Ike on Civil Rights.
After presidents leave office, pundits and historians begin defining their legacies. President Dwight D. Eisenhower will probably be remembered more for his role as commander-in-chief than for his contribution to civil rights. In fact, President Eisenhower is commonly viewed as somewhere between moderate and aloof on America’s quest for equality and often takes a backseat to other presidents. Harry Truman began the racial integration of the Armed Forces. John F. Kennedy laid the groundwork for the 1964 civil rights bill. Lyndon Johnson appointed the first African American to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. These noteworthy turning points have outshined Ike’s record on desegregating America. Presidential historians from Stephen Ambrose to Arthur Schlesinger have criticized Eisenhower, respectively calling his “refusal to lead almost criminal,” and claiming Ike “evaded” the issue of civil rights.
In reality, President Eisenhower appointed pro-civil rights judges, developed the first federal civil rights bill since Reconstruction, enforced the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, and effectively integrated the military. Then why has his reputation been less than stellar in assisting black America in a time of advancement? Because Ike was a conservative soldier who did not align with leaders of the cause, and because Chief Justice Earl Warren tainted the former general’s view of the Brown v. Board of education decision.
A great authority on Eisenhower and civil rights is author David A. Nichols’s book, A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution. He rates President Eisenhower’s competency on civil rights rather high, while admitting his approach has undeservedly made him an afterthought among his fellow presidents. Nichols, a history professor and dean at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, began looking closer at Eisenhower in his retirement. “I always thought he was a perplexing president. How could one send troops into Little Rock and then not receive credit for civil rights?” he asks.
Consider Ike’s style and his relationship with leaders of the civil rights movement.
Ike was not a crusader in this cause. Born in the South and raised in segregated Kansas, the general completed his career in a segregated military. He barely mentioned civil rights in his 1952 presidential campaign when he needed precious votes from the South. Stumping with segregationist governors while bands played Dixie only tarnished his image among civil rights leaders.
While Ike courted the South, black leaders and black voters moved closer to the Democratic Party. In August 1952, NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins criticized Ike’s opposition to a federal Fair Employment Practices Commission, saying “Eisenhower wants merely to survey discrimination in employment, not enact a law to correct the condition.” By election day, virtually the entire black press had endorsed the Democratic opponent, Adlai Stephenson, who received about three out of every four African American votes.
Eisenhower’s attorney general, campaign manager, and confidant, Herbert Brownell, recalls in his memoirs that Ike viewed the NAACP as a political pressure group that “might be harmful in the long run in our effort to gain public support for Civil Rights.” This administration was trying to move forward by taking a moderate position which brought more criticism from the NAACP. “If he had fought World War II the way he fought for civil rights,” Wilkins later said, “we would all be speaking German today.”
The partisanship that defined Ike in his day has also defined the historical record since. “Most of the histories are written by liberal Democrats. Studies show this. I am one of them,” says Nichols, a Democrat who named his son after JFK. “It’s been a combination of attacks on Eisenhower by politicians, alliances among civil rights leaders and the Democratic Party. A long string of liberal Democratic historians.”
Nichols also argues Ike’s style and philosophy shadowed his efforts. The general was a strategic, behind-the-scenes proponent of limited government who took the helm during the television revolution. He did not want to force a showdown with southern authorities on school desegregation and refrained from intensifying the moral debate over Jim Crow. Influenced by his years in the military, an institution of actions not words, Ike created contingency plans while other Washington politicians generated headlines and sound bites for television. His silence on ideas combined with his notorious temper further mischaracterized him. His expressed frustration in having to handle this domestic crisis often incorrectly defined his attitude toward equality. Having to enforce the Brown decision and keep peace between North and South at times made Eisenhower’s an embattled presidency.
The most damning evidence against Ike, Nichols would agree, is the record left by Chief Justice Earl Warren in his memoirs regarding Ike’s stance on the Brown v. Board decision.
Warren and Eisenhower had a unique relationship that bordered on political rivalry. Warren had served the Republican Party faithfully, as governor of California and as the party’s vice presidential nominee in 1948. He had sought the presidency before and was a possible candidate in 1952, when the party recruited Eisenhower instead. Eisenhower appointed Warren to the Supreme Court upon the first vacancy. Most believe the president was rewarding Warren for delivering his California delegation to him at the 1952 Republican convention. Others wonder if Eisenhower was isolating Warren from presidential candidacy for 1956.
Warren’s recollection of a White House party before the Court made its ruling accuses the president of strong arming him on the Brown case. Both Warren and attorney John W. Davis, a past presidential candidate and lawyer for the southern states’ right to segregate, were in attendance. Warren emphasizes the president publicly praising Davis and trying to convince the judge that southern traditions are carried on by good people. Warren also criticizes Eisenhower in his memoir for lack of public support after the decision. In fact, the President never endorsed Brown until after his presidency. If he had, Warren lamented, “We would have been relieved, in my opinion, of many of the racial problems which have continued to plague us.”
Historians have relied too heavily on this source left behind by Ike’s adversary. Nichols proves Ike was on the right side of school desegregation by looking at his attitude prior to the case. He had by 1954 suggested eliminating segregation in the District of Columbia, sent his Justice Department to the Court asserting segregation was unconstitutional, and had integrated schools on military bases in the South.
Then why didn’t he praise the decision? Eisenhower’s response to the Brown decision was in Nichols’s estimation, “in characteristic fashion—with action rather than public pronouncement.” Ike looked at his post-Brown role as one of soldierly duty to enforce the decision, not to comment on it one way or the other. Nichols asserts, neither Truman, Kennedy, nor Johnson made public statements in support of Brown in 1954.
Nichols’s admits his work is not a definitive book on the movement. “I didn’t do justice to the real heroes of the civil rights movement, the black people who fought for equality.” He instead has looked over one president’s shoulders and concluded that Eisenhower supported school desegregation and federal legislation as a matter of justice.
David Wolfford teaches Government and Politics at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati.