President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, heralded as a revolutionary expansion of government power, did not attack the problem of racial discrimination in employment, nor did it do much at all to prevent lynching or to eliminate the poll tax which restricted most blacks from voting in the South. Whites throughout the country, but particularly in the South, used terror and disenfranchisement to create rigid boundaries within which black economic progress would be limited. Without federal legislation securing black voting rights and persecuting racial violence, African-American citizens had little chance to gain economic independence, a right by which the "American Dream" was defined.
Yet through his efforts to build a coalition of all classes of people, including immigrants, farmers, union members, and blacks, President Roosevelt convinced the vast majority of African-Americans that he cared about their plight and would do his best to offer solutions. By the election of 1936, black voters in significant numbers aligned themselves with the Democratic Party rather than support Republicans. That is, in an unprecedented transfer of party loyalty, black Americans broke from the party that had supported abolition and emancipation, the party of Abraham Lincoln, and the party that had delivered Radical Reconstruction.
President Harry S. Truman was not a man expected to support civil rights legislation or any change meant to benefit African-Americans. His grandparents owned slaves, his mother resented Lincoln for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and, as a child raised in Missouri, he had known segregation well. Still, Roosevelt's successor committed himself to challenging Jim Crow institutions. Twice President Truman attempted to interest Congress in an extensive civil rights program including a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, national laws against lynching, and measures to ensure voting rights and equal access to education. He authorized a Committee on Civil Rights to recommend needed reforms and to protect people from discrimination, and in 1947 he became the first United States president to address the NAACP.
Truman planned to carry on the liberal heritage of the past decade, but while the legacy of Roosevelt's New Deal social programs survived the war, America's desire for social and economic reform had faded. The country was far more conservative than it had been during Roosevelt's reign, and because of this Truman was largely unsuccessful in his goals. Although Truman made bold promises to African-Americans for an immediate end to segregation, lynching, voting restrictions, and job discrimination, he was unable to deliver on nearly all of them. He did, however, manage to preserve one piece of his civil rights program when, in 1948, he used his authority as commander in chief to issue Executive Order 9981 desegregating the armed forces.
In 1952, after twenty years of Democrats in the White House, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidential election. He deemed himself the champion of the "forgotten man"—the hardworking American burdened by high taxes and big government. He thus opposed using federal authority to grant civil rights. Eisenhower had a distaste for liberal social programs, sympathized with southern segregationists, and privately disagreed with the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Regarding his nomination of Earl Warren, the Supreme Court justice who led the unanimous decision, he lamented that it was "the biggest d--n-fool mistake I ever made."26
Eisenhower also stressed respect for the law, and even set aside a federal holiday to celebrate the "national dedication to the principle of government under laws." When in 1957 the Governor of Arkansas deployed state troops to block federal court-ordered integration of Little Rock's Central High School, President Eisenhower felt he had no choice but to intervene "in order to carry out his constitutional duty." That same year, Congress responded to growing agitation by adopting a series of civil rights acts. Still, Eisenhower remained skeptical, reflecting, "I don't believe you can change the hearts of men with laws or decisions."27 The president who proved to be severely reluctant to take sides in the desegregation battle served throughout most of the 1950s, the era when the civil rights fight took shape.
In his first State of the Union message delivered in 1961, President John F. Kennedy listed the many unfinished and neglected tasks that his administration would face in the coming years. He failed to mention, however, the battles raging over racial equality. He neglected to address the following facts: only one in four southern blacks of voting age had been registered, drinking fountains, theaters, libraries, parks, and other public facilities remained segregated, and, although the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled against school segregation nearly a decade prior, only 8% of schools in the South had been integrated. Serving during the height of both the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, Kennedy vowed to pay any price, bear any burden, and oppose any foe for the containment of communism, but he made no such commitment for the rights of African-Americans.
Throughout his brief term, President Kennedy moved slowly to introduce civil rights legislation, enforce federal court rulings, and speak publicly in support of reform. Ultimately, he nonetheless accomplished these steps. On 11 June 1963, Kennedy spoke of the civil rights issue on national television. "The fires of frustration and discord are busy in every city," he said. "Redress is sought in the street, in demonstrations parades and protests which create tensions and threaten violence. We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people." He announced, "I am therefore asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public."28 Just a few months before his death, Kennedy introduced a modest civil rights bill, one that promised to chip away at segregation rather than smash it altogether. For civil rights groups such as the SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP, this kind of legislation—the sort Truman had been unable to pass through Congress—had to be defended at all costs.
Not since Radical Reconstruction had the federal government accomplished so much on behalf of African-Americans. Still, reform came at a snail's pace, and often only within the context of political maneuvers and international pressure. Those presidents remembered for their unwavering support for the civil rights struggle, in truth, often refused to pass the kind of legislation most vital to the full economic, political, and social participation of black Americans. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, although championed as heroes of the common people, often chose national unity over civil rights reform, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, though he ordered federal troops to be sent to Arkansas to enforce school integration, believed desegregation in the South to be a mistake with devastating repercussions.
On the other hand, Harry S. Truman, a president seldom mentioned in stories of the Civil Rights Movement, was one of its earliest political advocates. And, as revealed in the following chapter on the later stages of the civil rights movement, Lyndon B. Johnson, a president often obscured by the shadow of Kennedy, his predecessor, would deliver on more promises to black Americans than any other president before him.