Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"Ike Liked Civil Rights"

Popular history puts labels on presidents, but life is usually more complicated.

Fifty years ago, Congress took its first small steps since the abolition of slavery to free African-Americans from segregated lives in the South by giving the Federal government powers to enforce voting rights and move against segregated schools.

American mythology credits Lyndon Johnson, then majority leader of the Senate, for passing the first civil rights law in 82 years over the opposition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans.

But last week in a New York Times OpEd titled “Ike Liked Civil Rights,” David A. Nichols showed that it was Dwight Eisenhower, regarded as a play-it-safe president, who fought for and pushed through the bill. LBJ did not take the lead until he was in the White House seven years later.

In today’s Times, I add a footnote to give Eisenhower his due:

“In 1964, during the struggle to pass Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights bill, Eisenhower told me about a visit from Barry Goldwater, who would be the Republican candidate for president that year.

“’He came to tell me,’ Ike said, ‘he was going to vote against the civil rights bill as a matter of conscience. I said I wouldn’t ask any man to go against his conscience, but that if I were a senator I’d vote for it. Even an imperfect bill would help balance 80 years of oppression. But what I couldn’t understand was his attempt to keep the bill from coming to a vote. If I were to comment, I’d crucify him for that.’

“As a former president who did not want to roil his party, Eisenhower never spoke out, but his passion for racial justice was clear.”

Presidents were less predictable back then.

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