97. Truman, Eisenhower, and one other

Once again it is Presidents Day. We used to celebrate Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday, but now we lump them together and throw the other forty-two Presidents in for good measure.

Not all of them deserve to be remembered, but Truman and Eisenhower do, especially during Black History Month.

No, I didn’t forget President O’bama, but he’ll get his share of acknowledgment. So will President Kennedy. Maybe even President Johnson; Lyndon Johnson, that is. Andrew Johnson is all but forgotten, despite the fact that he was impeached for trying to continue Lincoln’s policies.

Not many people remember what Truman and Eisenhower did for African-Americans. Mind you, we are talking about the fifties. Neither president was particularly pro-Black, and neither would have marched in Selma, but their actions, whatever their motivation, moved the cause of Civil Rights forward.

In July of 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which abolished racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces. Like Lincoln before him he was able to do things as Commander in Chief that would never have passed in Congress.

Need I add that practical necessity was a driving force in the action, along with pressure from civil rights leaders who did care about the plight of blacks? And need I add that the white military was not thrilled? Kenneth Claiborne Royall was forced to retire as Secretary of the Army after he spent a year trying to block execution of Truman’s order.

Most of the desegregation of the Army took place on President Eisenhower’s watch. So did the early Civil Rights movement. Eisenhower was in favor of equality under the law, but sympathetic to the feelings of the white South. That made him a centrist in the 50s, but leaves him completely out of the conversation today. That’s unfortunate.

After Brown v. Board of Education, Arkansas’ Governor Faubus deployed National guard troops to keep black students out of LIttle Rock’s Central High School. Eisenhower convinced him to stand down. Then Faubus withdrew the National Guard and left the black students at the mercy of the mob. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to protect them and forcibly integrate the school. It made him no friends, but it was his duty to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He did his duty, and set the stage for the integrations of schools across the South.

*****

As a student of history and a citizen sympathetic to the civil rights movement, I knew all this before I started to write. As an honest scholar, I did the research necessary to freshen my memory and get the names, dates, and places right.

Everywhere I turned in my research, another name kept coming up – Philip Randolph. There is a story behind the story, and one I’m not ready to tell. After all, I just discovered Randolph, and my knowledge of him is sketchy. Nevertheless, here are the bare bones.

In 1917 Randolph founded the black rights magazine Messenger. Through the 30s and 40s he organized black workers in labor unions. In 1941, he planned a massive march on Washington for access to defense employment, pressuring President Roosevelt into Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Act. Through the rest of the 40s he brought increasing pressure on the Federal government for desegregation, resulting in Truman’s Executive Order 9981. He formed an alliance with Dr. King in 1957, and was instrumental in bringing about the March on Washington in 1963, where Dr. King gave his I have a dream speech.

Here is a man who has just jumped to the top of my list of people I need to know more about.

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