies for Republicans, Democrats, and Third-Party candidates alike. However, the Hall hosted its last political party convention in 1948 after less than two decades of existence. The Democratic National Committee’s convention in 1948 was an eventful end to party conventions in Philadelphia for the rest of the 20th century.
Prior to the construction of the Convention Hall, the Commercial Museum occupied the space on Civic Center Boulevard. The museum was built in 1899 to display products from foreign countries. At the time, Philadelphia was becoming a leader in development of international trade. The exhibit informed local manufacturers about the markets that they sought to enter or control.
By 1931, the Convention Hall was constructed to share a wall with the Commercial museum. The new hall had a larger seating capacity, with the ability to hold up to 14,000 people. The large and impressive arena continued to solidify Philadelphia’s political and social prominence throughout the next few decades.
The Democratic Party hosted two of the five conventions held in the arena from 1936 to 1948. In 1936, the Democratic Party nominated Franklin D Roosevelt for the second time. In 1948, the Democratic Party nominated Harry Truman. The two conventions could not be more dissimilar. To this day, President Roosevelt’s first term is praised for leading the country out of the Great Depression with the New Deal. As a result, the Democratic Committee based the 1936 policy platform on the promise to continue New Deal politics. There was unanimous support for President Roosevelt. The Associated Press reported “cheering and shouting” with attendees filling the aisle, waving flags, and even dancing. People holding posters adorned with FDR’s face filled Convention Hall. President Roosevelt gave his acceptance speech to over 100,000 people in the nearby Franklin Stadium. For Democrats across the country, the convention marked a time of strong partisanship and unified opposition to the Republicans.
The second convention was drastically different from the get-go. For one thing, CBS broadcasted the convention across the country for the first time ever. As a result, organizers saw it as a great opportunity to use television in order to boost Philadelphia’s political importance, as well as to gain unprecedented national visibility for the party. Beyond that, the convention hall itself underwent significant changes since the convention in 1936, due to an overall lack of maintenance and poor funding. There was peeling paint, broken elevators, and debris.
The most notable difference was the lack of unity and enthusiasm when the Democratic National Committee decided upon the official party platform. In fact, the debate over the political platform proved to be extremely divisive within the party.
The split resulted from drastic global events that had occurred since Roosevelt’s election. After World War II, there was increasing pressure from progressives to desegregate the military. The pressure was part of larger efforts to make segregation illegal in the US. While the Party continued to champion New Deal economics—emphasizing the need to pursue economic equality—it also made the explicit attempt to incorporate the interests of Black Americans. The previous administration used race blind economic policies to save the country from the Great Depression—catering largely to a White Southern demographic. By contrast, 1948 platform isolated many segregationists who wanted to preserve the economic advantages that segregation afforded to White people across the country. Thirty-six delegates left the Convention to form a third party called the States Rights Democratic Party (also called the Dixiecrats) to protest civil rights measures in the platform. The Dixiecrats selected Stromm Thurmond to be the third-party Presidential candidate. Although the Democratic Party reabsorbed the Dixiecrats a year later, the short split was decisive for the future of the Democratic Party.
Although the Democratic Party had defended slavery less than a century before, the Party slowly began to embrace a wide variety of civil rights issues as central features to its agenda. The contest in the Convention Hall of 1948 created many of the divisions we still see today. Issues of racial and economic inequality continue to polarize voters, within and between political parties. In July of 2016, Philadelphia will host the first Democratic Party convention since 1948—albeit not in the Convention Center, which was destroyed in 2005, but rather the Wells Fargo Stadium. Protests are already set to occur in opposition to the proposed platforms for the Democratic National committee--an indication of the challenges that the DNC will face in the upcoming election. Philadelphia continues to be a battleground for negotiating contentious political issues, all the while attempting to avoid the disunity that was central to the 1948 convention.