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Eisenhower and Civil Rights: The Moderate Approach

The opening of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. has scholars pondering the civil rights legacy of the 34th president of the United States and his commitment to equal opportunity and fairness for African Americans through moderation.

Eisenhower served as the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II from 1941-1945 and president from 1953-1961. He died in 1969. The effort to build the $150 million memorial started in 1999 and endured years of building delays and conflicts with members of his family over the project’s direction and message about Eisenhower. Architect Frank Gehry designed the memorial. Before the formal opening of the memorial on Sept. 18 to the public, a series of virtual programs took place during the week talking about Eisenhower’s contributions as a war commander and the nation’s chief executive.

One of the programs, “America’s Re-appreciation of Dwight D. Eisenhower”, occurred on Sept. 15 with Will Hitchcock, the author of “Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s,” as a panelist saying the president didn’t have a strong view of civil rights when he first came to the White House.

“Eisenhower was a leader who took risks,” Hitchcock said. “He was not in his comfort zone when it came to civil rights. You have to put Ike in context. He grew up during the Jim Crow era in Kansas when Blacks faced segregation in education and voting and other areas of American life. When Ike was in the military, he opposed segregated troops but he was not a crusader.”

Hitchcock said Eisenhower gets credit for appointing Earl Warren as the chief justice of the United States, who has been credited for shepherding the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 which outlawed segregated public schools in the country. Hitchcock said while Eisenhower criticized Warren for some progressive decisions of the court, he didn’t on civil rights.

“We must remember Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock Arkansas to see that Black students enter Central High School,” he said. “That was the first time since the end of Reconstruction federal troops were sent to the South. I would say what led Eisenhower to do that was Gov. Ray Faubus defying a federal order and as a general, Ike didn’t like a governor defying the federal government and sent in troops to uphold the law of the land.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first such legislation since Reconstruction, received its approval from Eisenhower. The legislation created the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an agency Dr. Mary Frances Berry, a civil rights leader and University of Pennsylvania scholar, served on the commission from 1980-2004 and was its chair from 1993 until 2004.

“The Civil Rights Act Eisenhower signed into law wasn’t as strong as he wanted because of Southern Democrats and the power they held in the Congress,” Berry said. “The Civil Rights Act though create the civil rights commission and a civil rights division in the U.S. Department of Justice. It must be remembered the bill was legislated during the time of the Little Rock Nine, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Brown decision. What is not as well known is that African diplomats didn’t like suffering discrimination in the United States.

“When Eisenhower was president, many African and Asian countries gained independence from their colonial overseers,” she said. “Many of them, when traveling from New York to Washington and throughout the country made it a point to wear their native garb so they would not be mistaken as African Americans. It was a general practice in many places in the South that Africans could be served in hotels and restaurants but not Black Americans. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, told him racial discrimination had to be outlawed because the African leaders may decide to side with the Soviet Union, as America was engaged in the Cold War. Eisenhower agreed and pushed for the Civil Rights Act.”

Berry said the president’s insistence that the civil rights commission had subpoena power played a role in the agency’s potency in the ensuing years. She noted before the commission, Blacks would write letters to federal officials about the abuse and discrimination they faced in the South, and the response generally encouraged them to deal with local officials.

“They were often the ones doing the injury,” Berry said.

Berry said Blacks mainly had positive views of Eisenhower during his presidency.

“I remember my physics teacher said in class that he would vote for Eisenhower,” she said. “He said Eisenhower won the war. I think a lot of Black people voted for him because he was seen as being fair on civil rights. Eisenhower is far different from later Republicans such as Ronald Reagan when it came to civil rights.”

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