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A President, a Chief Justice and the Politics of Segregation

In “Eisenhower vs. Warren,” Simon answers three related questions: Why didn’t Eisenhower endorse the ruling in Brown? Could Eisenhower have made the South more receptive to desegregation of public schools if he had endorsed Brown? Why did Eisenhower become embittered about his chief justice, one of the court’s most influential? His biographer Stephen E. Ambrose wrote that he told friends his biggest mistake was appointing “that dumb son of a bitch Earl Warren.”

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Two days after the Brown decision, Eisenhower said at a news conference, “The Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country; and I will obey.” Simon writes that Eisenhower’s ambivalence about Brown “may have been based in part on a residual racism, rooted in his segregated upbringing and his career in the segregated military.” But the “most plausible explanation” for the president’s “minimalist response to Brown,” he says, was “his fear of the consequences of the decision in the Deep South.”

Eisenhower didn’t criticize Brown publicly. As Simon reports, “there is no written evidence that he disapproved of the decision.” But the president straddled irreconcilable positions. He believed that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. He also believed in states’ rights and felt sympathy for Southern whites being asked to make what Simon calls a “historic change in both custom and law.”

A year after the ruling, the court issued Brown II, which told states how they had to comply with Brown I. The oral argument about compliance included ominous confirmation of Eisenhower’s fear. A South Carolina lawyer said “the white people of the district” where he lived would not “send their children to Negro schools.” Lawyers for Southern states said it could take up to 90 years for desegregation to happen.

Every justice understood that desegregation would require huge social change. None wanted to trigger massive resistance. In May 1955, Warren issued an even shorter opinion for a unanimous court. It called for desegregation “as soon as practicable.” It gave school districts responsibility for desegregation and federal district judges authority to supervise them. The court did what Eisenhower’s attorney general told the president was “almost exactly” what he had wanted. Yet the president remained unenthusiastic. Simon’s answer to the second question is yes: Eisenhower could, and should, have made the South more receptive to Brown.

He writes: “When the president refused to openly endorse the court’s decision in Brown II to desegregate public schools in the South, he missed a critical opportunity to persuade law-abiding white Southerners that the court’s decision was constitutional and its implementation feasible.” The president’s approval rating had soared to 79 percent. By then, he had called for or accepted desegregation of institutions under federal control — including the public schools in Washington, D.C., and the schools on military bases.

If Eisenhower had backed the court’s judicious order and the Southerners who supported it, Simon contends, he could have reduced the amount of violent resistance to Brown. Instead, “he left the Warren court, moderate white Southern leaders and hundreds of thousands of black schoolchildren isolated and vulnerable to the rising storm of resistance from hard-core segregationists.”

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