As the 34th president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower took office one year before the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and served during the rise of the modern civil rights movement. Unenthusiastic about the Court’s decision, Eisenhower nonetheless used military force to counter segregationists during the Little Rock school desegregation crisis of 1957. Martin Luther King later corresponded with Eisenhower regarding school desegregation.
Eisenhower was born in Texas and raised in Abilene, Kansas. He was educated at West Point and began his Army career in 1915. Eisenhower held numerous posts in the U.S. Army until his retirement in 1948, including Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in World War II, and Army Chief of Staff. While serving as Supreme Commander of NATO forces in 1950, Eisenhower was persuaded by the Republican Party to run for president and, in 1952, he won the presidency with Richard Nixon as his vice presidential running mate.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in education was unconstitutional. Civil rights supporters looked to Eisenhower to enforce compliance with the Brown decision, but he avoided endorsing the Supreme Court’s decision, a silence that encouraged resistance to school desegregation.
In 1957, a showdown between state and federal officials occurred when nine black students tried to integrate Little Rock, Arkansas’ Central High School. As a result of violent opposition to the integration of Central, and Orval Faubus, the state governor’s unwillingness to enforce the Brown decision, Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to protect the students. Although Eisenhower did not agree with court mandated integration, he saw that he had a constitutional obligation to uphold the Supreme Court’s ruling. King praised the president for restoring “law and order” in Little Rock: “You should know that the overwhelming majority of southerners, Negro and white stand firmly behind your resolute action” (Papers 4:278).
King wrote Eisenhower again in 1958, in light of “continued violence in the South and the dreadful prospect that some areas may close schools rather than integrate in September,” and asked that Eisenhower “grant an immediate conference to Negro leaders in Washington, D.C.” (Papers 4:415). Although Eisenhower had refused previous invitations, he agreed to a 23 June meeting at the White House with King, Lester Granger of the National Urban League, Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Although they praised Eisenhower’s actions in Little Rock, the leaders also sought “a planned and integral approach” to the problems of resistance to school integration, black disenfranchisement, and a response by the Justice Department to the bombings and “murderous brutality directed at Negro citizens.” They also proposed a White House conference on race relations. Following the meeting, Randolph stated that he and the other leaders were “greatly impressed by [Eisenhower’s] general attitude of concern”; however, reporter Louis Lautier observed that King and the other leaders demonstrated an “about face attitude” toward the president after criticizing his call for “patience and forbearance” in racial matters (Papers 4:426n; 414n). King renewed his request for a White House conference on racial matters in an October 1958 telegram, but such a gathering did not occur.
Despite his personal opposition to legislating racial equality, Eisenhower signed two civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960. King found the 1957 bill weak in some areas, but felt that it was “far better than no bill at all,” and urged the President not to veto it (Papers 4:263). After serving two terms in office, Eisenhower retired in 1961 to a farm outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He died on 28 March 1969.
Introduction, in Papers 4:26–29.
King, Granger, Wilkins, and Randolph, “A Statement to the President of the United States,” 23 June 1958, in Papers 4:426–429.
King to Eisenhower, 29 May 1958, in Papers 4:414–415.
King to Eisenhower, 25 September 1957, in Papers 4:278.
King to Eisenhower, 13 October 1958, in Papers 4:509.
King to Nixon, 30 August 1957, in Papers 4:262–264.
King to Viva O. Sloan, 1 October 1956, in Papers 3:383–384.