Among Eisenhower’s achievements was the appointment of Jesse Ernest Wilkins. Born in 1894, Wilkins was the first African-American to be appointed to a sub-cabinet level. On March 5, 1954, the New York Times praised Ike’s choice:
President Eisenhower’s nomination of J. Ernest Wilkins to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for International Affairs is an excellent choice. Mr. Wilkins, the first Negro ever to be named to a sub-Cabinet post, has a splendid reputation at the Chicago bar, to which he was admitted in 1921.
In August 1954, Time magazine reported that Wilkins “became the first Negro ever to attend a White House Cabinet meeting as the representative of a department.” Historian Jim Newton claims that “it was the first time an African-American ever attended a meeting of a president’s cabinet” at all.
Shortly after appointing Wilkins, Ike attended a meeting of the NAACP. On March 11, 1954, the New York Times reported that
President Eisenhower said he believed in President Lincoln’s statement that this nation was dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal and with the writers of the Declaration of Independence that all men were endowed with certain inalienable rights.
There are vociferous minorities that do not hold to the concepts set forth by the Founding Fathers, the President said, and added: “But by and large the mass of Americans want to be decent, good, and just and don’t want to make a difference based on inconsequential facts of color or race.”
Eisenhower’s speech at the NAACP gathering, given only a few days after appointing Wilkins to the highest post ever occupied by an African-American, was a strong statement about how the Eisenhower administration would promote civil rights during the 1950s.
A few months later, on November 9, 1954, the New York Times ran an article under the headline, “President Picks Negro to Help Combat Job Discrimination,” reporting Eisenhower’s choice of James Nabrit to “prevent discrimination in hiring and dismissals in plants with Government contracts.”
Well known, of course, is Eisenhower’s September 1957 order to send the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas, where the governor of that state, Democrat Orval Faubus, was obstructing the integration of schools. By that time, Ike’s record had clearly marked him a president who was promoting civil rights for African-Americans.
In that same year, Eisenhower worked to move the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress. Although some senators and representatives resisted it, and Senators Johnson and Kennedy diluted some of its provisions, Ike was adamant that it must pass.
Seeing that Johnson and Kennedy had weakened some aspects of the bill, Ike was not satisfied, and so later moved the more potent 1960 Civil Rights Act through Congress.
The 1950s were the decade in which the civil rights movement began and made most of its progress. Eisenhower was an integral part of that success.