Most American presidents have not welcomed the opportunity to discuss race. After all, talking about it unearths the history of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the history of racial inequality.
Many Americans want to paper over this history and so at the moments when a president addresses this history under the surface, the president’s words change political dynamics.
The original conversation on race
Although President Bill Clinton is famously tagged with starting the idea of a “national conversation on race,” in his 1997 commencement address at the University of California-San Diego, American presidents have long had to address the issue. From Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia on forward, the question of race has been at the heart of how Americans might reconcile American democracy with systematic racial inequality. And for much of our history, their ideas have come well short of freedom and equity.
The discussion of race grew increasingly difficult the mid twentieth century when shifting political dynamics changed the landscape. The Democratic Party sought to stitch together political coalitions in an age where more and more black voters in northern and even some southern urban centers and southern white segregationists in the “Solid South” were both part of the party. Republicans sought to keep blacks that were loyal to the party of Lincoln while still seeking to be the party of refuge for disaffected southern Democrats.
In an age where black voters were increasingly demanding the enforcement of their constitutionally promised civil rights, presidents were often fearful of taking a stand on one side or the other.
The civil rights era leadership of the Executive Branch
In this context, America’s “civil rights presidents” of the 1950s and ’60s were pushed by the activism of black and white advocates for civil rights to address race head on.
Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was president when Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, and when Emmett Till’s killers were freed after a quick show trial in Mississippi in 1955. Eisenhower seemed to try his best not to take a stand on the movement, and even refused the answer the telegram sent by Mamie Till, mother of the slain teenager, “pleading that [he] personally see that justice is meted out… in the beastly lynching of [her] son.”
Eisenhower, who privately opposed the Brown decision, was forced to move on behalf of civil rights in 1957 after the segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus sent in the Arkansas National Guard to block nine black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In response to this blatant violation of the Brown decision, Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne of the Army and federalized the Arkansas National Guard, and used the troops to help escort black students into the school past the angry mobs of white segregationists.
Eisenhower spoke after the dramatic events of Little Rock but did not offer a stirring speech on behalf of civil rights. Insisting “we are a nation in which laws, not men, are supreme,” Eisenhower emphasized that both political leaders and the American people had a duty to remember that “personal opinions about [the Brown] decision have no bearing on the matter of enforcement.”
Although his intervention in Little Rock may have quelled the efforts of some southern governors to use the National Guard to flagrantly ignore the orders of federal courts, Eisenhower’s unwillingness to call for an end to segregation and his silence about southern disfranchisement of black voters allowed the “massive resistance” of southern segregationists to take hold throughout the American South.
JFK paves the way
Although President John F. Kennedy is often thought of as an advocate of civil rights, initially he was slow to ally with the cause. Although during the campaign, Kennedy insisted to black audiences that he would undo housing discrimination early in his administration by Executive Order, he failed to sign the order until more than two years into his term in November of 1962. Even then, Executive Order 11063 was toothless, leaving enforcement of the provision up to the states.
The groundbreaking and turbulent events of 1963, particularly the young activists of Birmingham, Alabama who faced down the fire hoses and police dog attacks ordered by Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety “Bull” Connor, finally pushed Kennedy to speak out. In his speech 50 years ago last month, Kennedy argued that civil rights should be thought of as part of the broader American struggle for freedom. Reminding Americans that while our armed forces were not “whites only” institutions, Kennedy insisted “it ought to be possible… for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color.”
Calling for equal access to public accommodations, schools, housing opportunities and jobs Kennedy insisted that the fight was not a “sectional,” “partisan,” or “legal” struggle alone, but a “moral” struggle. Kennedy argued that too much time had passed since the Emancipation, and insisted “the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.” While arguing for civil rights angered southern segregationists within the Democratic Party, the crisis of Birmingham pushed Kennedy to speak despite the political costs.
Few in today’s political climate felt like it was a good time for President Obama to talk about race following the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. But the protests and profound disappointment in the wake of the verdict has created a national divide he clearly felt compelled to address.
There may even be a further political cost to be paid in today’s very divided political world. But as the first African-American president, Obama was able to speak to the experiences of black Americans in a way no other president in our history could. But he is also part of an important tradition of presidents speaking about what’s the best way to create a more safe, just, and moral world, enabling us all to explore the ways that our promise has yet to be fulfilled.
Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley