Sympathetic assessment of Ike’s civil-rights record.
It’s likely to be controversial as well. Nichols (Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics, 1978) forthrightly acknowledges Eisenhower’s gradualism in civil rights. He was born, after all, in 1890, six years before Plessy v. Ferguson; the old general had a racial blind spot that prevented him from fully understanding the plight of black Americans. Moreover, Eisenhower genuinely distrusted the power of statutory law to change hearts or vanquish prejudice and little understood how his repeated, public articulation of this mantra demoralized passionate advocates who’d waited too long for equality. His deeds, however, were less passive than his rhetoric; Nichols persuasively argues that Eisenhower did more than any other white politician in the 1950s to advance the civil rights agenda. The president acted unilaterally to desegregate Washington, D.C., to eliminate employment discrimination by firms handling federal contracts and to vigorously follow through on desegregating the armed forces. Ike proposed and effected passage of the first civil rights legislation since 1875, notwithstanding successful efforts by southern Democratic power brokers to weaken the bill. With the aid of his indispensable Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, Eisenhower made excellent judicial appointments in the deep South, where the likes of Frank Johnson and John Minor Wisdom proved instrumental in the legal struggle to implement Brown v. Board of Education. Even more important was his impact on the Supreme Court; all of his nominees staunchly upheld civil rights, most notably Chief Justice Earl Warren. Eisenhower demonstrated his reverence for the federal courts, his devotion to the law and his fierce sense of his own duty by becoming the first president since Reconstruction to order federal troops into a southern state, sending them to Arkansas in 1957 to enforce integration in Little Rock’s schools. Nichols focuses on the facts, but he also offers a careful analysis of why Ike has not received proper historical credit.