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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 Call newspaper, 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.”

President Dwight Eisenhower

Dwight David Eisenhower, 34th President

1953 to 1961

Birth: October 14, 1890, Denison, Texas

Death: March 28, 1969

Education: U. S. Military Academy

Religion: Presbyterian

Profession: Soldier, Politician

Political Party: Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower Oct 25, 1999, CSPAN

Senator Russell wanted the notion that blacks are diseased and morally unfit to be officially registered and endorsed by the nation’s leading war hero as a justification for continuing segregation. Eisenhower refused to take the bait and instead indicated that he didn’t support the strict segregation that was only then beginning to be dismantled. He added that segregation had not allowed the nation to make best use of its armed forces during World War Two. Eisenhower took a stand supporting segregation in general since “the Negro is less well-educated than his brother citizen that is white.” “Complete amalgamation,” the general explained, would result in every company having a sub-tier of blacks, “relegated to the minor jobs” and never enjoying promotions even to “such grades as technical sergeant, master sergeant, and so on, because the competition is too tough.”

President Eisenhower adhered to a traditional view of the Civil War that regarded the Confederates as noble romantics who justly took to arms to defend their way of life. Testifying before a congressional committee in 1948, the general suggested that he opposed desegregation citing its unworkable nature. The future president expressed his belief that “if we attempt merely by passing a lot of laws to force someone to like someone else, we are just going to get into trouble.” During the presidential campaign of 1952 Eisenhower generally remained silent on civil rights but when prodded allowed that he opposed a “compulsory federal law” on civil rights. His silence was made easier by the Democratic Party’s retreat on civil rights with the nomination of Illinois’ Adlai E. Stevenson who had opposed the FEPC and John Sparkman of Alabama, a confirmed segregationist.

At the 1956 Republican convention in San Francisco Eisenhower was dead set against strengthening the party’s position against segregation. Yet, in the 1956 elections in which he again defeated Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower picked up significantly more African American support than in 1952. Eisenhower was forced to undertake a series of desegregation measures by the pressures upon him including the increase in black protests. The favorable developments to African Americans that occurred on his watch, most notably the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, and an upsurge in the American economy were significant factors in his increase in popularity among blacks. Following the ruling Eisenhower sent a telegram to the national conference of the NAACP terming the decision a “milestone of social advance.”

Under considerable pressure, Eisenhower searched and found in areas under his executive authority that could bypass legislative authorization and be desegregated. Restaurants and other public spaces were desegregated but remained oases of official integration within a desert of de facto segregation. Eisenhower established a Government Contract’s Committee that would ostensibly educate business on non-discriminatory practices. Vice President Richard Nixon was appointed to head this committee, a body that was primarily concerned with the image of the administration and enjoyed little power of its own. Moreover, the committee members’ lack of belief in what they viewed as federal interference coupled with the absence of a sense of moral outrage against anti-black racism, doomed their feeble efforts from the outset. Rather than defending their actions in terms of social justice for the African American populace, they instead cited enhanced efficiency, better business, and the desire for concrete proof of America’s democratic principles as motives for their efforts. The relaxed pace of the commission was consistent with Eisenhower’s preference for voluntary desegregation, and opposition to what he viewed as “coercive” efforts to desegregate.

After the Little Rock crisis, however, made headlines all over the world, notably in the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia the pressure on Eisenhower to foster anti-racist measures increased. Amidst increased competition with the Soviet Union for international prestige Little Rock was being compared to the invasion of Hungary and worst. Alarmed the State Department shifted into high gear to counter the images coming out of Arkansas claiming that the situation there had been “widely misunderstood and misinterpreted.” In fact, the department asserted, it arose “from the force and strength of the American people’s insistence upon complete equality.” Many disagreed, among them entertainer Louis Armstrong who wrote to Eisenhower to condemn his Little Rock actions. Cancelling his tour of Russia, Armstrong wrote the president that “the way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell” complaining that it was “getting almost so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.”

President Eisenhower sponsored a Civil Rights Act in 1957 that led to the creation of both the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, a body intended to strengthen black voting rights. Seeking to avoid offending southern lawmakers, particularly Senator Eastland of Mississippi, the Eisenhower administration limited the Civil Rights Commission’s actions on the issue of school integration to the sponsoring of a single two-day conference held in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition, Section III, which would have empowered the federal government to intervene in southern schools, was excised from the bill. Those charged with contempt of court would be allowed jury trials, a feature appealing to anti-civil rights forces who sought to neuter the law. To the staunchly segregationist southern leader Senator Richard B. Russell this was his “sweetest victory” in his long senatorial career. In the final analysis, however, consensus among pro-civil rights forces was that it was a milestone, and a first step, breaking the almost century-long period since Reconstruction featuring no civil rights legislation.

In two years, under W. Wilson White, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department filed only four voting rights discrimination lawsuits in a region where violations of voting rights were daily occurrences. Similarly, of the 1,328 complaints filed due to alleged police brutality only 42 civil suits were forthcoming, but no verdicts favorable to the plaintiffs resulted. A total of 46 of the 52 criminal cases pursued by the Civil Rights Division resulted in acquittal of the defendant.

Eisenhower was faced with even more pressure than his predecessor Truman to appoint blacks to mid-and high-level positions in the federal bureaucracy. This led Eisenhower to appoint eight black alternate United Nations delegates compared to Truman’s three. The most important African American in Eisenhower’s administration was E. Frederick Morrow who delivered over 300 speeches on its behalf. Morrow withstood daily abuses, slights, and insults as the most prominent African-American in the White House. Even the incredible ability to endure racial slights that Morrow possessed could not withstand the indignities that formed a normal course of his duties. Morrow recounted a “tongue-lashing” given him by Max Rabb during the 1956 campaign. Reflecting a common sentiment within the Eisenhower administration, Rabb told him that blacks were ungrateful to the president. Morrow wrote:

. . . He felt that despite what the Administration had done in this area, Negroes had not demonstrated any kind of gratitude, and that most of the responsible officials in the White House had become completely disgusted with the whole matter. He said that there was a feeling that Negroes were being too aggressive in their demands; that an ugliness and surliness in manner was beginning to show through . . .

Rabb ended by telling Morrow to “walk softly from then on and ask fewer questions of the members of the Administration on this matter.”

Morrow first joined Eisenhower’s staff during the latter stages of the 1952 campaign for the presidency. He had been a member of the public relations staff of CBS, and took a leave of absence to work in the campaign as a consultant. Top Eisenhower aide, Sherman Adams, told him soon after the election that the president wanted him to work in his new administration. Soon, however, Morrow was irritated and angry at inexplicable delay in the hiring of him. The administration’s broken promises to Morrow placed him in a very precarious state for a period, having resigned from his position at CBS and forced to live by means of his savings. At one point he was told that they had nothing for him at the White House. No reason was given for this change of heart by the Eisenhower administration but Morrow later learned that an Alabaman staffmember had threatened to lead a staff walkout if Morrow was hired. Finally, after much personal networking and wrangling Morrow was placed in a position as Adviser on Business Affairs within the Department of Commerce.

Morrow found life in Eisenhower’s White House coldly formal. Little cheer greeted his arrival in the Jim Crow White House. Morrow had tremendous difficulty finding a staff who would work under an African American man. He observed that none of the secretaries wanted “the onus of working for a colored boss.” Morrow fit the black personality type that American President Eisenhower made known his preference for and appreciation of, and, was therefore particularly patient. The man he most admired in the White House, Sherman Adams, used to give him “a playful rap on the head.” While not quite respect, from Morrow’s point of view, it was not hostility and therefore was welcome.

Morrow himself witnessed the callous hostility displayed by members of the Eisenhower cabinet and the president himself to black interests. Morrow wrote that any suggestion that Eisenhower speak out against the unruly white mobs was greeted with “complete fright” and noted his silence on the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. Even a telegram mailed to President Eisenhower by Till’s mother failed to elicit a reply.

In May 1958, President Eisenhower spoke before the African American National Newspaper Publishers Association urging blacks to be “patient.” The president declared: “No one is more anxious than I am to see Negroes receive first-class citizenship in this country. . .but you must be patient.” This statement angered many blacks—a fact that eventually led Eisenhower to agree to schedule a meeting with black leaders. For the first time the president consented to a private meeting with Martin Luther King, Lester Granger, A. Phillip Randolph, and Roy Wilkins held on July 23, 1958. The African American leaders urged the president to take seriously the violations of black voting rights, and ensure the safety of black voters. Eisenhower, however, promised no new measures of this sort.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.