Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Segregationist on the Civil Rights Commission: John S. Battle, 1957-1959

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Segregationist on the Civil Rights Commission: John S. Battle, 1957-1959

Article excerpt

IN November 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower chose former governor John S. Battle of Virginia to serve on the newly created United States Commission on Civil Rights. The president's appointment of Battle, a segregationist, to the nation's most important agency charged with investigating civil rights violations created a difficult situation for both Battle and the commission. Although he had some concern for the rights of African Americans, Battle was a staunch defender of the racial conventions of southern society. His service on the commission is therefore important as a case study of how a commitment to maintaining the separation of the races prevented a respected white southerner from making a positive contribution to resolving America's preeminent moral problem of the mid-twentieth century.

In the tense political atmosphere following the Little Rock school desegregation crisis, Eisenhower strove for a commission that would have what he called a "very ameliorating effect on these aroused feelings, prejudices, [and] passions."' To most southerners in Congress, however, the mere idea of such a panel was anathema. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., of Virginia, citing the commission's broad mandate and subpoena powers, denounced it as "a vehicle for witch-hunting at its worst, and dangerous beyond the comprehension of most living Americans."2

Believing that "all types of thinking" should be represented on the bipartisan commission, Eisenhower sought a balance between northern and southern viewpoints. The northern members were presidents John A. Hannah of Michigan State University and Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., of the University of Notre Dame and Assistant Secretary of Labor J. Ernest Wilkins, the only African-American commissioner. From the South came Battle, Dean Robert G. Storey of Southern Methodist University Law School, and former governor Doyle E. Carlton of Florida.3

The selection of Battle to serve on the Civil Rights Commission raises the intriguing question of why the president appointed a segregationist. At his confirmation hearing, the Virginian revealed the major reason why Eisenhower had chosen him. Battle recalled that Sherman Adams, assistant to the president, informed him of Eisenhower's belief "that it might be helpful if there was some member of the Commission who had . . . strong southern views."4 Yet the appointment of someone to the Civil Rights Commission with such firm convictions on race and the validity of segregation created an inherent contradiction. Battle's heritage and beliefs, and the political and social milieu in which he operated, militated against his making a significant contribution to the commission.

The president could have named any of a number of segregationists who had held political office to represent the white South on the panel, but he selected John Battle. The Virginian's part in the 1952 Democratic national convention probably played a major role in his selection. The relatively new medium of television had given Battle national exposure. The convention had adopted a mild loyalty oath that bound delegates to support the decisions made at the convention, but Virginia, Louisiana, and South Carolina rejected it. In response, the convention's temporary chair, Governor Paul A. Dever of Massachusetts, ruled that those three states were not entitled to vote, but he did not ask the convention to expel the delegations. Some Virginia leaders, however, seemed to be courting expulsion. Battle, seeking clarification of Virginia's status, addressed the delegates. Speaking in a calm, conciliatory manner, the tall, distinguished Virginian quieted the chaotic convention. He pleaded that the Old Dominion be allowed the "freedom of thought and freedom of action" that had been "enunciated by Thomas Jefferson-in whose County I happen to live-the great patron saint of this Party." This four-minute oration reached an estimated radio and television audience of 75 million people. …

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