The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality
This is the second of 2 books I read recently related to Eisenhower’s record associated with the early civil rights movement. A very good read.
The book starts with a bit of background related to the Second World War, and in particular, the Battle of the Bulge. The author relates the conditions that existed at the time and the very real dangers that existed with the success of the Germans. Within Allied Headquarters there was real concern that the attack was so well planned and executed, that there was a serious danger that months of progress would be lost and perhaps the cause would be critically damaged. Ike desperately needed soldier. His lines were stretched dangerously thin. He knew that he had a large number of troops available who, by Army tradition, were denied the ability to volunteer for combat roles and these were the Black soldier who made up the majority of the Supply services. Against all tradition, with stiff opposition from his entire command staff, he directed that all such soldiers be given the opportunity to join the fight. When the orders went out, the Black soldiers volunteered by the thousands. They fought, they died and they may well have proven to be the balance in the fight.
Now for you folks reading this who have no military experience and think it nuts that a man would actually volunteer for a chance to risk his life, especially a black man who was discriminated against, well, all I can say is that you have no clue as to what patriotism is and what it means.
The response he saw had an enduring and deep impact on Ike and had a lasting effect. In future times, he would refer to this event numerous times.
There were other incidents in Ike’s life that indicate his feelings toward segregation and the author relates a number of them that indicate that all his life Ike was a fair-minded person.
But, given all this, the main thrust of the book is related to his Presidency. A few quotes:
From his first State of the Union address: “We know that discrimination against minorities persists. Such discrimination – confined to no one section of the nation – is but the outward testimony to the persistence of distrust and of fear in the hearts on men. Much of the answer lies in the power of fact, fully publicized; of persuasion, honesty pressed; and of conscience, justly aroused.”
Without going thru the entire book, which lays out this store in great detail and intimacy, I think one might sum up Ike’s viewpoint as: we go slow, we go deliberately, we go low-key, we stay within the law but we fo forward with our moral responsibility to end segregation. Where ever I have the authority to immediately change things, I will do so with all possible speed and with no compromises. Where the authority does not exist, we will tread lightly.
Cases in point: the Armed Forces and the District of Columbia. In both cases, he concluded that he had absolute authority to implement desegregation. Trueman had signed an Executive Order ending segregation in the Armes Forces and then did absolutely nothing to implement the policy. Ike said, in effect, I’m the Commander in Chief and the military will follow my orders. If someone does not like the orders, they are free to leave my army. Period. He brooked no resistance or delay and the Armed Forces were desegregated. More than that, he required the desegregation of all the schools the military ran, including those schools that taught civilian children. Everywhere, including in the South. There was resistance and Ike allowed none.
In the case of the District of Columbia, existing laws in the District outlawed segregation. These laws were known as “the lost laws”. Using the authority he already had, he forced the end of segregation in the District. Done deal. Adam Clayton Powell, a firebrand Black Congressman from New York came to say: “I bear witness to the fact that there has not been a songle problem of a moral or ethical nature which I have presented to the White House that he has not done his best to solve, and when he has given his word he has kept it.”
In addition to all the above, there is a quite wonderful recounting of the events related to the confrontation in Little Rock with the Governor Faubus. For once, Ike’s renown ability to generate consensus failed in the face of a defiant racist Governor, determined to make a scene for his benefit. In response, Ike responded firmly without compromise.