Fifty years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a federal court order desegregating the city's Central High School, a leading authority on Eisenhower presents an original and engrossing narrative that places Ike and his civil rights policies in dramatically new light.
Historians such as Stephen Ambrose and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., have portrayed Eisenhower as aloof, if not outwardly hostile, to the plight of African-Americans in the 1950s. It is still widely assumed that he opposed the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating the desegregation of public schools, that he deeply regretted appointing Earl Warren as the Court's chief justice because of his role in molding Brown, that he was a bystander in Congress's passage of the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960, and that he so mishandled the Little Rock crisis that he was forced to dispatch troops to rescue a failed policy.
In this sweeping narrative, David A. Nichols demonstrates that these assumptions are wrong. Drawing on archival documents neglected by biographers and scholars, including thousands of pages newly available from the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Nichols takes us inside the Oval Office to look over Ike's shoulder as he worked behind the scenes, prior to Brown, to desegregate the District of Columbia and complete the desegregation of the armed forces. We watch as Eisenhower, assisted by his close collaborator, Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., sifted through candidates for federal judgeships and appointed five pro-civil rights justices to the Supreme Court and progressive judges to lower courts. We witness Eisenhower crafting civil rights legislation, deftly building a congressional coalition that passed the first civil rights act in eighty-two years, and maneuvering to avoid a showdown with Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, over desegregation of Little Rock's Central High.
Nichols demonstrates that Eisenhower, though he was a product of his time and its backward racial attitudes, was actually more progressive on civil rights in the 1950s than his predecessor, Harry Truman, and his successors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Eisenhower was more a man of deeds than of words and preferred quiet action over grandstanding. His cautious public rhetoric -- especially his legalistic response to Brown -- gave a misleading impression that he was not committed to the cause of civil rights. In fact, Eisenhower's actions laid the legal and political groundwork for the more familiar breakthroughs in civil rights achieved in the 1960s.
Fair, judicious, and exhaustively researched, A Matter of Justice is the definitive book on Eisenhower's civil rights policies that every presidential historian and future biographer of Ike will have to contend with.
David A. Nichols, a leading expert on the Eisenhower presidency, holds a PhD in history from the College of William and Mary. A former professor and academic dean at Southwestern College, he is the author of A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution; Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis; and Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy; as well as other books. He lives in Winfield, Kansas.
"Eisenhower is one of the unsung heroes of the quest for civil rights and racial justice, and David Nichols captures the essence of his quiet leadership in this compelling, well-researched, and judicious book. Fifty years after his deft handling of the Little Rock crisis, Eisenhower gets his due in this important and readable work."
-- Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe
"A Matter of Justice is superb. This generation needs to appreciate just what President Eisenhower did to bring about a major revolution in this country, especially in his appointment of Earl Warren and great federal judges in the South. Few recognize the difficult decision he had to make in putting federal troops into Little Rock, but that action made the difference in the success of school desegregation."
-- William T. Coleman, Jr., co-author of the Brown v. Board of Education brief and former Secretary of Transportation
"This is revisionist history at its best -- provocative yet unbiased. With anyone else in the White House during the 1950s, the civil rights movement would have emerged more slowly. Nichols's brisk account is also a terrific character study of Eisenhower as a misunderstood but effective politician."
-- Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope
"A Matter of Justice is a fascinating and important book. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Eisenhower administration presided over major civil rights advances, paving the way for the better-known breakthroughs of the 1960s. David Nichols vividly narrates this crucial but hitherto unappreciated aspect of the civil rights revolution."
-- Fred I. Greenstein, author of The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader
"David Nichols makes a fascinating and persuasive case that President Eisenhower, for all his rhetorical flubs, made great contributions to the advance of civil rights. Deeds, not words, as Nichols puts it."
-- Anthony Lewis, former New York Times columnist and author of Gideon's Trumpet
"David Nichols has mastered the last frontier of Eisenhower revisionism -- civil rights. A Matter of Justice is a triumph."
-- Daun van Ee, editor of The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower
"David A. Nichols has written an important, revealing book about Eisenhower's extensive civil rights record. A Matter of Justice will be indispensable to future Eisenhower biographers."
-- James F. Simon, Martin Professor of Law at New York Law School and author of Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney