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Book Review

An inside look at Eisenhower's civil rights record

Email|Print| Text size + By James A. Miller
November 21, 2007

Fifty years ago, nine black students, escorted by federal troops under the orders of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The Little Rock Nine have become icons of the modern civil rights movement; President Eisenhower has not. How is it that, at the same time we honor and celebrate the dignity and heroism of the Little Rock Nine, we overlook or - even worse - forget Eisenhower's role in this historic event? In "A Matter of Justice" David A. Nichols aims to redress this state of affairs, indicating through the double entendre of his title not only the timeliness of the struggle for civil rights during this pivotal decade, but also the need for a more searching and just appraisal of Eisenhower's legacy.

Nichols is determined to chip away at the enduring myth of Eisenhower's "moral failing and . . . lack of vision" about civil rights, as one writer put it. He was much more complex, Nichols argues, than his chorus of critics is prepared to acknowledge.. Moreover, the author charges, "many documents revealing Eisenhower's leadership have either been unavailable or neglected" - a sweeping claim that seems to dismiss the considerable research and ink devoted to Eisenhower's record on civil rights, particularly over the past two decades. Presidential rhetoric is important, Nichols acknowledges, but a single-minded focus on Eisenhower's words distorts his legacy. Aided in part by thousands of pages of documents released from the papers of Eisenhower's chief White House aide on civil rights, Maxwell Rabb, Nichols hopes to set the record right.

Although Eisenhower was a "nineteenth-century man, raised in an era of blatant white supremacy in American life," Nichols maintains that he brought to his presidency in 1953 a deep commitment to egalitarian values, nurtured by his heartland upbringing, and an abiding belief in the law of the land, as interpreted by the Supreme Court. It was Eisenhower who implemented Truman's Executive Order 9981, requiring equal opportunity for African-Americans in the US military, thereby achieving "in less than two years what President Truman had failed to accomplish in seven" - even though Truman is routinely credited for this achievement in American history textbooks. Most important, Nichols insists, to understand Eisenhower's legacy, you must pay close attention to the staffing appointments that made his achievements in civil rights possible, including the appointment of five justices to the Supreme Court, none of them Southerners, none of them segregationists - an enviable record by contemporary standards.

While Eisenhower's achievements in civil rights are certainly noteworthy, they have been overshadowed by the public pronouncement that would come to haunt Eisenhower long after the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing segregation in America's public schools: "The Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country; and I will obey." Nichols blames the cold and detached formality of this statement on Eisenhower's "disdain for symbolic acts" and his preference for "action rather than public pronouncement," even as he acknowledges that "Eisenhower's aloof strategy collided with a growing public obsession with presidential rhetoric, especially on the question of race."

Most of all, however, Nichols sees the chief culprit behind Eisenhower's damaged public image - then and now - as Chief Justice Earl Warren. "No subsequent president has made a judicial appointment of greater consequence for civil rights," Nichols writes, but Warren also emerged as Eisenhower's political nemesis whose "iconic position . . . enabled him to largely define how Dwight Eisenhower's leadership on civil rights would be viewed by scholars and the media." Nichols traces the trajectory of events that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, legislation for which, he argues, historians have given the then Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, much more credit than he deserved. These events, however, are preliminary to arguably the most dramatic episode of Eisenhower's domestic policies: his decision to send federal troops into the South in support of federal policies for the first time since Reconstruction. This was indeed a watershed moment, and Nichols provides a fascinating account of the behind-the-scenes discussions and maneuvers, before and after the event.

Nichols's explanations for Eisenhower's rhetorical gaffes and stumbles about civil rights are not always persuasive, but he makes a strong case for Eisenhower's legislative achievements, within the givens of his historical and political circumstances - particularly when his record is held up against that of his successor, John F. Kennedy. These insights alone are likely to provoke precisely the reconsideration that Nichols hopes for.

James A. Miller is professor of English and American studies at George Washington University.

'A Matter of Justice' David A. Nichols has a fresh take on Eisenhower's legacy. (AP Photo / Simon & Schuster)

RELATED

"A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil RIghts Revolution"
By David A. Nichols
Simon & Schuster, 353 pp., illustrated, $27.

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