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Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson played crucial roles in the Civil Rights movements in the USA. The African Americans and other minority groups in the US faced discrimination. For instance they were not allowed to vote.
They were denied freedom to mix and mingle with Native Americans in both public and social gatherings. To handle these challenges needed resolute leadership. Eisenhower’s presidency saw the introduction of the Civil Rights Act in 1957. Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, equally grappled with this issue early enough.
The social historians have managed to cogently present the politics that surrounded the civil rights movement. They particularly focused on retelling the predicament of the underclass and their strategies of progress over time.1
Ezra has adequately managed to present the struggle through which the African Americans went through to gain civil liberties and recognition in the American society.He further avers that although civil rights movement has been greatly highlighted, it just marked a lower position of the road to freedom (Ezra 5).
Actually, the African Americans started their struggle for freedom many years. The struggle could be traced all the way to the Atlantic Slave trade. He has successfully illustrated what the slaves did to express their resistance to slave trade. For instance, he says that the slaves never wanted to abandon their heritage (Ezra 38). They married fellow slaves and went ahead and had families.
They have resisted through a myriad of ways such as feigning illness, spoiling the tools meant to be used for working and to some extent would even capture and murder their captors. It is against this backdrop that 1954 to 1968 came to be greatly associated with civil rights movement. It was a momentous era in the African Americans’ struggle for freedom as it led to substantial gains in the fight for equal rights.
The era was one characterized by heightened activism. Secondly, the era gained the support of non blacks. The whites also sympathised with the cause of the struggle. The movement also managed to gain the support of the aims of government, the executive, legislature, and even the judiciary (Ezra 6). The executive particularly did so through issuing of speeches of civil rights movement.
Fourthly, the civil rights movement managed to receive international attention and support. Finally, the media was not left behind. It played a pivotal role in projecting the civil rights movement as one was putting the American moral conscience to question.
Lyndon Johnson’s participation in the Civil Rights movement had started earlier, though covertly. His experience of teaching in a segregated school made him develop a deep conviction that segregation was morally wrong. He always thought of once transforming America into a great society, and when he thought of segregation, he felt that America was not pursuing that direction of greatness.
He had worked with the segregated minority groups since 1928. As an elementary school teacher in a segregated Mexican American only school, Johnson saw how the small community was wallowing in abject poverty and illiteracy. They also lived in squalid conditions. By this he felt that the situation could only be remedied through provision of education.
Eisenhower and Civil Rights Movement
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) approached the Civil Rights movement with measured caution (Jacoway 65). His support for the Civil Rights movement was measured so as he could not seem to antagonize his voting base. Eisenhower’s contribution towards civil rights movement has been mired with controversy. Many analysts felt that he stood on both sides of the fence.
All in all, his action or inaction had crucial contribution to the civil rights movement in the US. Many analysts have seen that Eisenhower tried all ways possible to avoid issues that had to do with race conflict. But this could not go on for long as he got spurred into action in the Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.2 The Supreme Court had ruled that segregation that occurred in the public schools was unconstitutional.
It is believed that this Supreme Court ruling did not go down well with Eisenhower (Jacoway 70). Consequently, he declined to sanction its endorsement. Most opponents of desegregation got their agitation bolstered by this silence from the highest office.
As such, most whites from the south formed councils whose sole purpose was to hinder or sabotage any compliance to the court’s ruling through various ways including violence and intimidation. Other groups resorted to political action to discourage compliance.
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Though Eisenhower had not been publicly associated with the Civil Rights Movement, the Little Rock incident made him respond. Initially, his belief was that no one should force the other person to change beliefs and convictions through legislation.
He thought that such change could only be occasioned through their heart. In other words, he did not want to support legislation for Civil Rights but the event at Little Rock school formed a turning point on the whole view.
Eisenhower, though opposed to the ruling of the court, was duty bound by the constitution to respect it. So, when white mobs prevented some black students from joining Little Rock High school, Eisenhower had to dispatch the army to guard and make sure the black students were protected the whole year (Jacoway 44). Even Governor Faubus reluctantly agreed to let the African American students enrol in the school.
The troops stayed at the school for the whole year and in 1958 Central High School in Little Rock produced the first African American graduate. In this situation it can be seen that Eisenhower contributed towards the initial implementation of desegregation in the American public schools.
This he did but not without constant interruption. For example, we are told that in 1958 Governor Faubus, in a bid to sabotage desegregation, went ahead and closed all public schools. This was solely aimed at stopping the integration program that was already underway.
Another area in which Eisenhower contributed greatly towards civil Rights Movement was legislation. For instance, it is recorded that he was the one who first signed civil rights legislation. The law required that the federal government protects all voting rights of individuals regardless of colour, creed etc.3
The situation was particularly worse in the Southern states: African Americans had completely been disenfranchised – their voting rights had been denied despite the constitution having stated otherwise. The states managed to prevent them through roadblocks such as subjecting them to literacy tests and even poll taxes licence for letting them vote.
But it should not also be forgotten that the jury of the matter was that the jury was predominantly white hence there was no hope of a fair verdict. Eisenhower did not tire in signing legislation.
For example, in 1960, he further went ahead and signed his second Civil Rights law that was a further advancement over the previous one (Jacoway 86). In other cases, the president invoked executive authority to further champion civil rights as envisaged in the constitution.
In a nutshell, Eisenhower valued moderation as he went about the civil rights issue. For example, he urged both sides to go slow. He urged those who wanted the rights to be implemented to go slow as well as those who were opposed to desegregation. To him the both sides were exhibited extremist tendencies in their approach, something he seemed to abhor.
Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights Movement
Johnson’s soft spot for civil rights movement is well documented. He started implementing his aspirations at the formative stage before he even became president.
He recognised the effect of racism even while serving as President John Kennedy’s Vice President (Kirk 101). He appreciated that the blacks had played a crucial role in World War II; hence the need for the state to treat them well otherwise he thought that could result in a bloody revolution.
After assuming the US Presidency, in 1963 after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson set out his vision of transforming America into a “Great Society”. He felt that this could only be achieved through eradication of poverty and racial discrimination. During this tenure the Civil Rights Bill was passed into law.
Some southerners were not amused with Johnson’s interest in Civil Rights by seeing to it that the Bill was passed in its entirety without any form of dilution (Kirk 97). He devoted all his energy and resources to achieve this end. However, Johnson seemed to receive a backlash from the whites and even the blacks, who thought the Bill was not comprehensive enough.
To further ensure the right to decent living and education, Johnson felt that his Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 was a solution towards helping the poor out of the squalid conditions in the ghettos.
True to his wishes, very poor states like Mississippi received uplifting federal funding that led to a large number of African Americans accessing higher education. The African American students quadrupled within a very short time.
Though Johnson feared opposition from Congress, he further pushed the voting Rights Act of 1965. The political face of the South changed dramatically as it became integrated.
Johnson succeeded in his legislative journey because of his persuasive nature and strong desire and determination to right all the wrongs that had bedevilled the minority in the country. The voting Rights Act actually helped the African Americans and other minority groups in the US to vote freely without any hindrance.
Furthermore, the Acts made the African Americans gain economic and political power (Kirk 77). Despite all the work that Johnson had done, there were riots in Watts, Los Angeles. These riots had been occasioned by some element of de-facto discrimination that continued to thrive. This type of discrimination was one that was not easy to legislate against. The Africans further rioted till 1966. Riots occurred in more than 38 cities in America.
All in all, Johnson can be said to have played a very important role in the civil rights movement. This could be seen in his success in putting a stop to de jure kind of discrimination. Now African Americans could vote freely and even get voted for during elections.
In the field of education his Education Acts acted as catalysts for disaggregation in schools and other educational institutions. Even in his other Acts, Johnson managed to greatly improve the economic stature of the Africans as even their unemployment rates reduced by over 34%.
The historians have successfully managed to analyze the civil rights movement. From their expose, they have managed to show or reveal how presidents Eisenhower and Johnson were faced with the dilemma to pursue civil rights while at the same time deeply worried about losing votes from opposing sides. All in all, they finally managed to promote civil rights.
- See U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Report, Justice (1961).
- Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
- See William L. Taylor, The Passion of My Times: An Advocate’s Fifty-Year
- Journey in the Civil Rights Movement (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004), p. xv.
Ezra, Michael. Civil Rights Movement: People and Perspectives. California: ABC-CLIO, 2009. Print.
Jacoway, Elizabeth. Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis that Shocked the Nation. New York: Free Press, 2007. Print.
Kirk, John. Beyond Little Rock: the Origins and Legacies of the Central High Crisis. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007. Print.