Saturday, May 23, 2009

Just finished reading - Ike's Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality, by Kasey S. Pipes

In Ike's Final Battle, author Kasey S. Pipes explains that Eisenhower's decision to use federal troops from the 101st Airborne Division to uphold desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in the fall of 1957 was as difficult as leading the D-Day Normandy invasion in 1944. Ike's use of federal troops in 1957 was the first time they had been used to restore order in the South since Reconstruction. Without a doubt the decision had weighed heavily on his mind.

America liked Ike in the 1950s so much probably because many saw pieces of themselves in him. But, in 1952 he came to the presidency during a very difficult time. Most Americans look back on the 1950s as the time of "Happy Days" and the birth of Rock N Roll, but things were much more strained domestically and globally than we sometimes wish to remember. We were wrapping up a war with Communist Korea, overthrowing Communist friendly regimes in Iran and Guatemala, and entering into the space race with the U.S.S.R, and at home the Civil Rights Movement was shaking America to the core; asking the difficult question: would freedom, liberty, and equality be available for all U.S. citizens everywhere?

One of the most important points that Ike's Final Battle makes is that Eisenhower honestly struggled internally with the problem of race. Ike was born in Abeline, Kansas in a white community with very few minorities. His early encounters with African Americans and other people of color were largely limited to football games and boyhood scuffles. In the segregated military of Eisenhower's day he didn't get a good chance to learn what black men were capable of doing in combat. His efforts at training Filipino troops in the 1930s clouded his judgement on people of color. Much of that changed in World War II when he called upon black troops (still segregated) to help meet the German thrust in the Battle of the Bulge. He came to appreciate the patriotism, determination, and courage of the black troops in that phase of the war.

Ike was also slow to accept the domestic Civil Rights Movement personally. But, as Ike's Final Battle shows, once laws were made, he took his role as the Executive of the government seriously and carried out those laws. His personal relationships with many Southern congressmen and governors suffered due to his insistence on upholding the law and providing basic civil liberties to citizens irrespective of color.

Although Pipes often heaps praise on Eisenhower, he also points out his shortcomings on civil rights. For instance, when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, Till's mother wrote to Ike, but Ike never responded. In what could have been a moment to show sensitivity and alertness to the problem, Ike remained quiet and uncommitted.

In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" education facilities were unconstitutional, the slow work of public school integration began. The first real battleground would be Little Rock, Arkansas. Governor Orval Faubus tried to thwart the admission of nine African American students to Central High School. Faubus went so far as to call out the National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school. Eisenhower responded by denouncing the Governor and then federalizing the National Guard troops and calling in the crowd-control-trained 101st Airborne to escort the students into the school and from class to class.

In the end Ike did the right thing. He struggled with his own personal prejudices, but he upheld the law and made a brave strike for equality. As his presidency ended in 1960, and the Civil Rights Movement continued on, he gained an even greater appreciation for what African Americans were willing to do and subject themselves to in order to gain basic civil liberties such as the right to vote and the ability to have equal access to public facilities.

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