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Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents

Dwight Eisenhower does not have a reputation as a “good for black people” president. It is just as well, when the designation is generally based on mythmaking and wishful thinking. It is true that he completed the desegregation of the armed forces that Truman began. He also desegregated public facilities and schools within the District of Columbia. In typical fashion, black people effusively praised Eisenhower for carrying out what were small changes in policy. In 1954, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell proclaimed that Eisenhower “has done more to eliminate discrimination and to restore the Negro to the status of first class citizenship than any President since Abraham Lincoln.” The hyperbolic statement was born of decades of black fear and of the need to hope that the party in power at any given moment would do no harm. A tiny bit of progress is then inflated, and even open racists can be praised. Eisenhower was president during the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which ended segregation in public education facilities. It was a watershed moment that influenced not only education but also all public institutions. Jim Crow was on the way out. Black people were not going to turn back, but white people were not going to give up easily, either. It meant that the new Civil War had begun in earnest.

The day after the decision was announced on May 17, 1954, Eisenhower gave these tepid words of support: “The Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country; and I will obey.” His administration was even less enthusiastic than those words implied. The Eisenhower Justice Department reacted with panic when the court asked for submission of the customary brief in the case. Deputy Attorney General William P. Rogers responded, with something akin to annoyance, “Jesus, do we really have to file a brief? Aren’t we better off staying out of it?” Even the five justices who ruled in Brown’s favor were afraid of the political repercussions. The court had procrastinated for two years before taking the case. William O. Douglas’s notes from a December 1952 conference show the depth of anxiety about doing what was obviously right both legally and morally. According to Douglas, Justice Hugo Black worried that “there may be violence” if they ruled in favor of Brown. Felix Frankfurter and Robert Jackson saw that possibility “with great alarm and thought that the Court should not decide the question if it was possible to avoid it.” Chief Justice Fred Vinson was more concerned with the “serious practical problems” in desegregating southern schools. Precisely because of these fears, the justices kicked the can down the road and didn’t rule on how or when Brown would be implemented. Brown II, which determined implementation of the original decision, was under deliberation when the court reconvened in October 1954. The NAACP brief insisted that segregation be ended immediately with a definitive time limit for complete integration of the schools. Eisenhower made a now-hidden change to the brief that is described as having “toned down the Justice Department’s rhetoric that might shame the south.”

The Supreme Court case and resulting activism led Eisenhower to do what no other president had done: He hired a black person to fill an executive position in his administration. On July 10, 1955, the White House announced, “Everett Frederic Morrow, a Negro, has been named to a top job in President Eisenhower’s Executive Office.” Morrow had covered the Eisenhower 1952 campaign for CBS. He was one of the few working black journalists at the time. Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, had urged Morrow to leave CBS in preparation for the appointment, but when he resigned there was no position for him. He waited more than two years before he was appointed administrative officer for special projects.

Morrow had been educated at Bowdoin College and Rutgers University Law School, but when he arrived at the White House even secretaries refused to work for him. When he was officially sworn into office more than three years later, Eisenhower didn’t attend the ceremony. Morrow wrote in his journal, “The White House is a little embarrassed about me.” He was reduced to ceremonial window dressing.

Eisenhower again faced having to intervene in school desegregation in 1957 when nine black students integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The images of National Guard troops escorting the nine children into school have become iconic, but they shouldn’t be used to give Eisenhower undue credit. Eisenhower only sent the troops because Governor Orville Faubus, who had promised to admit the black students, then refused to do so. Martin Luther King had called the president “wishy-washy” on the issue of integration but then sent him a congratulatory telegram when federal action admitted the students.

Eisenhower supported the segregationist obstructions that were euphemistically referred to as states’ rights on issues such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His administration said nothing about the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till or other lynch law killings, nor anything in support of desegregation efforts at schools and universities. He didn’t want to deal with civil rights issues or with black people unless he was compelled to do so by circumstance. In private Eisenhower condemned the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, telling a friend, “No single event has so disturbed the domestic scene in many years as did the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954.” He opposed desegregation of the military and saw nothing wrong with black and white university students being separated by “some kind of railing.” He told future Supreme Court justice Earl Warren that white southerners were “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.”

Eisenhower’s one act of common sense is what historians constantly tout as a moment of greatness, and it has granted him credit for far more than he deserves. He was clearly a segregationist and was forced to do the little that he accomplished for black people.