Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ike Brings Civil Rights

The turbulent and formative events of the civil rights movements in the United States took place during Eisenhower's presidency, and he was central in many of them. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1955. The famous supreme court decisions about school integration were handed down in this era (notably, Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954), and President Eisenhower took steps to implement them. Eisenhower also introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to Congress, and signed it into law. He did the same with the Civil Rights Act of 1960. Eisenhower also protected and promoted the "Little Rock Nine" in 1957. Oxford's Michael Korda writes:

The year 1957 began with what was in the 1950's and 1960's a familiar problem: trying to get a civil rights bill passed in some meaningful form. Ike has received very little credit for his efforts on behalf of civil rights.

Korda suggests that Eisenhower received little credit for securing civil rights for the Black community "because he avoided rhetoric and dramatic gestures, and instead quietly insisted on enforcing the law." It should be noted that Eisenhower and the Republican majority in the Senate and in the House of Representatives had to overcome the resistance of the Democrats in order to pass this legislation and ensure civil rights for African-Americans. As a Republican,

he had always believed in "the right to equality before the law of all citizens ... whatever their race or color," and during World War II he had moved to desegregate Red Cross clubs in his theater of command, and taken the even more radical step of sending "Negro replacements" into "previous all-white [combat] units," four years before Truman's order to desegregate the United States armed forces. He was firm in his belief that black citizens' right to vote had to be enforced; he had no doubt that the Warren court's decision on schools desegregation was right, and that Supreme Court decisions must have "a binding effect ... on all of us if our form of government is to survive and prosper"; and he was impatient with senators (including Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy) who were slowing down and compromising the passage of his civil rights bill by "interminable speeches" and amendments intended to disembowel it.

Note well that LBJ and JFK first opposed the civil rights legislation directly, and when that failed, took up the tactic of attempting to water it down with amendments. Ike demanded full legal equality for African-Americans. Korda writes that

he wanted the desegregation of the schools to proceed surely.

Note also that Ike integrated the soldiers under his command years before Truman requested integration. Civil rights were to be assured to all citizens

("with all deliberate speed," as the Supreme Court itself had ruled), with due regard for the feelings of everybody concerned, and without causing a constitutional crisis. In this he was to be bitterly disappointed - he underestimated the strength and the anger of the segregationists in the South, and perhaps also the determination of blacks to have a showdown on the subject of schools.

As Eisenhower began to perceive how the leaders of the Democratic Party (Governors like George Wallace of Alabama and Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Senators like LBJ, and Party leaders like "Bull" Connor) were opposing integration and civil rights, he raised the stakes, and used the full force of the federal government to ensure legal equality for African-Americans in the south. Ike would eventually send the famed 101st Airborne Division to protect Black schoolchildren in Little Rock's Central High School. He would allow nothing to stop the the U.S. Constitution's promise, in the 14th amendment, of full and equal citizenship.