1954 May 19

President Eisenhower Fails to Give Strong Endorsement of Historic “Brown v. Board of Education” Decision

 

At his first press conference following the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (May 17, 1954), declaring racially “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional, President Dwight D. Eisenhower failed to give a strong endorsement of the decision, school integration, or the principle of racial equality. In response to a direct question about the decision, he said only that “The Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country; and I will obey.” He made no statement endorsing the principle of racial equality (and private communications, available at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, clearly indicate that he did not believe it in.

In the Eisenhower administration, the leading advocate of a strong position on civil rights was Attorney General Herbert Brownell, who had to use subtle trickery to get Ike to approve an administration brief in the rehearing of Brown. For more on Brownell, see January 21, 1953. Appealing to Eisenhower’s military career, Brownell told him that since the Chief Justice had asked for one, he had a duty to file a brief.

Following Brown, civil rights leaders and others criticized Eisenhower for his failure to take a strong public stand on the burning issue of race discrimination. Among other things, he entertained the view of people opposed to the civil rights movement, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who warned Eisenhower about Communist influences on the civil rights movement on October 24, 1956), and the Rev. Billy Graham, a southerner who was just then emerging as the unofficial “minister” to presidents, who on March 27, 1956 advised Eisenhower to “stay out” of civil rights.

Learn more about President Eisenhower and civil rights and civil liberties: Samuel Walker, Presidents and Civil Liberties From Wilson to Obama (2012)

Read Brownell’s candid account of Eisenhower and civil rights: Herbert Brownell, Advising Ike (1993)

Read original documents on civil rights from the Eisenhower Presidential Library: http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/civil_rights_brown_v_boe.html

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