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In 1877, Hayes called out the U.S. Army to deal with a strike by Baltimore & Ohio Railroad workers. The strike began in West Virginia, quickly spread to neighboring states, and turned pretty violent.
With state militias and local police unable to control the situation, Hayes issued a cease and desist order: "I do hereby warn all persons engaged in or connected with said domestic violence and obstruction of the laws to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes" (source). When the strike continued, he sent federal troops to the scene.
In 1878 Hayes wrote about a new law limiting the use of federal troops. He made it clear that federal troops could still be called out "if the sheriffs or other state officers resist the laws, and by the aid of state militia do it successfully."
That is rebellion, said Hayes, and it's a matter for the president to handle:
This involves proclamations, the movement of United States land and naval forces, and possibly the calling out of volunteers, and this looks like war. It is like the Whiskey Rebellion in the time of Washington. […] Good citizens who wish to avoid such a result must see to it that neither their State Governments nor mobs undertake to prevent United States officers from enforcing the laws" (source).
Eisenhower took his cue on Little Rock from Hayes, the former Civil War general with the bodacious beard.
Eisenhower wasn't the first president who had to issue an executive order to achieve racial integration against the wishes of many of the rank-and-file. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to do it in 1941.
When African American men volunteered or were drafted for military service, they served in segregated units and were often shut out of combat positions, instead given jobs like cooks or gravediggers. The military and defense industry operated under the same Jim Crow attitudes that Blacks suffered through in the South.
After the U.S. entered the war, activists and journalists pressured FDR to make good on the promises of his famous Four Freedoms Speech and apply those freedoms to all Americans. After a lot of resistance on his part, the President issued Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941. It prohibited discrimination by race in all national defense industries:
Whereas it is the policy of the United States to encourage full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin, in the firm belief that the democratic way of life within the Nation can be defended successfully only with the help and support of all groups within its borders;
Now, Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the statutes, and as a prerequisite to the successful conduct of our national defense production effort, I do hereby reaffirm the policy of the United States that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin, and I do hereby declare that it is the duty of employers and of labor organizations, in furtherance of said policy and of this Order, to provide for the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin... (Source)
This order just applied to defense industries, not to the service branches themselves. It would take another president, and another Executive Order, to do that.
When the U.S. was about to enter the war against the Nazis—no slouches in racial discrimination themselves—the question arose whether Black and white Americans could successfully fight together in integrated units. General George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, thought not. He was convinced that integration would jeopardize troop morale and discipline. He defended segregation as a "practical military expediency," not as approval of racial injustice, nudge-nudge, wink-wink (source).
According to the History News Network:
With these views, the military merely gave voice to widespread prejudices of the time. A July 1943 survey conducted by the Office of War Information showed that 96 percent of white soldiers from the South and 85 percent from the North insisted on segregation in the military. The attitude among African American GIs could not have been more different: 90 percent of Northern blacks and 67 percent of their Southern counterparts wanted to serve in integrated units. (Source)
During WWII, almost half of African American men who registered for the draft served in the armed forces (except for the Marines, who refused to admit Blacks at all until 1942). In 1947, President Harry Truman had appointed a panel to study more effective ways to protect the civil rights of American citizens, including in the military. The panel recommended a wide range of actions, like anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws (can you believe they needed anti-lynching laws?), and strengthening the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice. Truman pushed Congress to pass these laws.
True to form, though, the southern senators threatened to filibuster any bills aimed at enacting the president's recommendations. So Truman used the powers granted to him by the Constitution to issue executive orders promoting civil rights. On July 26, 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, finally abolishing segregation in all branches of the service:
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin. (Source)
He added some muscle to the order by setting up the Fahy committee to study the procedures of the service branches and make sure everyone was getting with the program.
There was blowback from the military about this order. Lots of white servicemen still didn't want to have to eat, bunk, shower, and use the bathroom alongside African Americans. And what about mixed-race social events? Once you let Blacks dance with whites, who knows what might happen? The fear of miscegenation was alive and well in 1948.
Officers protested, too. But during the Korean War, the large number of casualties forced Black and white units to merge just to survive, and by 1953 the military was largely integrated out of necessity (source). Everyone seemed to adjust.
Truman was under pressure to integrate the military in 1948 for a couple of reasons. His opponent in the 1948 presidential race, Thomas Dewey, had endorsed integration in the military (source). Plus, how could a Jim Crow military be justified in occupying and bringing democracy to post-war Germany?
Regardless, Executive Order 9981 was a bold strike against the "separate but equal" doctrine that had dominated social, educational, and military life, and it paved the way for the Brown decision and later civil rights legislation.
Fortunately, Truman never had to send in the troops to deal with the troops. That would have been awkward.
When John F. Kennedy vowed in his 1961 inaugural address to be "unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human right to which this nation has always been committed," James Meredith sat up and took notice. Meredith, a student of Jackson State University and nine-year Air Force veteran, decided to assert his rights by applying to the segregated University of Mississippi.
Meredith was sent an application, and he wrote a letter to the Registrar, Robert Ellis, thanking him for the application and letting him know he was a Black applicant. Five days later, he received a telegram from Ellis saying that he'd sent in his application too late, and it wouldn't be considered.
Meredith applied a bunch of times and was and was denied admission every time. He wrote a letter to the Justice Department asking for federal help in protecting his civil rights. Meredith eventually sued the school for discrimination, but a Mississippi judge ruled that his rejection was not based on his race. The judge accused Meredith of being too "sensitive" on the issue of race. Meredith appealed and the case eventually was decided in his favor by the U.S. Supreme Court.
History repeated itself in 1962 when Governor Ross Barnett refused to obey the Court's order to allow James Meredith to enroll at Ole Miss, claiming that the rights of the state of Mississippi couldn't be overrun by the Supreme Court or any other federal force. Where've we heard that one before? Public opinion was behind Barnett. In a speech to the citizens of Mississippi, he decried the "professional agitators" and paid propagandists" who were trying to "intimidate us into submission to the tyranny of judicial oppression" (source).
After some very heated discussions with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Barnett agreed to let Meredith enroll as long as he could figure out a good cover story, but the state of Mississippi passed an emergency measure that prohibited Meredith from enrolling. The feds issued a restraining order preventing the state's measure from being enacted.
On September 20, U.S. marshals accompanied Meredith to campus, but protestors blocked his entrance. On September 29, a violent mob of 2000+ students and other protestors rioted on the Ole Miss campus, destroying property, burning cars, and assaulting the Marshals. On September 29, JFK issued a proclamation ordering the protestors to "cease and desist therefrom and to disperse and retire peaceably forthwith," but they did not cease and desist.
So in September 30, the president issued Executive Order 11053, which if we didn't know better we'd think he copy/pasted from Eisenhower's order. The National Guard was federalized, the Secretary of Defense was authorized to call out the Army, the Secretaries of the Army and Air Force could help—the usual stuff.
It took more than 30,000 U.S. Marshals and federalized Mississippi National Guardsmen to make sure Meredith got to register. It was another epic confrontation between states' rights and federal Constitutional law. In a televised address to the nation, JFK laid out the issue:
Americans are free, in short, to disagree with the law but not to disobey it. For in a government of laws and not of men, no man, however prominent or powerful, and no mob, however unruly or boisterous, is entitled to defy a court of law. If this country should ever reach the point where any man or group of men by force or threat of force could long defy the commands of our court and our Constitution, then no law would stand free from doubt, no judge would be sure of his writ, and no citizen would be safe from his neighbors. (Source)
Yowza. Get us his speechwriter now.
Meredith graduated from Ole Miss in 1963, after two years of harassment and threats. Another violent confrontation, another segregationist southern governor, another constitutional crisis between a state and the federal government. It wouldn't be the last.
Oops, they did it again in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy had to federalize the Alabama National Guard in order to desegregate the University of Alabama after Governor George Wallace made it clear he would ignore a court order to desegregate. Wallace was elected in 1963 on a platform of "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" Here's a little sample from his inaugural speech:
And so it was meant in our racial lives . . . each race, within its own framework has the freedom to teach. . . to instruct . . . to develop . . . to ask for and receive deserved help from others of separate racial stations. This is the great freedom of our American founding fathers . . . but if we amalgamate into the one unit as advocated by the communist philosophers . . . then the enrichment of our lives . . . the freedom for our development . . . is gone forever. We become, therefore, a mongrel unit of one under a single all powerful government . . . and we stand for everything . . . and for nothing. (Source)
Wallace believed that the Brown decision didn't apply in Alabama, even though Attorney General Robert Kennedy had just reminded him a couple of months earlier that the state of Alabama was located in the United States. So when two African American students attempted to enroll at 'Bama, JFK knew it wasn't gonna go so well.
Just like in Little Rock, a federal district court had ruled in May of 1963 that the University must enroll the two students, Vivien Malone and James Hood. Wallace made it clear he planned on refusing them entrance even if it meant blocking the door himself. On June 10, JFK took control of the Alabama National Guard and sent them to Tuscaloosa to enforce the university's desegregation. He put the Army's 2nd Infantry Division on notice just in case.
On June 11, a defiant Wallace made good on his promise of personally blocking the doorway to the college admission building and waited for the feds to arrive. JFK issued another "cease and desist proclamation." It was a "Make my day" kind of scenario, another televised showdown that was exactly what Wallace wanted. JFK sent his Deputy Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, to read the proclamation to Wallace and demand his guarantee that the students could enroll and remain on campus.
Wallace was ready; he had his own proclamation to read, condemning the illegal, unwarranted, tyrannical, freedom-destroying, communist, unconstitutional intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of a sovereign state. How dare the central government suggest they knew what was best for the people of Alabama, for whom he had the constitutional responsibility to uphold the laws of the state? Katzenbach listened politely and asked him once again to stop the obstruction of justice. Wallace accused Kennedy of running a military dictatorship.
The cameras kept running.
Since Wallace had ignored the Proclamation, Kennedy issued Executive Order 11111 as the next step…he could probably write these things in his sleep by now. A National Guard officer approached Wallace and said it was his sad duty to inform him that earlier that day the President had called him into federal service and that he was asking Wallace to step aside. After one more swipe at the feds, Wallace praised the brave people of Alabama for remaining calm, asked them to continue being calm and have faith in the cause, and stepped aside. Mission accomplished: Malone and Wood enrolled for the summer term.
On November 15, 19, a bomb went off near Vivian Malone's dorm. Wallace said he was coming to campus to remove Malone from the University for the safety of the other students, but the administration told him to back off—they weren't taking her out of school.
The situation in Alabama was the same state vs. federal government conflict, but this time without the violent protestors. Wallace had seen what happened in Little Rock and Ole Miss, and knew he had no choice except to step aside if he wanted to avoid a military confrontation.
There were no screaming mobs this time to threaten Malone and Wood, and no one got hurt—most likely because this wasn't a spontaneous happening. Everyone knew what to expect and were prepared for it. By this time, people knew that no amount of violent protest was going to successfully defy a federal court order because the feds were ready and willing to deploy troops to get the job done.
In 1964, Bob Dylan sang:
Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call.
Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall.
The times, they were a-changin'.