Dwight D. Eisenhower and Civil Rights Conservatism
Robert F. Burk
The decades since World War II have witnessed the resurgence of civil rights issues as central concerns on the American political agenda. In recent years, a bipartisan consensus has been reached on the legitimacy of black demands for equal citizenship rights and on the nation's need to project an image of racial democracy. Even in the formerly Jim Crow South, overt expressions of white supremacy have lost their political respectability and legitimacy. Hidden behind this consensus on general principles, however, are sharp ideological differences over the means and the proper pace of minority advance. The modern civil rights debate centers on the appropriate role and powers of the federal government in regulating the racial behavior of private citizens, and in pressing for an integrated society as a necessary condition for genuine racial equality.
In contrast to modern liberals, who have advocated accelerated government action to confront both officially sanctioned and private forms of segregation and discrimination, conservatives have argued that the dangers of federal "coercion" and "statism" outweigh the benefits of a larger federal role in the racial field. The rise of this postwar conservative approach to racial issues, which has jettisoned Jim Crow and has incorporated a limited advocacy of civil rights within a general philosophy of lifting governmental restraints on private citizens, can be traced to the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. From his central position of national leadership, Eisenhower offered an approach to racial issues which criticizes both the traditional official racism of the South and the newer tradition of government intervention in the private sector symbolized by the New Deal. Eisenhower's civil rights philosophy stemmed from a combination of his pre-presidential racial experiences, his evolving views on the role of the federal government, and the partisan needs of his adopted Republican party. His approach to racial issues sought the removal of official sanctions mandating discrimination, but left ad-