1953 to 1961 - President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican Party)
Sympathy for the South: Eisenhower Resists Desegregation
. . . Southerners “are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.”—President Dwight Eisenhower
Campaigning in October 1952 against Democrat Adlai Stevenson, General Dwight Eisenhower focused upon winning the allegiance of southern and border state whites. The Republican presidential candidate’s strength was bolstered by the solid support from South Carolina Governor James F. Byrnes, and Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd. Using “Dixie” as a southern theme song, Eisenhower reminded southerners that he had opposed the FEPC, and stood opposed to integration.
To northern audiences or to those he perceived as significantly more liberal than himself, Eisenhower presented a more moderate image playing down his basic opposition to integration. In Wheeling, West Virginia, Eisenhower advocated the end of segregation in the military and the District of Columbia, and spoke in favor of black enfranchisement. In October 1952, Eisenhower declared that he stood for “true equality of opportunity for all men” expressing impatience for the “idea of second-class citizenship.”
Targeting previous presidential administrations, Eisenhower charged them with doling out false promises to African Americans contending that for years they have pointed “to a promised land where no American could be subjected to the indignities of discrimination,” Eisenhower asserted, “[B]ut their promised land has always proved to be a political mirage.”
Despite an occasional flurry of racially liberal rhetoric, Eisenhower’s overall tilt to the white South was readily discerned by the African American press. C. A. Franklin, writing in the Callnewspaper, termed Eisenhower a “changeling” who vainly tried to woo both Northern blacks and southern racists. Eisenhower’s appeals to whites during his Southern appearances proved sufficient to completely alienate him from the growing black electorate. On the eve of the election an unknown group dropped anti-African American leaflets from planes into southern cities. Following this incident the NAACP pressed Eisenhower to condemn this tactic but to no avail.
Eisenhower, pledging to put in place a civil rights-oriented government, promised in his final statement of the campaign on civil rights “to put this crusade at the helm of your government” and urged his audience to join his campaign in order to achieve a government “based upon merit and without respect to color or creed.”
New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell charged President Eisenhower with deliberately dragging his feet on desegregation of the military. Eisenhower responded by an attack on the Harlem congressman’s integrity, but later recruited Powell as a "mole" in an effort to undermine the civil rights movement’s Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom organized by A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King. Designed to pressure the president into taking a stand against anti-black violence, Powell’s work for which he was paid, achieved little since the leaders were determined not to embarrass the president. The president’s anxiety about the demonstration was an illustration of how out of touch he was with African Americans. The rally was, in fact, aimed at supporting Eisenhower’s voting rights bill, a fact that the administration had been assured of repeatedly by the movement’s leaders.
In Eisenhower’s first State of the Union address on February 2, 1953, the new president asserted that “discrimination against minorities exists despite our allegiance” to racial equality. He found that “[M]uch of the answer lies in the power of fact, fully publicized; of persuasion, honestly pressed; and of conscience, justly aroused.” As president, however, he relegated matters of civil rights to a low priority, as something he would not personally work on or take an active interest in. When they could not be avoided being directly considered, issues involving civil rights were handled at the cabinet level or below within the Eisenhower administration.
President Eisenhower was disheartened by the upsurge in protest activity by African Americans during his administration. Spurred on by the May 17th, 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools, black activism began to take off. This was a tremendous disappointment to a president who felt that the Plessey v Ferguson decision establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine was just and remained suited for the times. Following a visit to him by South Carolina governor Jimmy Byrnes who told the president that whites in his state were “frightened at putting the children together," Eisenhower attempted to calm his fears by stating his feeling that “improvement in race relations is one of those things that will be healthy and sound only if it starts locally. Later, he told Vice-President Richard M. Nixon that “leadership and persuasion” was the preferred way of promoting “justice.” Eisenhower viewed racial progress as properly depending on white goodwill and willingness to grant African Americans full citizenship rights. This tendency extended to the international arena where he expressed sympathy for the conservative tendencies of white South Africans who were then resisting pressures to stop their apartheid practices. President Eisenhower failed to see the need for moral leadership emanating from the White House on matters of racial equality. Instead he called for the church to fulfil this role by promoting understanding between the races. While he stressed the use of persuasion and leadership to break down racial barriers, he was personally unwilling to provide it. For Eisenhower it was more than merely a reluctance to play a leadership role involved in his reluctance to criticize the southern whites who trampled over black human rights. When some 100 southern congressmen, and the vast majority of southern senators pledged themselves to the “Southern Manifesto”—committing themselves to defy the Supreme Court rulings —Eisenhower was silent.
President Eisenhower initially took an official stance of neutrality as the Brown case proceeded in the Supreme Court. Later, however, he indicated his hope that the decision would be in accordance with the earlier decisions of the Court and would maintain the segregated status quo. At a dinner, President Eisenhower apparently attempted to influence the outcome of the decision by praising the attorney for the segregationist forces for the benefit of Chief Justice Earl Warren. He told Warren that southerners “are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.”
Asked what advice he could offer students attending newly desegregated schools in the fall, President Eisenhower poured out his sympathy for the white students. Adopting what to him was a middle-of-the-road position, the Kansas-reared Eisenhower criticized those “so filled with prejudice that they even resort to violence; and the same way on the other side of the thing, the people who want to have the whole matter settled today.”
In 1955, President Eisenhower opposed the amendment offered by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell to the school construction bill denying federal funds for the construction of segregated schools citing the “deep roots of prejudice and emotion”. By 1956, a year in which the Montgomery Bus Boycott reignited the black thrust for equality, President Eisenhower was clear in his desire to put a brake on both black demands and on desegregation. Sincerely believing that African Americans wanted equal rights too fast, he most of all desired a lessening of pressures on his vital constituency of southern whites. For this reason when the Civil Aeronautics Administration suspended funds used in the building of segregated airport facilities, and later prohibited segregated air travel, Eisenhower became annoyed. He reacted similarly in the case of a Supreme Court ruling that within-state transportation be integrated in South Carolina Consistent with this he neglected to enforce a court order that Autherine Lucy be admitted to the University of Alabama.
By 1957, President Eisenhower, thoroughly frustrated by the persistence of the issue of black civil rights, saw his worst fears materialize in the Little Rock, Arkansas crisis. Moved to complain once again to top aide Sherman Adams about the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, the president lamented, “You cannot change the hearts of people by law.” The key problem from Eisenhower’s perspective was that the impact of the decision was “cutting into established customs and traditions of such communities as Little Rock.” Later, he said that he had never stated his true feelings about the Supreme Court decision, and said that they were irrelevant. What was important was his obligation to enforce the law, and he professed his intention to do so.
Not surprisingly the newly-created Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department was almost comatose within the Eisenhower administration. Hobbled by lack of staff, budget, will and spirit, it reflected the emotional attitude of President Eisenhower toward African American civil rights. The administration’s handling of the Emmett Till murder in 1955 outraged many as Attorney General Herbert Brownell indicated that the federal government lacked jurisdiction to investigate the case as no federal offense was involved. Brownell argued strenuously within the administration for a new civil rights law that would give him the power to enforce the civil rights laws. While Eisenhower allowed him to draft new civil rights legislation he eventually declined to support it. Even so, in the course of his work, President Eisenhower warned Brownell against excessive racial liberalism, cautioning him not to behave as “another Charles Sumner.” In the final months of the administration fierce racist opposition in New Orleans to the federally-mandated desegregation of schools reached a crisis point with angry mobs of whites closing two schools to prevent desegregation from being implemented. The Justice Department pleaded that it had no jurisdiction and could not intervene. The situation changed with the new administration and its attorney general Robert F. Kennedy who threatened the resistant local officials with contempt it they persisted in their obstruction.
The Early Background of Dwight Eisenhower
Born October 14, 1890 in Denison, Texas in a rudimentary frame house near the railroad tracks, Dwight David Eisenhower was the third son of his parents David and Ida Stover Eisenhower. Soon the family moved to Abilene, Kansas where three more boys were born adding up to six. Eisenhower once quipped that he “found out in later years we were very poor.” Similar to Ronald Reagan, Eisenhower recalled something of a racial and ethnic utopia in his childhood Abilene describing it as “a society which, more nearly than any other I have encountered, eliminated prejudices based upon wealth, race or creed, and maintained a standard of values that placed a premium upon integrity, decency, and consideration for others.”
Dwight Eisenhower remembered his acceptance of African Americans as complete and “without qualification” since his childhood “the right to equality before the law” of all the nation’s citizens regardless of “their race or color or creed.” Few blacks were in the areas where Eisenhower lived and worked from his childhood through middle adulthood. He accepted the traditional ways of discussing and thinking about African Americans that were most popular among his contemporaries. Writing to his son in 1943 from North Africa he casually referred to the “darkies” they served him. He probably knew that the term was of a pejorative variety since the War Department had banned its use of the term the year before. Nevertheless, in another event involving race stemming from Australia’s informing Eisenhower about their constitutional prohibition on the entry of blacks, Eisenhower responded that no troops at all would be coming leading to the rapid reversal of the Australian policy.
After gaining fame in World War Two by 1948, General Eisenhower was being courted by both major parties but especially by southern Democrats eager for a candidate sympathetic to their cause. Indeed, the leading segregationist of the day, Senator Richard Russell (D-GA) frothed at the mouth at the thought of gaining Eisenhower as the Democratic nominee. After Truman distinguished himself by pushing through several civil rights measures, Russell said that he would be “very happy to see Truman step out and General Eisenhower step in” as the Democratic candidate for president. During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Russell prodded Eisenhower to say that integration of the armed forces would present insurmountable problems, the general admitted that some difficulties were bound to arise, “because you always have men that do not like to mingle freely between the races, and therefore if you have a dance for your soldiers, you have a problem.”