A Citizen's View of Presidential Responsibility: Jackie Robinson and Dwight D. Eisenhower

By Vernon, John | Negro History Bulletin, December 1999 | Go to article overview

A Citizen's View of Presidential Responsibility: Jackie Robinson and Dwight D. Eisenhower


Vernon, John, Negro History Bulletin


The 1950's was a decade of rapid change in the nation. During this period, baseball great Jackie Robinson and World War II hero Dwight David Eisenhower changed professions. In 1952, the former president of Columbia University and Army general went into politics and was selected as the Republican Party's nominee for president in 1952. He not only won that year but was reelected four years later as one of the nation's most popular presidents. Meanwhile in 1957, the graying, ex-Brooklyn Dodger infielder retired from baseball after he was traded to the hated New York Giants and took a position as a corporate executive for the Chock full o' Nuts Coffee Company.

Influenced by his experiences in breaking the color line in organized major league baseball, the intense Robinson grew interested in what he could to advance civil rights and emerged himself in fund raising and speaking for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Robinson had already received the venerable racial uplift organization's Spingarn Medal in recognition of his unique contributions to baseball and American society. He soon became an NAACP board member as well. Perhaps more than any other athlete of his time, Robinson was interested in the world beyond sports. He attempted to transfer the lessons he learned in baseball to other spheres of activity, especially the political realm where he hoped to influence federal policies that affected black Americans.

As a national symbol of racial progress, albeit in the circumscribed arena of professional sport, citizen Robinson hoped that his opinions and concerns held political currency with the federal establishment. Thus, he sought access to the highest levels of authority, including presidents, to make his case for government support for civil rights. Robinson believed that he acted on behalf of others less prominent and influential and resolved to use his position and stature in American society to speak bluntly and passionately on behalf of civil fights.

In 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" and therefore held no rightful place in public education, public reaction was mixed. Nevertheless, the decision paved the way for the eventual destruction of state-sanctioned legal segregation in education. A year later, the Court ordered that desegregation take place under lower federal court direction "with all deliberate speed."

Ultimately, it was up to the executive branch to enforce the Court's desegregation ruling, but President Eisenhower was reluctant to press for compliance too aggressively. Eisenhower publicly declared that "I don't believe you can change the hearts of men with laws or decisions." Still, he had also mandated the swirl desegregation of schools in Washington, D.C., as a model for the rest of the country. He hoped that most states would voluntarily comply with the spirit as well as the letter of the law and proceed quickly to complete the necessary task.

Arkansas was one state that initially chose to desegregate its schools voluntarily. Even before 1957, Arkansas admitted black Americans to the graduate division of the state university, to state-supported universities and, in some Arkansas communities, to public and parochial schools. In addition, blacks were hired by several hospitals of the larger cities and by particular white business firms. Several organizations including county medical societies, scouting groups, labor unions, and the American Association of University Women began to open their membership to black Americans.

Nevertheless, segregationist sentiment remained strong, and in September 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus barred entry of nine black students into Little Rock's Central High School despite the existence of an agreed upon school board plan to integrate. On television, Faubus announced that he could not vouch for the safety of the nine if violence arose in protest of their arrival. …

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