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A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution

A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution

by David A. Nichols


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Fifty years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a federal court order desegregating the city's Central High School, a leading authority on Eisenhower presents an original and engrossing narrative that places Ike and his civil rights policies in dramatically new light.

Historians such as Stephen Ambrose and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., have portrayed Eisenhower as aloof, if not outwardly hostile, to the plight of African-Americans in the 1950s. It is still widely assumed that he opposed the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating the desegregation of public schools, that he deeply regretted appointing Earl Warren as the Court's chief justice because of his role in molding Brown, that he was a bystander in Congress's passage of the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960, and that he so mishandled the Little Rock crisis that he was forced to dispatch troops to rescue a failed policy.

In this sweeping narrative, David A. Nichols demonstrates that these assumptions are wrong. Drawing on archival documents neglected by biographers and scholars, including thousands of pages newly available from the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Nichols takes us inside the Oval Office to look over Ike's shoulder as he worked behind the scenes, prior to Brown, to desegregate the District of Columbia and complete the desegregation of the armed forces. We watch as Eisenhower, assisted by his close collaborator, Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., sifted through candidates for federal judgeships and appointed five pro-civil rights justices to the Supreme Court and progressive judges to lower courts. We witness Eisenhower crafting civil rights legislation, deftly building a congressional coalition that passed the first civil rights act in eighty-two years, and maneuvering to avoid a showdown with Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, over desegregation of Little Rock's Central High.

Nichols demonstrates that Eisenhower, though he was a product of his time and its backward racial attitudes, was actually more progressive on civil rights in the 1950s than his predecessor, Harry Truman, and his successors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Eisenhower was more a man of deeds than of words and preferred quiet action over grandstanding. His cautious public rhetoric — especially his legalistic response to Brown — gave a misleading impression that he was not committed to the cause of civil rights. In fact, Eisenhower's actions laid the legal and political groundwork for the more familiar breakthroughs in civil rights achieved in the 1960s.

Fair, judicious, and exhaustively researched, A Matter of Justice is the definitive book on Eisenhower's civil rights policies that every presidential historian and future biographer of Ike will have to contend with.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416541516
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 09/23/2008
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.64(w) x 10.92(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

David A. Nichols, a leading expert on the Eisenhower presidency, holds a PhD in history from the College of William and Mary. A former professor and academic dean at Southwestern College, he is the author of A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution; Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis; and Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy; as well as other books. He lives in Winfield, Kansas.

Read an Excerpt


Military Intervention in Little Rock

Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts. -- Dwight D. Eisenhower, September 24, 1957

Monday, September 23, 1957, was a busy day for the president of the United States. At 7:17 A.M., he boarded a helicopter to return to Washington, where he spoke to conferences at two Washington hotels without mentioning Little Rock.

That morning chaos reigned at Central High School. A mob gathered, determined to keep the African-American students from entering the school. A newsman reported: "This was a mob with a job to do and the leadership to do it." The men were dressed in gray and khaki work clothes, straw hats and work shoes; "obvious ringleaders" were organizing the crowd. One was Jimmy Karam, the state athletic commissioner and close associate of Governor Faubus. Karam's wife was with Faubus and the Arkansas delegation at the southern governors' conference.

At the south side of the school, the crowd intercepted four Negro newsmen. A white man stopped them: "You're not going into our school." The reporters replied that they did not wish to enter. A mob leader called out: "Kill them, kill them!" Several men beat two of the reporters. During the melee, eight of the Negro students slipped through a side door of the school. A woman saw them: "Oh, my god, they're going in. The niggers are in." She fell to her knees and covered her face. The Negro reporters had, in effect, distracted the rioters while the students entered. A mob ringleader bellowed: "Come on, let's go in the school and drag them out." A white girl ran down the street and shouted hysterically: "The niggers got in. They tricked us. The niggers got in." When the police arrested the girl, protest leaders cried: "Look at that. They arrest a white girl and let the niggers in our school."

A Negro reporter tried to photograph the mob, but Karam led a group that chased the photographer. A white man kicked the photographer twice and Karam jumped into the street and bellowed: "The nigger started it. He struck him first." One police officer, in frustration, slammed his billy club to the ground, threw his badge on the street, and walked away.

Another black man accompanied the ninth student, who never was able to enter the school. When rioters chased them, the youth was able to escape, but a reporter from the Arkansas Democrat witnessed an "extremely brutal" beating of the man. The riot continued for more than three hours. At noon, Virgil Blossom, the superintendent of schools, called Arthur Caldwell, the chief of the civil rights section in the Justice Department, and pled for federal assistance. Blossom estimated the size of the mob at 1,500 persons. Eventually, the crowd broke through the police barricades surrounding the school and the police removed the students from the school for their own protection.

Following his ceremonial appearances in Washington, Eisenhower returned to Newport. He had instructed Brownell to call him if the situation worsened. Eisenhower boarded his yacht to cross the bay to the country club, intent on playing golf. When he landed, he received an urgent message from the attorney general, ordered the boat turned around, and returned to his quarters.

Despite his efforts to manage the crisis, the president now looked indecisive and ineffective. Eisenhower's meeting with Faubus had failed. Faubus had done what the public erroneously assumed that the president had requested -- pull out the National Guard troops. The press knew nothing about Ike's ultimatum to the governor at Newport and his demand that Faubus change the orders of the guard. The situation had turned violent, just as Faubus had predicted.

The Decision

According to journalist Roland P. Burnham, Woodrow Wilson Mann, the mayor of Little Rock, was "in deep despair." Mann asked Burnham what he should do. Burnham responded that the mayor had no choice but to appeal to the president. Mann was hesitant. Finally, he told Burnham: "You do it. Tell him you're me." Burnham reached Maxwell Rabb at the White House and Rabb instructed him to send a telegram to the president.

At 3:44 P.M., Eisenhower received a frantic wire from Mayor Mann, who declared that the mob at Central High School "was no spontaneous assembly" and alleged that followers of Governor Faubus had "agitated, aroused, and assembled" the mob. The mayor identified Jimmy Karam, "a political and social intimate of Governor Faubus," as a principal agitator.

Eisenhower was incensed. His rage was still evident, just beneath the surface, in his memoirs. "The issue had now become clear both in fact and in law," Eisenhower wrote. "Cruel mob force had frustrated the execution of an order of a United States court, and the Governor of the state was sitting by, refusing to lift a finger to support the local authorities." Eisenhower concluded: "There was only one justification for the use of troops: to uphold the law. Though Faubus denied it, I, as President of the United States, now had that justification and the clear obligation to act."

Eisenhower and Brownell had already begun preparations for intervention before they received Mann's telegram. Ike had contemplated the use of the army in Little Rock ever since September 4, when he had approved Brownell's statement indicating that possibility. A presidential decision to send troops into a southern state for the first time since Reconstruction would be controversial. Eisenhower and Brownell, in their contingency planning, had identified steps that would be codified in three documents; Ike now ordered the attorney general to draft all three -- a statement, a proclamation, and an address to the nation. The statement would provide a legal rationale for intervention, the proclamation would order citizens to cease resistance and would invoke the authority to mobilize troops, and the speech would explain the president's actions to the public once the army had been dispatched. The speech would be of particular importance for a president who was usually reluctant to use the "bully pulpit." On September 19, national security aide Andrew Goodpaster had alerted Hagerty that the Little Rock situation might require military action; if it did, "at that time the President should speak to the country."

Given these assignments, Brownell canceled his scheduled 4:30 P.M. flight from Washington to New York City to attend a boxing match. At 4:48 P.M., Jim Hagerty called in the press to read aloud the first of the three documents, the president's statement, because he lacked time to mimeograph copies. Although Brownell had drafted the statement, it was vintage Eisenhower, rippling with the crisp, vivid language Eisenhower employed when in command and intending "to make several things clear." The first two points were particularly emphatic: "The Federal law and orders of a United States District Court implementing that law cannot be flouted with impunity by an individual or any mob of extremists"; the second read, "I will use the full power of the United States including whatever force may be necessary to prevent any obstruction of the law and to carry out the orders of the Federal Court." The pledge to use "the full power of the United States" and "whatever force may be necessary" left no doubt: Eisenhower had decided to coerce compliance with the federal court order. The presidential anger flashed in point three: "It will be a sad day for this country -- both at home and abroad -- if school children can safely attend their classes only under the protection of armed guards."9

At 6:45 P.M., Hagerty distributed a formal proclamation signed by the president, titled, "OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE IN THE STATE OF ARKANSAS." The document declared that persons in Arkansas had "willfully obstructed" the orders of the federal court. The key sentence read: "Now, therefore, I Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States, under and by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution... do command all persons engaged in such obstruction of justice to cease and desist therefrom, and to disperse forthwith."

The remainder of the proclamation set forth the precedents for presidential action. Eisenhower and the Justice Department had agreed to cite a 1792 law that George Washington had invoked to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, along with Grover Cleveland's use of an updated 1807 law to enforce a federal injunction against the Pullman strike in 1894 -- the latter action contrary to the wishes of a state governor. An extraordinary precedent was left unstated -- Lincoln's use of force against the southern states that had illegally seceded from the Union in 1861.

Eisenhower still intended to proceed one step at a time. A reporter asked Hagerty whether, if the proclamation was defied, it would mean "sending in troops?" Hagerty hedged and said the proclamation applied "to calling out the troops" and did "not necessarily mean sending in." The reporters ridiculed this parsing of words, but Hagerty insisted that there was "a very vast distinction" and concluded: "This has to be issued before a President can use military force. It does not mean inevitably that he is going to." Hagerty declined to comment when a reporter asked: "If these mobs continue their violence tomorrow then you will call out the troops?" Perhaps Eisenhower clung to a faint hope that the proclamation itself would result in a cessation of violence in Little Rock. That was not to be. The president would be forced to move from words to action.

As Tuesday, September 24, dawned, Eisenhower prepared to act. At 8:35 A.M., he held a long phone conversation with his attorney general. Ike told Brownell that he should continue working on the address to the nation, but no announcement should be made until they learned what was happening in Little Rock that morning. Ann Whitman noted that Eisenhower had "softened" some language in a draft he had already received.

The president and the attorney general also discussed military options. Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell Taylor preferred using National Guard rather than army troops. Eisenhower thought otherwise. He feared that the use of Arkansas guard units in Little Rock might pit "brother against brother."

Eisenhower, obviously thinking about golf, wondered aloud whether he should stay in his office during the morning. Finally, he and Brownell agreed that would look as though the president "was frozen waiting for something to happen," and that the president should go about his "normal routine." But Eisenhower ignored Brownell's advice. He was, in fact, "frozen" -- waiting for word on Little Rock. He called his spiritual advisor, the Reverend Billy Graham, who told the president that sending troops was "the only thing you can do." Fifteen minutes after the president hung up the phone with Brownell, Hagerty told the press that the administration was waiting to see if the president's proclamation would be obeyed: "If it is not obeyed by those to which it was directed, additional action will be taken by the President on behalf of the United States."

Eisenhower and his advisors debated where he should deliver his address to the nation. General Alfred M. Gruenther, Ike's former chief of staff in the army and successor as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, urged the president to return to Washington. Eisenhower demurred, saying that he did not want "to exaggerate the significance of the admittedly serious situation in Arkansas." Then the president wavered: "On the other hand, for a number of reasons I wish I were back there. My work would be a lot easier to do."

That issue surfaced when Hagerty met with reporters. One asked, "Jim, is the President going to terminate his Newport vacation because of this situation?" Hagerty responded, "No," and repeated the argument that Eisenhower had used with Gruenther, reminding the reporters that "wherever the President of the United States is, there is the office of the White House."

A short while later, at 9:16 A.M., Eisenhower received a second frantic telegram from Mayor Mann in Little Rock: "The immediate need for federal troops is urgent. The mob is much larger in numbers at 8AM than at any time yesterday. People are converging on the scene from all directions. Mob is armed and engaging in fisticuffs and other acts of violence. Situation is out of control and police cannot disperse the mob. I am pleading to you as President of the United States in the interest of humanity, law and order and because of democracy world wide to provide the necessary federal troops within several hours. Action by you will restore peace and order and compliance with your proclamation."

The president was ready to act. In Newport, Brownell met with Hagerty and Adams at 10:15 A.M. At 11:20, Eisenhower joined the group. At 11:45, Eisenhower read the telegram from the Little Rock mayor to California Senator William Knowland on the phone and told the Republican minority leader what he had decided. At 12:08 P.M., Ann Whitman recorded that "the President said definitely he would sign the order for the Federal troops to go into Little Rock."

At 12:15, the president called General Taylor. Eisenhower had made a final decision on the composition of the military force he would send to Arkansas. The National Guard could not be ready soon enough to defuse the crisis, and Ike was uncertain of the Arkansas guard's loyalty. The army could respond within six hours, so Eisenhower chose a force that he knew would be loyal to him -- the 101st Airborne Division. There was nostalgia as well as military calculation in his choice. That division had won fame in World War II under General Taylor's leadership. Eisenhower had paid a legendary personal visit to the troops in 1944, just prior to the D-Day attack on Normandy and had joked and talked with the soldiers, most of whom he expected to die that day. The successors to those troops, trained to handle riots, would remain on duty in Little Rock until the situation was stabilized. Then the 101st would be replaced by federalized Arkansas National Guard soldiers if they demonstrated they were ready. Major General Edwin A. Walker, a decorated combat veteran with a reputation for toughness, would be in overall command of both the regular army and the federalized National Guard troops.

Eisenhower reversed his decision to stay in Rhode Island. Radio and television communications in Providence were inadequate. More important, Eisenhower had come to agree with Knowland that the address needed "the dignity of the White House behind it -- that it did not sound well to have it said that the speech came from the Vacation White House." A weary Eisenhower, still wanting to preserve his phantom vacation, had argued that proposition with the senator. Ann Whitman recorded that the "President said he was not going to do so; weakened and said he might." One hour after Eisenhower had written General Gruenther that he would not return to Washington, Whitman recorded that "he agreed to go."

At 12:22 P.M., Eisenhower signed the executive order dispatching troops to Arkansas. At 12:30, Hagerty informed the press. The order recapped the proclamation of the previous day and invoked "the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the United States." The document nationalized the Arkansas National Guard and authorized the secretary of defense to enforce the federal court orders and to use armed forces if necessary. One reporter asked Hagerty: "Will this end the President's little vacation here then?" Hagerty exclaimed: "Little vacation!" Another asked: "Did the President say anything as he signed this order?" "No," responded the press secretary.

The first of fifty-two aircraft carrying approximately one thousand troops departed from Fort Campbell in Kentucky at 3:30 P.M. Two hours later, the army announced that five hundred men of the 101st Airborne Division would land in Little Rock "within the hour." For the first time since Reconstruction, federal troops would patrol the streets in a former Confederate state.

Eisenhower had told Ann Whitman that they should leave for the capital about the same hour as the troops took flight. Eisenhower boarded the helicopter at 3:12 P.M. and was back in the White House at 5:05 P.M., working on his address to the nation. At 6:40 P.M., twenty-six vehicles carrying troops of the 101st arrived at Central High School. The soldiers, carrying carbines and billy clubs, were in place by 6:55 P.M. Although Negro soldiers served in the 101st Division, none were deployed at Central High School that evening or the following day; they remained at a nearby armory, prepared to protect the homes of the nine students.

Copyright © 2007 by David A. Nichols

Table of Contents


CHAPTER ONE The Candidate

CHAPTER TWO Invoking Federal Authority

CHAPTER THREE The President and Brown

CHAPTER FOUR A Judiciary to Enforce Brown

CHAPTER FIVE The President and the Chief Justice

CHAPTER SIX Confronting Southern Resistance

CHAPTER SEVEN The Civil Rights Act of 1957

CHAPTER EIGHT The Little Rock Crisis

CHAPTER NINE Military Intervention in Little Rock

CHAPTER TEN Rising Expectations


CHAPTER TWELVE Leading from Gettysburg

CONCLUSION A Matter of Justice




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