The Cold War on Whites
The two administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower would be qualitatively less sympathetic to civil rights than was Truman’s.
Nevertheless, the logic of Cold War civil rights had already taken hold of the government, propelling it ever closer toward the racial chaos we know today.
Though no racist, Eisenhower wasn’t keen on civil rights. Under his administration, blacks lost the easy access to the White House that they had acquired under Truman; only once, late in his presidency did he ever meet with civil rights leaders. Moreover, as a former soldier who had spent a good part of his career in the South, he had developed a real sympathy for Southern life (as “open-minded” Yankees do).
If civil rights were to be introduced (and he felt that some symbolic changes ought, perhaps, to be made for the sake of “national security”), he was convinced that it should be done slowly and moderately.
A few weeks before the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, which put the Constitution on the side of desegregation, he is reputed to have told Earl Warren that “segregationists are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside big overgrown Negroes.”
His was a generational attitude that was less and less shared by New Class elites. Thus, even though introduced by the Truman administration, the Republican National Committee was quick to take credit for Brown, portraying it as “the Eisenhower administration’s many-frontal attack on global Communism” — however unenthusiastic Eisenhower may have actually been.
Brown, indeed, provided the US government with a powerful counter to Soviet propaganda. The USIF went into overdrive to publicize it throughout the world, where it got largely favorable reviews.
Brown’s radical judicial assault on American race relations would, in fact, signal the beginning of the end for Jim Crow.
Buoyed up on the court’s decision, as well as the escalating struggle for decolonization in Africa and the Third World, the NAACP at this point sensed that the tide had at last turned in its favor.
In December 1955 it waged a year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which would mark the advent of mass civil rights organizing. M.L. King described the boycott as part of a global process in which “the oppressed peoples of the world” had risen up against colonialism, imperialism, and racism.
This new stage in the civil movement can hardly be understood without the backdrop of the Cold War and the type of world it was creating.
Many, though, wanted no part of this world.
Unlike their counterparts today, Southern whites refused to passively accept this assault on their traditional way of life.
This was especially evident in September 1957 at Little Rock’s Central High School, where the first major challenge to Brown was made, as thousands of belligerent whites, supported by their governor, Orval Faubus, and the state National Guard, prepared to resist the court-mandated admission of nine Negroes to their all-white institution.
Not merely the Jewish controlled media in the United States, but the media worldwide carried vivid images of jeering white crowds threatening the nine neatly dressed and apparently well-mannered black teens, who, in braving the “mobs,” sought, simply, “to sit in the same classroom with white boys and girls.”
The Soviets, who would humiliate the US during the crisis by putting the first man-made satellite into orbit, offered the world numerous commentaries on this “racist” form of “American barbarism” — commentaries that were reprinted and circulated throughout the Third World.
At the same time, US embassies abroad deluged Washington with information on Little Rock’s unfavorable international impact and John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, warned that both the UN and the nonaligned Third World was watching to see if the US was really committed to civil rights.
With the impending threat of violence in the streets and the plummeting of US prestige aboard, Eisenhower finally acted, sending in the 101st Airborne Division in order to stop, among other things, “the disservice . . . that has been done to the nation in the eyes of the world” — as “our enemies . . . gloat over the incident and use it everywhere to misrepresent our nation.”
As the first president since Reconstruction to mobilize the army in defense of black civil rights, Eisenhower had not wanted to intervene, but the breakdown of law and the continuing Soviet propaganda binge about US “racial terror” had forced his hand.
He acted, revealingly, more to uphold federal authority and repair the country’s international image than he did to promote racial equality. In a national televised address, he said “it would be difficult to exaggerate the harm that is being done to the prestige and influence, and indeed to the safety, of our nation and the world.” In a word, Little Rock’s resistance to desegregation was a threat to national security.
At this point, the Cold War logic of civil rights became nearly irreversible.
The ensuing Kennedy and Johnson administrations would finalize Jim Crow’s demise.
Unlike the Democratic presidents preceding and succeeding him, John F. Kennedy entered the White House without strong feelings about civil rights.
The only Negro he had actually ever encountered up to then was his valet.
While in the Senate, he did, admittedly, take up the cause of African independence, but this was mainly a gentrified gesture of his Irish heritage rather than any genuine commitment to Negro nationalism.
Kennedy’s defining identity as a politician (if an American politician can be said to have an identity unrelated to electoral considerations) was anti-Communism (this wretched liberal ideology dear to both the American right and left, as well as to not a few WN), which he had inherited from the great Joseph McCarthy. Indeed, his fierce anti-Communism made his administration the most dangerous in the history of the Cold War.
Like other Democrats of the period, he paid formal lip service to a moderate version of civil rights, though he had a poor record of support for it in the Senate. His main concern was that both segregationists and desegregationalists seemed almost indifferent to the issue of Communism.
For the first two and a half years of his administration he accordingly refused to offer any real leadership on the issue of civil rights.
The accelerating conflict in the South, however, would not long allow this inaction.
There was something ironic in this.
Kennedy’s election had signalled not only a generational turn in American politics, it was widely felt as if it had ushered in a new spirit in American life. His “youth and charisma,” combined with the fact that he was the first Catholic to hold the office, seemed to herald the advent of a new era. Though the “Sixties,” as a distinct political-cultural period, did not actually begin until about 1964 or 1965, his election was its prelude.
This was especially evident in the gathering momentum of the civil rights movement, which was beginning to move out of the courts and into the streets.
In Eisenhower’s last year in office, civil rights organizations had staged sit-ins, with great fanfare, at segregated lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, inaugurating the age of mass civil disobedience. By August 1961, over 70,000 people are estimated to have participated in these sit-ins, which were expanded to include various other segregated public facilities.
Then in May 1961, “Freedom Riders” started challenging discrimination in interstate transit, which the courts had earlier rule to be unconstitutional. Given the violence, demonstrations, and TV coverage that accompanied the Freedom Riders, they proved to be a distinct embarrassment to the new administration.
Kennedy, who was planning to meet Khrushchev in Vienna, also feared they were making him look weak and vulnerable in the international media. He condemned the Freedom Riders as “unpatriotic,” tarnishing the nation’s image at the very moment when he was about to make an entrance on the world stage.
His problems with the burgeoning civil rights movement were, however, just beginning.
In September 1962 he faced another major racial crisis, this time at the University of Mississippi, where large crowds of angry whites sought to prevent the court-ordered admission of the Negro James Meredith.
With the campus beset with riots, violence, death, and gun fire, Kennedy, like Eisenhower before him, was forced to intervene. He sent in several hundred federal marshals and then federalized the Mississippi National Guard — ultimately, to stop the TV images and the unfavorable international coverage.
Then, in May 1963, the impact of race on US international politics came to a head in Birmingham, Alabama, where Bull Connor (who would inspire Hollywood’s image of the pudgy, brutal Southern sheriff) turned high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs on a thousand black civil rights’ marchers.
The vivid images of “peaceful blacks” being assaulted by “Nazi-like” police made for spectacular television. The Soviets had a field day and global opinion turned hostile.
A few weeks later, George Wallace — whose earlier campaign slogan was “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” — also defied the federal government, preventing the integration of the University of Alabama, creating, in the process, another worldwide TV spectacle.
Kennedy again sent in federal marshals, but at this point he decided that something needed to be done to get these embarrassing protests out of the streets and back into the courts, where they could be controlled. The result was his decision in June 1963 to submit a comprehensive civil rights bill to Congress that would outlaw all public forms of segregation.
Passed after his assassination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would mark the impending demise of Jim Crow.
Reason and Knowledge only thou despise,
The highest strength in man that lies!
~ Goethe ~