by Pastor George Kelly
Our nation’s recent “Civil Rights” history (1954 to the present) is one in which Americans are both rightly and justly proud of.
The America of the pre Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954 was one in which America was greatly divided by Race, Gender, and Regional sensibilities.
The late great historian John Hope Franklin wrote that with regards to importance in the field of Civil Rights initiatives that three President’s come to mind: 1.) President Harry S. Truman; 2.) President John F. Kennedy; and 3.) Lyndon B. Johnson.
Dr. Franklin stated that these three Presidents are important because Truman broke through the field of American indifference; Kennedy saw the need for [Federal] action; and Johnson applied that action. Mr. Franklin felt that if he had to rank these three Presidents’ with regards to importance that he would rank President Kennedy in third place.
All three of the aforementioned Presidents were members of the Democratic Party.
This is extremely impressive when one remembers that the Democratic Party was composed of the Solid South which strongly supported “segregation” and “second-class” citizenship for her people of color. The Democratic Party came a long way from their “racist” and “segregationist” past.
While John Hope Franklin was known during his lifetime as an expert in the areas of both American history and American Studies, one might be tempted to add one more President to his list and that would be thee name of former President Dwight David Eisenhower.
President Eisenhower was referred to affectionately by the name of “Ike” during his lifetime.
President Eisenhower was a decorated 5-Star General, a former college president (Columbia University), a gentleman farmer (he owned a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) – and the 34th President of the United States of America.
President Eisenhower lived from 1890 to 1969 and he was a man of “The Greatest Generation” and he was a man of his time.
When Eisenhower was born, America was less than one generation removed from the Civil War. Furthermore, the world in which Eisenhower inhabited as a young boy/man was one in which Negroes and Whites lived in worlds that with regards to economic attainment and educational pursuits was mostly “segregated and unequal.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower grew to manhood during the timeframe between both World War I and World War II. As a young man Eisenhower shared many of the prejudices of his day; historians such as the late Stephen Ambrose wrote that one might have stated that “Ike” did not care much for Negroes. However, to his credit, Ike’s viewpoints on race changed during his lifetime.
Towards the end of the Second World War, Ike was short on manpower and he saw that there were many Negroes soldiers who were not deployed as combatants in the European theater. General Eisenhower asked these men if they would like to suit up for combat duty; to the General’s delight these men eagerly desired to fight for their nation.
It was events like this one in Europe that began a slow and deliberate process of changing Eisenhower’s view towards Negroes from one of seeing them as second-class citizens to embracing Negroes [Black or African-Americans today] as full and equal citizens.
Once Eisenhower became President, he involved himself in a series of quiet and behind the scenes moves that greatly enhanced the fight for Negro rights and enabled the nascent Civil Rights Movement to pick up speed and momentum.
President Eisenhower appointed former California Governor Earl Warren (R) to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice. Secondly, President Eisenhower appointed many Southern judges (members of the Republican Party) to both the district and appellate courts. Much has been written about these judges who were dubbed the title of “Unlikely Heroes”; these judges applied the logic of the Brown decision to the school and domestic jurisdictions within their legal purview.
Eisenhower forced the state of Arkansas to comply with desegregation by sending Troops to force the Democratic Governor Oval Faubus and recalcitrant southern political establishment to admit Negro students to Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957.
An interesting note is that President Eisenhower asked Vice-President Richard Nixon to place a call to the Evangelist Billy Graham to ask the Reverend Billy Graham for his thoughts on this situation. Dr. Graham was born in Charlotte, North Carolina and as a native of the South he had unique insights into the Southern mindset.
Without blinking an eye, Mr. Graham told the Vice-President that the South MUST NOT be allowed to flaunt the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision which he saw as being both proper and morally just. Dr. Graham suggested that force be used if necessary. President Eisenhower surprised with this answer called Graham himself to confirm and he received the same answer from Mr. Graham as was given to Vice-President Nixon.
Finally, Eisenhower continued the process of desegregating our nation’s capital that began with the Truman Administration and which was not fully completed until President Lyndon Johnson handed the keys of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the newly inaugurated President Richard M. Nixon in 1969.
One might suggest to the late historian John Hope Franklin if he were alive that President Eisenhower deserves a place in the Honor Roll of Presidents that have made significant contributions in the field of Civil Rights.
President Eisenhower, we should all thank you for your capacity for growth, integrity, and for your positive contributions toward American equality.