Us presidents & Civil Rights

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US Presidents & Civil Rights


Positive contribution

Negative contribution

Harry S Truman


Presidential actions: ‘To Secure These Rights’ (1947) – recommended tougher legislation on lynching, attacked polic brutality, improved voting rights, ending discrimination in military, fairer employment practices, better health facilities for blacks, recommended FEPC (estd. By Roosevelt in 1941) be made permanent
Speeches: 1947, Washington gave a speech to 10,000 members of NAACP advocating full civil rights, end to lynching, poll tax and inequality in public life; State of the Union speeches (’47 & ’48) pointed out hypocrisy of declaration of independence, ‘all men are created equal’; during Cold War era it thought it important to demonstrate US was entirely free & democratic compared with tyranny of Communism
Appointments: appointment of African Americans, e.g. Ralph Bunche, American Ambassador to UN & William Hastie, 1st black federal judge
Use of presidential powers: signed Executive Order 9980 guaranteeing fair employment practices in civil service; estd. Committee on Government Contract Compliance (CGCC) to ensure govt. contracts didn’t go to companies discriminating against blacks; prevented Federal Housing Administration lending money to building projects which resulted in segregated housing; ‘Fair Deal’ programme committed govt to build houses in deprived urban areas
Desegregation: desegregated the US army; his presidential inauguration took place in front of black and white audience for first time; desegregated Dulles airport restaurant
1948 presidential election: Truman campaigned & won against anti-desegregation candidate for breakaway Democrats (Dixiecrats), Strom Thurmond

Symbolic: his desire to promote civil rights was arguably driven by a desire to secure black votes for the Democrats and public perception of USA during Cold War. He was also worried by threats from campaigners, e.g. A Philip Randolph not to fight for US army during Cold War
Personality: Early years he was a member of KKK; Context of where he grew up: Independence, Missouri (border state); segregation e.g. blacks had separate schools, words such as ‘coon’ & ‘nigger’ commonly used; Bess Truman attended a ball given by Daughters of the American Revolution, even though Clayton Powell’s wife had been denied permission to perform because of her colour, Harry Truman described Clayton Powell as a ‘rabble rouser’ and refused to receive ‘that damned nigger preacher’ in the White House

Family life: ancestors were slave owners, uncle shot at blacks ‘to see them jump’, Truman said one man was as good as another ‘so long as he is decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman’; used racist language about Jews and Italians living in NY; sister claimed Truman had said: ‘Harry is no more for nigger equality than any of us’
Failed to won support of congress: e.g. for recommendations of ‘To Secure These Rights’ or minor programmes e.g. complete desegregation of Dulles Airport
Government bodies: FEPC under-funded; CGCC couldn’t force defence companies to adopt fair employment practices; ‘Fair Deal’ housing programme poorly conceived – fewer houses built than anticipated & amount of housing available to African Americans diminished as a result

Dwight D. Eisenhower


Speeches: 1st State of the Union address, he called for end to racial discrimination & reaffirmed Truman’s commitment to desegregation of the military and within federal government; expressed shock that only 7000 Mississippi blacks were registered to vote
Legislation: Civil Rights Act (1957), designed to improve voting rights by setting up a new Commission on Civil Rights to monitor voting rights; Civil Rights Act (1960) narrowly extended previous powers of Commission on Civil Rights, requiring local authorities to keep records of voter registration
Appointments: liberal Southern Republican, Earl Warren appointed to Supreme Court, who ruled favourably on the Brown v Board of Education case (1954 & 5)

Personality: All-white upbringing & fought in a segregated army (1948 expressed his belief the army shouldn’t be fully desegregated); shared popular suspicion of miscegenation, e.g. didn’t support the idea ‘a Negro could court my daughter’; feared ‘emotional strains’ caused by educational integration
Party politics: Republican – opposed to too much federal intervention; Republican Party had benefited from the damage caused by Democratic adoption of civil rights
Presidential actions: Only met civil rights leaders once (MLK, Wilkins & Randolph); avoided talking to Congressman Adam Clayton-Powell; felt that black activists over-emphasised the problems facing the black community; speechwriter said Eisenhower was ‘neither emotionally nor intellectually in favour of combating segregation’; failed to intervene in Emmett Till or Autherine Lucy cases (1955) or give federal support for Montgomery Bus Boycott (1956); Little Rock (1957), reluctant to become involved and only did so when failed to negotiate a settlement with Governor Faubus & local official begged the president to intervene as the Constitution and local law enforcement were being challenged, in addition Eisenhower was concerned about USA’s international image during Cold War
Appointments: Only made one black appointment to his staff – E. Frederick Morrow (car park attendant); his President’s Committee on Government Contracts lacked teeth

Legislation: Civil Rights Act (1957), penalties for blocking black voter registration were minimal and Strom Thurmond filibustered the bill leading to a much watered-down version; Civil Rights Act (1960) narrowly extended previous powers of Commission on Civil Rights; by 1960 voter registration increased only by 3%

J. F. Kennedy


Speeches: during his election campaign said he was ‘sympathetic’ to civil rights; phoned Coretta King when MLK gaoled during 1960 sit-in protests
Appointments: Kennedy put pressure on his administration to employ more black Americans, e.g. he was shocked to discover that only 48 blacks were employed among 13,649 FBI employees; Appointed 40 blacks to top posts; appointed 5 black federal judges (incl. Thurgood Marshall); Bobby Kennedy appointed Attorney General who brought 57 suits against illegal violations of black voting rights (compared to 6 under Eisenhower)

Hastened desegregation in schools ion New Orleans, Atlanta and Memphis

Presidential actions: Used federal pressure to get Washington Redskins (last baseball team not to employ black players) to sign up 3 black team members; Bobby Kennedy asked National Guard and state troopers to intervene to protect Freedom Riders; Bobby Kennedy sent 500 marshals to help James Meredith enrol at Uni of Mississippi; following clashes JFK sent US Army regulars to re-enforce the marshals; Meredith enrolled and other black students followed

Alabama was last state where universities de-segregrated; Kennedy used federal troops and law enforcers

Presidential actions: created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (CEEO) designed to ensure equal employment opportunities for federal employees

Presidential actions; often symbolic and lacking in real action, e.g. his famous phrase he would eliminate social deprivation in housing a the stroke of a pen and when that didn’t happen campaigners had to send pens to the Whitehouse to remind him; Kennedy opposed President Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act on political grounds (Eisenhower was a Republican and Kennedy a Democrat)

waited until March on Washington (1963) to throw his weight behind civil rights

Appointments: 20% of his Deep South judicial appointments were segregationalists
Party politics: worried about losing support of white Democrat voters and felt the activities of groups like SNCC were extremely provocative; Opposed March on Washington – fearful of antagonising Congress and jeopardizing his Civil Rights Bill

Legislation: 1962 Literacy Bill enabling blacks with sixth-grade education to vote failed due to filibustering

Civil Rights Bill was watered down to make it more acceptable to Congress and arguably only got passed due to sympathy over JFK’s assassination

L.B. Johnson


Presidential actions: often publicly demonstrated his commitment to ending racism in USA, e.g. comment on being prepared to lose 1964 presidential election campaign for the sake of Civil Rights Act; televised signing of the Civil Rights Act (1964); used executive authority – used executive orders more frequently than JFK;
Legislation: 1964 Civil Rights Act – resisted attempts to filibuster the act; Johnson did not have to dilute the act as he did in 1957 Voting Rights Act because he was president and had public support for carrying through a policy assassinated president JFK had endorsed; LBJ was good at highlighting the economic effects of Civil Rights; gave federal govt. tools to ender de jure segregation in the South; 1965 Voting Rights Act – intended to plug gaps in Civil Rights Act; LBJ gave an impassioned speech to Congress; disallowed literacy tests and set up federal registrars; by 1969 even in Mississippi black registration was up to 59%
Improvements in social and economic status: 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act – aimed to improve black access to education; by end of 1960s % of blacks with high school diploma increased from 40-60%; 1965 Higher Education Act – no. of black college students quadrupled; Health Care reform – black infant mortality halved during 1960s

Appointments: appointed Thurgood Marshall as Supreme Court Judge – first black senator

Legislation: 1964 Civil Rights Act – did little to improve race relations and voting rights; Northern working-class backlash and riots; lack of support from White community - opinion poll in 1966 showed 90% of whites opposed Civil Rights legislation and others suggested he was going too fast; resented increased taxation caused by civil rights and foreign policy decisions
Opposition from Congress: 1968 Fair Housing Act; hate mail sent to President; difficult to enforce
His actions caused a backlash: Race riots – Watts riots (1965) and ‘Long Hot Summer’ of 1966 saw race riots in every major US city outside the South; Detroit, 40 killed, 2000 injured, federal troops used to restore order; death of MLK – provoked further rioting; reluctance of local officials - some cities, e.g. Chicago, were very uncooperative, esp. after they had received federal funding and there was no incentive to desegregate
Presidential actions: distanced himself from MLK after criticism of Vietnam War

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