Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Eisenhower for civil rights?

One of Malcolm's very earliest memories is from Wednesday, November 3rd, 1948.

He is able to be so precise because it involves asking his father what was so special about that morning's BBC radio news. Dad (not the most politically-focused of souls) explained it was the American election. To the astonishment of most, and to universal and lasting derision of the Chicago Daily Post (see right), Harry Truman saw off Thomas Dewey.

Perhaps, in that moment, the seed of a lifetime's commitment and interest was sown.

Truman's reputation has grown steadily (and "steadily" is one word that seems to go neatly with HST). That of his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, may be somewhat more mixed. He is regularly placed, commonly just behind Truman, in the top ten of Presidents by the traditional listing by academic historians. He is also identified in many minds with the materialism, conservatism and inhibitions of the "Eisenhower Fifties". Much, perhaps too much, of these lasting impressions derive from the contemporary judgments of a few journalists: Arthur Krock and James Reston at the New York Times, the Alsop brothers, Joseph and Stewart, in their "Matters of Fact" columns for the New York Herald-Tribune, the syndicated opinions of Marquis Childs, and, above all, Walter Lippman.

Malcolm ran through these thoughts as he read a piece in today's New York Times Op-Ed column, by David A. Nichols, and by-lined from Winfield, Kansas. Winfield is where the former professor and academic dean at Southwestern College in Kansas is usefully spending his retirement. Here Nichols is, of course, giving a short-hand version of the thesis he developed in A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution. (There are introductory reviews here, and here. There is useful historical material here.)

Eisenhower's link to Kansas is partly factual and partly faux-folksiness for his wartime troops. He is the first Texas-born US President (Malcolm uses that phrasing to exclude the period 1836-1846), but grew up in Abilene KS, and chose to place his Presidential Library there. That's the Abilene ("population 6,409") in northern Kansas, on modern I-70, but the one where Wild Bill Hickok was briefly Marshal and saw off John Wesley Hardin. Eisenhower's representation as a Kansas farm-boy comes from his early job as night-watchman in the Belle Springs Dairy, Abilene.

Nichols champions Eisenhower as the harbinger of Civil Rights legislation. This, of course, runs counter to the grain of some opinions, as in the wikipedia view:
Liberal critics complained Eisenhower was never enthusiastic about civil rights, but he did propose to Congress the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 and signed those acts into law, although both Acts were very weak and added little to the total electorate. Nonetheless, they constituted the first significant civil rights acts since the 1870s.
Nichols notes the significance of the 1957 Civil Rights Act (which the article celebrates, and passed 50 years ago this week), the first federal legislation on black rights for 82 years. The main obstacle against even such modest moves was that:
a coalition of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans had consistently blocked progress.
In particular Nichols identifies one particular villain:
Eisenhower complained in 1967 that if his critics felt “there was anything good done” in his presidency, “they mostly want to prove that it was somebody else that did it and that I went along as a passenger.” That has been especially true of his championship of civil rights.

The “somebody else” in this instance was Lyndon B. Johnson, who in 1957 was the Senate’s Democratic majority leader. Historians have consistently credited Johnson for the bill’s passage. Yes, Johnson played a role, but hardly the one his advocates might imagine: Eisenhower and his attorney general, Herbert Brownell Jr., first proposed strong legislation, and it was Johnson and his Southern cronies who weakened it beyond recognition.

Johnson wanted a cosmetic bill that would enhance his presidential ambitions without alienating his white Southern base. It was a balancing act, as even a weak bill depended on Eisenhower’s new legislative coalition, which formed after he persuaded the Republicans to abandon their longtime opposition to civil rights legislation. (Republicans provided 37 of the 60 yes votes when the final bill passed the Senate.)

Eisenhower's main civil rights issue was the fall-out from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka judgment, which reversed the "separate but equal" provisions from 1896. His immediate response was to insist that the District of Columbia immediately applied those conditions. The crisis came, not from the Supreme Court decision, but from its subsequent order (31 May 1955) to lower courts to use "all deliberate speed" to integrate schooling. That led to the "Little Rock Nine" incident, when Eisenhower conscripted the Arkansas National Guard, and stiffened it by federal forces; and Governor Orval Faubus realised that going eyeball-to-eyeball with the wartime Supreme Allied Commander was not a good percentage play.

Where Nichols is helpful is identifying the extent of Eisenhower's 1957 proposals:
The Eisenhower proposal had four main parts. The first two — the creation of a civil rights commission to investigate voting irregularities and a civil rights division in the Justice Department — survive to this day. The other two pillars, unfortunately, became victims of politics. Part 3 proposed to grant the attorney general unprecedented authority to file suits to protect broad constitutional rights, including school desegregation. Part 4 provided for federal civil suits to prosecute voting rights violations.
Nicholls again fingers the chief suspects:
Senator Richard Russell of Georgia (see left) led the attack on Part 3, accusing the attorney general of conspiring “to destroy the system of separation of the races in the Southern states at the point of a bayonet.” Johnson eventually told Eisenhower he had the votes to kill the entire bill unless the president dropped Part 3. Eisenhower reluctantly capitulated.
Russell was four decades a Senator, with a record that was not wholly malign, and was LBJ's tutor in the black arts of the Senate: he had missed out on the Democratic nomination for 1952. His placement, by LBJ, on the Warren Commission is frequently mentioned by the conspiracy theorists as indicative of mischief or worse. He deserves to be more remembered, perhaps, for his evaluation (as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, no less) of the thermo-nuclear stand-off:
If we have to start over again with another Adam and Eve, then I want them to be Americans and not Russians, and I want them on this continent and not in Europe.
It was Russell, too, who detected UFOs in the Soviet Union.

In passing, Malcolm finds a moment to wonder whether, today, we should be so squeamish in "destroy[ing] the system of separation of the races ... at the point of a bayonet".

However, Nicholls continues to note the fate of the final part of the Eisenhower proposals:
The reasoning behind the fourth part of the proposal, providing for civil suits, was that in 1957, civil rights prosecutions were carried out by the criminal division of the Justice Department, and offenses would be subject to jury trials. Given the all-white juries of the South, prosecutions were acts in futility.

Johnson's machinations to suppress this move, ironically founded on a civil right premise of "denying defendants their constitutional right to a trial by jury", angered Eisenhower, who forced a compromise:

to allow civil suits before a judge without a jury so long as the projected punishment did not exceed a $300 fine or 45 days in prison.

Nicholls concludes:

Eisenhower’s bravery on the act went largely unrecognized by the civil rights leadership. An exception was Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was New York’s only black member of Congress. “After 80 years of political slavery,” Powell declared, this was “the second emancipation.” More typical was the reaction of Roy Wilkins, then executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons, who called it “a small crumb from Congress.”

Perhaps, but it was the first crumb Congress had dropped in eight decades.

Eisenhower's long-term reputation will not need to depend substantially on episodes like the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960. It is proper, though, to recall they had significance.

Equally, Malcolm finds time to ponder on Truman's and Eisenhower's (both Kansans by adoption) approaches to the racial issue. Truman's Executive Orders 9980 and 9981 (of July 1948) ordered integration in, respectively, federal employment and the armed services.

In his article today, and in his more important book, Nichols has shown that Eisenhower's efforts also deserve some honour, even if Ike's rhetoric was, typically, and, as Nichols himself says, "disappointing".

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