Saturday, May 7, 2016

Homefront: How WWII and the US Military Provided the First Spark for the Civil Rights Movement 3 / 3

by Nomad

Dwight EisenhowerIn the previous installment in this series, we examined how the a progressive president's wife, a black workers' union and an imposed reform of the armed forces all combined to helped to jump-start the civil rights movement in the US. In the final part of our series, we will show, how a military president from the Republican Party took a very different view.

The Little Rock Crisis and Why Eisenhower Intervened

For moderate Republicans, President Dwight D. Eisenhower is the one president - outside of Theodore Roosevelt- that they can point to as in any way, reformist. They tend to cite Eisenhower's stand on ending segregation in the South as proof that he was committed to equality for the races and progress in general. 

Despite evidence that Eisenhower was a moderate, the part he played in the story of civil rights was much more of a result of his military background, rather than a question of morality or an appreciation of fairness for African Americans. 
It was actually a matter of proper organization.    

When we look a little closer, we see that Eisenhower's attitude toward integration was much more ambivalent than it is commonly painted. Scholars still debate how firm his commitment was to civil rights. 

It is true that he signed civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, but he was overly-enthused about having to deal with racial issues.
He never endorsed the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education (Kansas), that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional, and he failed to use his moral authority as president to urge speedy compliance with the court’s decision.
Little Rock CrisisClaiming states' rights, many governors, and legislatures, particularly in the South, refused to recognize the SCOTUS decision.

It was clear that the some politician leaders were ready to rebel, and they planned to use the state militias to protect their state's rights.

In the autumn of 1957, the epicenter of this battle of wills became Little Rock when Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas announced his absolute refusal to comply the court's ruling. 
While the Fayetteville, Charleston, and Hoxie school districts integrated without incident, the attempt to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in the fall of 1957 led to a crisis, as Faubus tried to block the attempt to integrate the school by nine black students (the “Little Rock Nine”).

On 2 September, Faubus  publicly addressed the crisis. Firstly he listed the many ways that Arkansas was a comparatively progressive state and him, a comparatively progressive leader.
The people of Arkansas were face with a problem.."the forcible integration of the public school of Little Rock against the overwhelming sentiment of the people of the area. The problem gives every evidence and indication that the attempt to integrate forcibly will bring about widespread disorder and violence.
The situation is, he said, not of his making. The Federal courts were to blame for not recognize the majority- clearly indicated by the greatest time-honored principle of the Democracy- the vote. Yet, Faubus knew full well that the majority cannot decide which rights it will recognize on behalf of the minority. 

In reaction to this declaration, Eisenhower made his position equally clear in a public statement on September 23, 1957.
Federal law could not be "flouted with impunity by any individual or any mob of extremists" and, the President said, he was prepared to use "whatever force may be necessary to prevent any obstruction of the law and to carry out the orders of the Federal Court."

Behind the scenes, he was much more willing to take a conciliatory tone with those who opposed the federal government.

According to dictated notes following an October 1957 meeting the president had with the Arkansas governor, the president urged Faubus to resolve the solution through compromise. It was not beneficial to anybody to have "a trial of strength between the federal authorities and the state government." The president said that he didn't wish to see any governor humiliated- if it could be avoided.

The president reminded Faubus, there could only be one outcome, the Justice Department would force the federal authorities to carry out the law of the land and "the states would lose."

The battle was already over, in other words.

Img: Civil RightsAll through the Little Rock Crisis, the White House was inundated with telegrams and letters from both sides.

In 1958, black baseball hero Jackie Robinson wrote a letter to the White House.   African Americans, Robinson explained, have been a most patient people. However, 
Seventeen million Negros cannot.. wait for the hearts of men to change. We want to enjoy now the rights we feel we are entitled to as Americans. This we cannot do unless we pursue agressively goals which all other Americans achieved over 150 years ago.
On the opposite side, John Stennis, Democratic Senator from Mississippi explained to Eisenhower that the integration plan (actually the resistance to it) presented "the most serious and the gravest domestic crisis of this century."

Stennis pointed out that the president had failed to appreciate the "strong and almost unanimous sentiment prevailing among the mothers and fathers of the South against enforced integration of our schools."
Meaning white mothers and white fathers.

Stennis was not shy about laying on the hysteria.
This is no longer a question merely of civil rights, nor a question of states' rights, the real issue at stake is the survival of our public schools.
Without the active support of parents and teachers, the public school system, Stennis claimed, could not be sustained. Equality between blacks and whites was portrayed as a threat to public institutions. 

An Act of Insubordination

In the end, try as he might to avoid involvement, the president was forced to act. As this video below shows, Eisenhower didn't consider the matter a moral issue but a question of authority and the rule of law. 
Defying the law was, in military terms, an act of insubordination in the chain of command.
Eisenhower stated:
Our personal opinions about the decision have no bearing on the matter of enforcement; the responsibility and authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution are very clear.
He was not prepared to debate the matter of race relations.
The very basis of our individual rights and freedoms rests upon the certainty that the President and the Executive Branch of Government will support and insure the carrying out of the decisions of the Federal Courts, even, when necessary with all the means at the President’s command.
In this way, President Eisenhower wasn't advocating desegregation as such. He was standing by the rule of law and keeping order.  
Unless the President did so, anarchy would result.
There would be no security for any except that which each one of us could provide for himself.
The interest of the nation in the proper fulfillment of the law’s requirements cannot yield to opposition and demonstrations by some few persons.
"Mob rule," said the president, "cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts."

In spite of Eisenhower's rational approach, Governor Faubus did nothing to stop the violence directed at the students and their supporters. Finally, the mayor of Little Rock Woodrow W. Mann appealed directly to President Eisenhower for help. 

This was the moment that the US military played its most profound role to date in the civil rights movement.  
The president placed the Arkansas National Guard, (formerly under the authority of the governor) under federal control. Added to that 1,000 U.S. Army paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division were ordered to assist them in restoring calm and to protect the students. 
After a single year of integration, Faubus closed the Little Rock public high schools to avoid further integration. The United States Supreme Court declared Faubus' action illegal and the public schools reopened August 1959. in Little Rock. 

Had he not been forced by those who defied the federal authority, the Eisenhower presidency would have spelled the slow death of the progress made in the past two administrations.  

Ironically, the opposite could be true too. It could be argued that his period of inactivity and a lack of advocacy by the president lead to the full blossoming of the civil rights movement. 
Martin Luther King had asked Eisenhower repeatedly for a meeting to discuss the racial discord in the South, and the president rebuffed the moves.

About Eisenhower

Far Better than Nothing

However, in June 1958, the president agreed to a meeting with leaders of the civil rights movement at the White House. Along with King came A. Philip Randolph, our old friend who had been so effective in the Roosevelt era. 

One source explains the general atmosphere:
Although they praised Eisenhower’s actions in Little Rock, the leaders also sought ‘‘a planned and integral approach’’ to the problems of resistance to school integration, black disenfranchisement, a response by the Justice Department to the bombings and ‘‘murderous brutality directed at Negro citizens.’’ They also proposed a White House conference on race relations.
In the days after the presidential meeting, the shine soon wore off. Although Randolph said that he and other leaders were impressed by Eisenhower's concern, the president's call for "patience and forbearance" must have struck them as being out of touch and condescending.
King would continue to demand a conference on racial equality but those demands were largely ignored.  

That being said, Eisenhower signed two civil rights bills into law before leaving office. However, administration critics like King found that the legislation was weak in key areas. The best that could be said was that the new laws were "‘far better than no bill at all."

By the time, Eisenhower left office, the process of integration  as one step toward equality was slowly but surely stepping out of the armed forces and into civilian life.

It was only natural too. Regardless of race, a soldier that defends his country should expect to full equal rights that the nation has to offer everybody else. 
If not, then what is the point of protecting an unjust system?

The Cold War Contradiction

At any rate, the matter would not go away and, in the election of 1960, with Senator Kennedy opposing Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon, civil rights would emerge as a crucial issue. 
Just a few weeks before the election, Martin Luther King Jr., was arrested while leading a protest in Atlanta, Georgia. John Kennedy phoned Coretta Scott King to express his concern while a call from Robert Kennedy to the judge helped secure her husband's safe release. The Kennedys' personal intervention led to a public endorsement by Martin Luther King Sr., the influential father of the civil rights leader.
And this explains why nationwide, more than 70 percent of African Americans voted for Kennedy, and these votes provided the winning edge in several key states. Black America was successfully using every democratic tool at its disposal. 

Gone were the days in which black leaders had to be escorted into the White House by the president's wife. Initially, President Kennedy was cautious about antagonizing the South which had been in Democratic hands since Republican Lincoln had delivered the Emancipation Proclamation.
(Republicans like Nixon and later Reagan would appeal to the bitterness of the angry white Southern voters and snatch the South out of Democrat hands forever. )

Kennedy's strategy was to appoint unprecedented numbers of African Americans to high-level positions in the administration and to strengthen the Civil Rights Commission (CRC). 

In fact, the CRC was formed at the end of the previous administration. Eisenhower had said:
"In a democratic society, the systematic, critical review of social needs and public policy is a fundamental necessity. This is especially true of a field like civil rights, where the problems are enduring, and range widely [and where] ... a temporary, sporadic approach can never finally solve these problems."
Compared to Eisenhower's reticence, Kennedy spoke out in favor of school desegregation, praised a number of cities for integrating their schools, and put Vice President Lyndon Johnson in charge of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.

Kennedy Black Equality Movement

The Tide of Time and Events

In an echo of Eisenhower's confrontation with the governor of Arkansas, President Kennedy was faced with the same challenge from a defiant George Wallace, governor of Alabama in June 1963.

Wallace had refused to comply with federal court orders allowing two African-American students to register for the summer session at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
As of 1963, Alabama was the only state that had not integrated its education system. From the time of his gubernatorial campaign in 1962 until this day in 1963, Wallace had boldly proclaimed that he would personally stand in front of the door of any Alabama schoolhouse that was ordered by the federal courts to admit black students.
Alabama Gov. Wallace
Like Eisenhower, Kennedy first attempted to negotiate with the
governor but to no avail.
Wallace claimed that he was "representing the rights and sovereignty of this State and its peoples."
He considered the imposition of the decisions of the Supreme Court an "illegal and unwarranted" action of the Central Government.

In response to that, on 11 June 1963, Kennedy signed Presidential Proclamation 3542. in which the president commanded the Alabama Governor "and all other persons engaged or who may engage in unlawful obstructions of justice, assemblies, combinations, conspiracies or domestic violence in that State to cease and desist."

This was followed by Executive Order 11111 which authorized the Secretary of Defense to "take all appropriate steps to remove obstructions of justice" in Alabama and authorized him to use "such of the Armed Forces of the United States as he may deem necessary."

The obstinate and obstructive Governor Wallace, having painted himself into a corner, was now forced to step aside. 

On the evening of 11 June, the day of the confrontation, President Kennedy delivered his report to the American People on Civil Rights. In that televised speech, he said:
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.
A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.
Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality. 
The Cold War- an unintended by-product of the war on fascism- highlighted our national hypocrisy, ingrained into the fabric of our society. The most vicious atrocity of the Nazis- the attemptted extermination of the Jewish people- was based on the idea that one race was superior to all others. African Americans who fought in that war could not help but see the irony in post-war times.
In the Cold War that followed the same hypocrisy became unbearable and galling.

Was it possible for any country to call itself "a leader of free nations" and to oppose the Soviet Union on the basis of civil liberties- while at home supporting institutional unfairness based on race? This was the question Kennedy posed to the American public.
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home; but are we to say to the world, and, much more importantly, to each other, that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes?
Less than twenty-four hours earlier, the president  had addressed the graduating class of American University. His message was on the subject of world peace. 

World peace had much in common with a more local kind of peace, harmony within the  community. It doesn't, said Kennedy, require that each man love his neighbor. requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever.
Great changes happen, much to the surprise of doubters and the dismay of the opposition and obstructors.
However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors.
JFKHe called for a realistic approach and to re-examine stereotypes about our Cold War enemies.
So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.
Peace could never be won by military might alone, just as police suppression could never defeat the aspirations for freedom. Kennedy told the crowd that if we want peace- real peace- then we must revise our own attitudes too.
..Wherever we are, we must all, in our daily lives, live up to the age-old faith that peace and freedom walk together. In too many of our cities today, the peace is not secure because the freedom is incomplete.

It is the responsibility of the executive branch at all levels of government--local, State, and National--to provide and protect that freedom for all of our citizens by all means within their authority. It is the responsibility of the legislative branch at all levels, wherever that authority is not now adequate, to make it adequate. And it is the responsibility of all citizens in all sections of this country to respect the rights of all others and to respect the law of the land.
Randolph LIFE

The Long Awaited March

Two months later, on August 28, 1963, Asa  Randolph, then 74, became the head of the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in which between 200,000–300,000 demonstrators converged on the nation's capital in a non-violent expression of solidarity for the cause of social equality.

The march on Washington, threatened in the Roosevelt era, was now coming to pass some twenty years last. But, strangely enough, not as a threat, but more as a marker of success and the sign that "the promised land" was still some distance on the horizon. 

One of the leaders of the march told LIFE magazine:
"Our aim is to get each marcher to understand fully the significance of why he is there. We are asking each person to be a marshal of himself, since anybody who turns to violence will be a traitor to the cause."
It was then and there that Reverend King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech.
To those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.
Echoing Kennedy's speech on world peace, King emphasized the common link between peace and freedom.
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
The rally- long promised by Randolph since the days of Roosevelt- is today remembered as the high-point of the Civil Rights Movement. 
Then things began moving at a dizzying pace. With a few months came the assassination of the president. It is no surprise that in the hours after the Dallas shooting, average citizen opined that the assassination was in response to Kennedy's civil rights position.

The newly-sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson seized the moment politically and pressed hard for legislative reforms: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 -which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.and in the Voting Rights Act of 1965- which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

This time of triumphs and tragedies continued when in 1968, Rev. King was murdered in Memphis and months later, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy met the same fate.   
This was a series of devastating blows to the whole nation. It seemed at the time- and I remember it too- that the entire fabric of the nation was unraveling. Especially for conservatives, it was a time of abject panic and fragmentation.

However, it soon became clear that if the intention of these murders was to thwart the Civil Rights movement and to erase the ideals of good men and women, then it was an exercise in futility.
Once the march had begun, nobody was willing to turn back.

Marshall's Warning

A year before King's assassination, on Sept. 1, 1967, Thurgood Marshall had become the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court.
The grandson of a slave.

Think of the sprint of progress: From the Roosevelt's 1941 executive order, simply allowing African Americans the right to contribute to the war effort without discrimination to a place on the highest court of the land.
In one generation.

At no time, in human history had any group of people come so far so quickly.  The same mustering of courage in combat had become the starting point for lasting progress for equality in a time of peace.

In 1944, Chief Counsel for the NAACP, Marshall was involved in the prosecution of a murder case in North Carolina. Private Booker Thomas Spicely, stationed at Camp Butner, was shot by a bus driver because he refused to sit at the back of the bus.
Spicely was apparently unaware of the segregationist laws in North Carolina and argued with the driver, Herman Lee Council, who then shot him twice. 
Driver Council was tried for the second-degree murder of Spicely; he was acquitted by the all-white jury on the grounds of self-defense. 
According to one statement, one of the white soldiers mentioned that Spicely  had angrily said 
"I thought I was fighting this war for democracy."
That one phrase says it all and explains the inevitability of the civil rights movement following WWII. 
*   *   *
All in all, it was an amazing chain of events and that it should have happened at all gives credit to our nation in a way far more noble or inspiring than any victory on the battlefield.

Despite the astounding speed of this advancement, Marshall offered this word of  caution
“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”
It's a warning that we must keep in mind even as we say farewell to America's first black president.

The march is not at all over.