Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected Republican president of the United States of America in 1953. His presidency (1952-1961) saw changes taking place all over the world, a growing nuclear arms race, the height of communist fears in America, the beginning of the great space race and in 1961 Eisenhower became the first U.S. President to be forced out of office. At the same time in America the Black Civil Rights movement many would argue was digging its feet into the ground. Many historians would argue that the Eisenhower years saw a significant improvement for African- Americans. Harvard Sitkoff said that the 1950’s were the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, insinuating that the 1950’s were a significant period for the African-American civil rights movement. On the other hand other historians would argue that the Civil Rights Movement had already begun before Eisenhower’s presidency began and that during his terms progress was actually limited.
Despite the ongoing debate there is good evidence that there was improvement for the African Americans. Improvement in the political and legal system can be seen throughout the Eisenhower years. Firstly the Brown ruling of 1956 saw Oliver Brown supported by the NAACP appeal to the Supreme Court over the issue of his daughter who was being forced to go to a “blacks only” school 20 blocks away instead of the local “whites only” school just 5 blocks away.
The appeal was a success; the Supreme Court ruled that it was against the 14th amendment to segregate people and therefore schools should be integrated. This was a landmark ruling, it was the first time the Supreme Court had ruled in favour of African Americans and it paved the way for further rulings. An end to segregation in schools could lead to greater economic, social and indeed political influence. With the prospect of an easier education, being able to go to your nearest school, would lead to a better education of African Americans and better education leads to greater job prospects, more money and thus greater economic power. Greater social influence would come from a generation of black and white children growing up together; each would become more accepting of the other which would work some way to ending the troubles. And finally greater political influence in that this was a landmark ruling, and gave hope to other African Americans to follow suit with their own campaigns.
Furthermore the Little rock crisis of 1957 was of a direct result of the Brown ruling. The city of Little Rock was due to comply with Brown in a slow process completing in 1963. However when 9 black students were prevented by troops ordered by the Governor Faubus the NAACP became once again involved and Eisenhower was forced to send in his own troops in order to protect the black students. This was the first time the government had directly gotten involved with integration and therefore can be seen as a major political advance, despite that Eisenhower still refused to endorse Brown he did feel the need to get involved which in itself means that African Americans were being recognised by the government.
A further example of where segregation was ended during Eisenhower’s presidency was after the Montgomery bus boycotts. Rosa Parks is one of the most famous names of the Black Civil Rights movement after she refused to give up her seat in a white’s only area of a bus and was consequently arrested. The black community immediately mobilised themselves, the NAACP became involved and soon a boycott was proposed. This boycott was a massive success in terms of uniting the black community, it seriously hit the pockets of the bus companies and the shops to which the busses travelled that were receiving no African American customers as a result of the boycott; in total $1 million was lost. As a result they were forced to end segregation on busses. This was another landmark ruling by the Supreme Court and black people were now free to use the buses. This ruling really highlighted the economic strength of the black community; together they could change their situation by taking away their economic influence from businesses.
The death of Emmett Till in 1955, although a blatant example of social violence, did in fact improve the social situation for African Americans. When Till was brutally murdered for flirting with a white girl pictures of his disfigured dead face were published all over America after his mother insisted in having an open casket at his funeral because she wanted everyone to see “what they did to my boy.” The publicity around his death highlighted the still brutal treatment of blacks in the south to the people in the north.
Many historians on the other hand have argued that there was limited improvement for African Americans in the Eisenhower years. Historian Robert Cook said that the Black Civil Rights movement had already started before the 1950’s and that in fact it was slowed and limited during the Eisenhower years. Despite the obvious political and potential economic advances many of these were in fact limited by the social situation.
The Brown ruling of 1956 was a landmark verdict, however what it actually achieved was little and very slow in progress. A year after the ruling, in 1957, only 12% of the 6300 schools in the area became integrated, and the ruling faced a lot of opposition in the south. In Virginia there was a massive resistance campaign from 1956 to 1959 which saw whites only school close rather than become integrated and in Texas the governor and Eisenhower’s political ally used state troopers to prevent school integration. These are all examples where the social improvements, i.e. people’s opinions of black people, showed limited improvement. There were some areas that accepted the integration but there were also those that quite frankly refused to comply.
A further example of this, segregation not being ended in schools is the case of Autherine Lucy. She applied to attend the university of Alabama in 1955 and was accepted but when the university found out her ethnic background they began to stop her completing the application, the locals rioted and it was only when the NAACP got involved and the Supreme Court finally ruled in her favour that she eventually got her degree in 1992. Although she eventually got her degree it was times that changed that really won her her case.
A further area where there was improvement but limited was Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Acts in 1957 and 1960. In order to win the black vote in the 1956 election his administration drew up a Civil Rights bill aimed at ensuring that all citizens could exercise the right to vote. Currently only 7000 of Mississippi’s 900,000 blacks were allowed to vote and despite the bill after it were passed by 1960 black votes only increased by 3%. Eisenhower’s civil rights act showed that for whatever reason the government was willing to stand up and improve the situation for African Americans. However in practise the new acts were unsuccessful, they barely improved the number of blacks that could vote and did nothing to combat the blatant racism that was still continuing.
Despite the obvious successes and the areas where there was moderate but limited success there were also areas where there was no improvement.
The case of Emmett Till as spoken about earlier, while highlighted the ongoing violence towards African Americans in the south, can also be used as evidence of where there was no improvement. Violence towards black people was still a major issue and especially in the Deep South. “In the South the Ku Klux Klan continued to use violence to attack blacks who challenged segregation”- Brendan January. In 1954 three young civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Henry were found in Mississippi dead, buried in a dam. Federal investigations concluded it was the work of the KKK. Although incidents were becoming less and white people were becoming sympathetic to the Black Civil Rights movement many people in the south still held the opinion of “separate but equal.” White citizen’s councils were set up working to “defend our way of like” and keep segregation.
It is easy to say either way, that there were significant improvements in Eisenhower’s years or that there weren’t, there is good evidence to support both. However overall I would argue that the improvements or non improvements were split. In terms of political success the improvements were vast. They might have been slow in practise but the fact that politicians and the Supreme Court were willing to rule in favour of African Americans suggests two things, the first that the courts were becoming fairer, and the amendments passed in previous years were beginning to count for something and second, that politicians were beginning to realise the blacks political power. Economically the progress was a little slower again in practise but in terms of the African Americans realising their economic power improvements were again vast.
They learnt that united they were a force that could economically persuade a situation. Finally in terms of their social situation there were improvements in the sense that their cause was becoming more and more well known and supported, more people were becoming sympathetic. However violence was still at a height in the south. I think the Eisenhower years did see some improvement for the African Americans, they saw the emergence of some Civil Rights leaders that would go on to inspire thousands but they also highlighted the continuing problems with white public opinion of blacks. Improvement was gained but it was limited.