Dwight D. Eisenhower & Civil Rights

Instructor: Logan Thomas

Logan has taught college courses and has a master's degree in history.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower held the highest office in the country during crucial years of the African American struggle for equality. In this lesson, we will learn of Eisenhower's policies during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.

President During Times of Change

Already incredibly popular because of his leadership during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower assumed the presidency in 1953 during times of monumental change in the United States and the world. It was the early years of a Cold War with the Soviet Union and a nuclear age where both sides held the capability to destroy the world.

Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower

On the home front, Eisenhower faced a changing nation as forces struggling for equality emerged into the national and, later, world spotlight. How could America claim to be the land of liberty and freedom when African Americans battled against segregation and racism? It was a question Eisenhower would be forced to face during his time in office.

Background

Americans of all races and backgrounds helped to win the titanic battle over the Axis forces during World War II. Required to serve in segregated groups in the military, African Americans began subscribing to what newspapers called the 'Double V' campaign, meaning fighting for victory over fascist enemies abroad and fighting for victory over white supremacy at home.

President Harry Truman took office after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 and agreed all Americans should enjoy civil rights. But when the conflict ended, and African Americans returned home with the goal of living better lives, they faced renewed racism and violence.

Harry Truman
Truman

Truman embarked on a quest for Civil Rights, enacting wide-ranging legislation to guarantee equal opportunity, secure voting rights, and end racial violence in the United States. He also ended segregation in the military, integrating military forces for the first time in 1948.

By the time Republican Eisenhower took office in 1953, the African American struggle for civil rights had gained national attention.

The Beginning of Segregation's End

In 1896, a Supreme Court case called Plessy vs. Ferguson declared segregation legal as long as facilities were separate but equal. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) fought for years to overturn this law.

The victory came in 1954 when the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision declared separate educational facilities unconstitutional and later ordered school desegregation. Unfortunately, the decision provided no deadline for integration and Eisenhower did not come forth to state the law would be enforced on a federal level.

The Struggle for Equality Gains Momentum

Eisenhower believed racial segregation was wrong, but he thought the situation should be handled at the local level. The reason for his decision was at least partially political, as he thought an aggressive stance on desegregation would risk the support of southern Republicans.

In 1955, the Civil Rights movement would earn another significant victory. When police in Montgomery, Alabama arrested Rosa Parks for refusing to give her seat to a white man on a public bus, it sparked a citywide boycott of the local bus system.

Rosa Parks, right, was arrested for boycotting public transportation
Rosa Parks

The Supreme Court called the segregation of Montgomery buses unconstitutional a little more than a year later, signaling another great victory in the Civil Rights struggle. Even though the Civil Rights movement was gaining support, Eisenhower remained relatively quiet on the issue.

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