A Matter of Justice, David Nichols

Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution

Ask most folks about the origin of the civil rights movement and the typical answer will be that it started with the Kennedy’s and came to some form of fruition with the laws passed during the Johnson administration. Those with a bit more knowledge might make reference to the Executive Order of Harry Truman that desegregated the Armed Forces. Neither is accurate. This book by a student of Eisenhower clearly points out the errors in both and places Ike as one of the unsung heroes of the movement.

Some notes and quotes I recorded while reading:

10/12/1956: “We have been pursuing this quietly, not tub-thumping, and we have not tried to claim political credit. This is a matter of justice, not of anything else.” Ike speaking of his civil rights policies.

“At one point, the Allies feared losing Australia to the Axis powers; so Eisenhower assigned black divisions to the country. When the Australian ambassador informed him that Australian law forbade bringing Negroes into the country, Ike recalled, he was “very firm–said all right–no troops.” Frightened Australian leaders responded the next morning with a flood of cables reversing their position.”

Speaking in response to the Supreme Court decision 6/8/1953 which ruled unanimously for an administration case that pressed for the desegregation of the District of Columbia, Ike said “These actions have been designed to remove terrible injustices rather than capture headlines, They are being taken, quietly and determinedly, wherever the authority of the Federal Government extends.”

Again, on the same topic in a radio address: “We have used the power of the Federal Government, wherever it clearly extends, to combat and erase racial descrimination and segregation–so that no man of any color or creed will ever be able to cry, ‘This is not a free land.” The next month, the National Negro Council presented its 1953 Civil Rights Award of Honor to the president.

Speaking of the Supreme Court and other Federal courts: Ike believed that Roosevelt and Trueman had appointed justices of inferior quality, so he gave high priority to high standards rather than regional representation. He stated on 3/23/1956: “The lawyers of the country have not come to understand that I do not consider federal judge ships as included in the list of appointments subject to ‘patronage'”.

In his news conference 10/1/1958, he stated “We must never forget that the rights of all of us depend upon respect for the lawfully determined rights of each of us. As one nation, me must assure to all our people, whatever their color or creed, the enjoyment of their constitutional rights and the full measure of the law’s protection. We must be faithful to our Constitutional ideals and go forward in good faith with the unremitting task of translating them into reality.”

Speaking about the lunch-counter sit-ins in the south on 3/16/1960: “I am deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that are guaranteed by the Constitution.”

In his State of the Union Address 1/12/1960: “This pioneering work in civil rights must go on. Not only because discrimination is morally wrong, but also becasue its impact is more than national–it is international.”

Assessing his presidency on 7/13/1967: “Now if there was anything good done, they mostly want to prove that it was someone else that did it and that I went along as a passenger.”

My own comments:

I’ve read quite a bit about Eisenhower and regard him as one of the very best of our presidents and my personal favorite. The manner in which his record concerning civil rights is distorted for political reasons is offensive and degrading of the man.

One needs to remember that one of the significant events of Ike’s career in World War 2, one that he referred to many times, was the performance of the Black soldiers under his command during the Battle of the Bulge. At the time, American troops were being overrun by the Nazis and the outcome was by no means certain. If the German offensive had succeeded, or even come close to succeeding, the war in Europe woould have taken a very bad turn as Allied forces would have been cut off from supply lines and support and the Germans would have captured an enormous amount of war material. Against all Army tradition, Ike offered every support soldier a chance to join the fight and called for volunteers. Most of these men were cooks, drivers and mechanics with no real training in the use of arms. The response from the Black soldiers was extraordinary and immediate. They were given rifles, organized hastily into fighting companies and jumped into the fight. Ike never forgot that response. As a soldier in Vietnam, I know what it means to have a man of color at your back and to be at his back also. I know what it means to place your life on the line for another and know that he will do the same. It is a life changing experience. It happened to me, I saw it happen to others in my unit and it happened to Ike.

Harry Truman made a lot of noise and his supporters still do about the fact that he signed an Executive Order as President that required the desegregation of the Armed Forces. What noone seems to remember is that after that, he did absolutely zero, nadda, nothing, to implement it. Ike made it happen. When the Generals and Admirals pushed back and said it would cause problems – Ike told them in no uncertain terms that he wanted it done, that if they did not like the policy, that they could resign and they would be held to account if they dragged their feet. In addition, he demanded that all the schools that were on military bases also be desegregated. When those in the South tried to fight against it, they were told to make it happen…or else. It did happen…..This was the start of the march to school desegregation.

After the Civil War, a number of laws were passed outlawing segregation and discrimination in the District of Columbia.  They shortly became known as “The Forgotten Laws”. When Ike became President, he demanded that they be enforced. With the pressure of the Federal Government at his disposal, he ended segregation in DC.

The strategy that Eisenhower pursued was based upon a belief that force and violence were not the right way to proceed to change America’s treatment of minorities, that this would lead to greater violence and resistance. He believed that quiet progress, steady but determined had a better chance of success. For that reason, he sought out areas where his power as President could be rightfully used: the military and all its concerns, the District of Columbia and the courts.

One of the things I was not aware of until reading this was the duplicity of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the arena of civil rights. Much is made of how wonderful each was and all that and it’s all baloney. Johnson, as leader of the Senate killed Eisenhower proposals time and again. He later had a “change of heart” that was mostly politically motivated but he was a life-long racist.

Quoting from the book “In the early 1960’s, both political parties regressed from the Eisenhower position on civil rights. Negro leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. soon discovered that Kennedy’s promices of progress had been campaign rhetoric. During most of his short presidency, Kennedy pandered to the southern wing of his party, resisting the pressure to propose new civil-rights legislation until mid-1963. Kennedy’s conservatism on civil rights was reflected in his judicial appointments, the realm of Eisenhower’s most vital contributions.”

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