Fred Barnes: Eisenhower's civil rights showdown





[Mr. Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and co-host, with Morton Kondracke, of"The Beltway Boys" on Fox News Channel.]

In spring 1954, as the Supreme Court was deliberating on Brown v. Board of Education, President Dwight D. Eisenhower invited Chief Justice Earl Warren to a stag dinner at the White House. He seated Warren at the same table as John W. Davis, the lawyer who had argued against school desegregation before the court. Eisenhower proceeded to tell the chief justice what a"great man" Davis was.

As it happened, Eisenhower had authorized his Justice Department to file an amicus brief in the case opposing Davis and public-school segregation. And he specifically allowed his solicitor general, Lee Rankin, to tell the justices during oral argument that"separate but equal" schools were unconstitutional. Yet he sympathized with the segregated South."These are not bad people," he told Warren at the dinner."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." Warren was appalled.

To put it kindly, Eisenhower was ambivalent on civil rights."Conservative by nature, he hoped that the advance of the civil rights movement would be gradual, allowing time for the South to change," writes Kasey S. Pipes in"Ike's Final Battle." Most of all, Eisenhower didn't want to lead a civil-rights crusade from the White House."The only crusade he had ever wanted to lead was liberating Europe in World War II," Mr. Pipes says.

But when necessary--or when steps toward desegregation were relatively painless--Eisenhower acted. He broke the color barrier in the military by deploying black soldiers alongside whites to win the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and January 1945. As president, he integrated the schools and movie theaters in Washington, D.C., and federal installations around the country. Most important, he sent U.S. Army troops to Little Rock, Ark., in September 1957 to escort nine black students into Central High School after days of violent protest. It was a defeat from which segregationist forces never recovered.

"Little Rock represented something else as well: the culmination of Eisenhower's own attitude toward racial justice," Mr. Pipes writes."Ike had enjoyed the luxury of endorsing civil rights in broad terms, knowing full well that much of segregation law was a state and local matter. Little Rock ended that."

Two days after the Army troops arrived in Little Rock, Eisenhower decided to address the nation on prime-time television. This surprised his attorney general, Herbert Brownell, who had been prodding Eisenhower for years to act more boldly on civil rights. The president wrote most of the speech himself, including a passage, suggested by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, arguing that violent opposition to racial integration was weakening America's influence and prestige in the world....

Eisenhower famously regretted his appointment of Earl Warren as chief justice. (Warren served in that role from 1953 to 1969.) Warren confronted Eisenhower about the president's feelings toward him when they flew together to Winston Churchill's funeral in 1965. Eisenhower explained that it was Warren's liberal rulings on national security that had upset him. He didn't mention Brown v. Board of Education, and understandably so: Years earlier Eisenhower had told an aide, privately, that he thought the Brown decision was wrong; by 1965, he had concluded that it was right.



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