Dwight Eisenhower’s Surprising Civil Rights Record

I’ve always been a fan of Dwight Eisenhower, primarily because of his deft and resilient military leadership during World War II and his careful Cold War leadership during his presidency.   The major flaw in Eisenhower’s career has generally been seen as his lackluster support of civil rights.  In A Matter of Justice:  Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, David Nichols challenges this traditional view and presents Eisenhower as both a reluctant and determined champion of civil rights.  (Please note that Nichols’ book was published in 2007, and I don’t pretend to have followed all the scholarship since.)  The Eisenhower who emerges in this book about his civil rights record is the same leader who ordered that the horror of the German concentration camps and their victims be photographed when they were liberated because he knew that some day people would try to deny their existence.  

By temperament Eisenhower was not the cheerleader type, and he opted do do much of his civil rights work under the radar when he could.  He wasn’t particularly happy with the glare of publicly that characterized civil rights in the 1950’s.  Still, even before he became president he was on record as supporting an integrated military and took steps in that direction at a time when the rest of the military leadership was not so inclined.  Once he became president, Eisenhower steadily directed the integration of the military.  True, he didn’t do it overnight, but he steadily pressed until it was accomplished over a period of about two years.

Another Eisenhower success was to get rid of the Jim Crow practices in Washington, DC.  This wasn’t a particularly popular move with a lot of southern politicians, but here again Eisenhower didn’t let up until it was accomplished.  It is too bad he isn’t around today to put the kabosh on newly energized racist behavior in our nation’s capital and elsewhere.

Much has been written about Eisenhower’s at best ambivalent feelings about the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.  At the end of the day Eisenhower sent in federal troops to enforce that ruling in Little Rock, Arkansas.  He was always undeniably unhappy about the prospect of sending troops into American communities and he greatly feared that the southern reaction to integration would be to close schoools.  Sadly his fears were  justified.  Here as in other civil rights areas, Eisenhower preferred to work behind the scenes, but he did the right thing when it came to the show down in Little Rock.

Perhaps one of the least appreciated aspects of Eisenhower’s presidential legacy was his refusal to appoint segregationist federal judges.  Earl Warren and many distinguished lower court judges ensured that Brown and its progeny were upheld and enforced.  This judicial legacy was crucial, and it proved to be very unfortunate that John F. Kennedy failed to continue Eisenhower’s stringent policy.  One of the book’s more interesting themes is the complicated and not particularly friendly Warren/Eisenhower relationship after Warren’t appointment.   I was also fascinated to learn that Eisenhower, a non-lawyer, actively reviewed and commented on his Civil Rights briefs filed by his administration and that he was keenly aware of linguistic nuances.  He understood the strategic importance of legal briefs and opinions.

The author does not give Eisenhower an unvarnished civil rights report card.  Eisenhower reportedly said some things that indicated ambivalence about full integration and, most famously, advised the Black community to be “patient” at some point.  For the oppressed, “patience” is unacceptable.  These comments and Eisenhower’s failure to be a public cheerleader for civil rights  aren’t good.  Context is nonetheless relevant.  Eisenhower, who managed to get two watered-down Civil Rights Acts passed, battled the intensely political Lyndon Johnson and other, overtly racist, southern senators throughout his presidency.  Engaging in open battle over civil rights, while morally and ethically the right thing to do, wasn’t going to be an effective strategy in the 1950’s.

Finally, the context of Eisenhower’s civil rights performance has to be considered in the context of all the issues facing his presidency.  This was the era of the Bomb, when school children were being taught to hide under their desks to protect themselves.  Eisenhower necessarily spent a great deal of his presidency trying to control the arms race and deal with foreign aggression.  That would have been a full plate for many presidents, and presidential history is replete with presidents who good at foreign policy and failures at domestic policy and vice versa.  While one can always argue that Eisenhower could have done more, his civil rights achievements need to be understood, and this well-written book cautions that Eisenhower’s relative public reticence on the subject is belied by some very impressive accomplishments.

This book is well worth reading.  In addition to the author’s interesting take on Eisenhower’s civil rights record, it provides a fascinating look at the United States in the 1950’s.

  

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