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Three of the four US presidents during the first two decades of the post-World War II Civil Rights Movement were from the south or southwest. They’d grown up white in segregated communities, embedded in the American version of racial apartheid and surrounded by those who mourned the loss of the slave-based Confederacy. Each in their own way went against the grain, bucking their heritage to work for civil rights.

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Historian David Goldfield analyzes Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson as “border men.” The men were “neither western nor southern.” They adopted both regional identities and “possessed a sense of fairness that ultimately trumped their reservations about civil rights.”

“These were imperfect men,” Goldfield writes.

Truman was sometimes too obstinate, Eisenhower equivocated too much in public, and Johnson alternated between deep insecurity and flights of messianic conviction. They were nineteenth-century men, boys of small towns and limited means. Yet each held a gift to see beyond the border, to a new nation with liberty and justice for all.

They were obviously also ambitious and supremely political. Truman understood that the Great Migration was changing the electoral map: Black Americans prevented from voting in the South were moving to the North, where they could vote. Eisenhower knew that the adamant stance of the Southern faction of the Democratic Party coalition drove increasing numbers of Black voters to Republicans; he received 40 percent of the Black vote in 1956. Johnson knew he couldn’t become President without Northern liberal support, support he would never get if he stayed on his course of voting 100 percent with the Southern Democrats.

Truman came from Missouri. His mother was such a devotee of the Lost Cause fantasy that she refused to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom when she visited the White House. Eisenhower was born in Texas and raised in Kansas. He long served in a military that was largely Southern in culture. Johnson was born in Texas, a state founded by and for slaveholders, though he came from the hill country, one of the poorest regions of the state, with little tradition of slavery and very few Black people.

Truman was the first President to address the NAACP, writes Goldfield. He proposed federal laws against lynching, the poll tax, police brutality, and discrimination in private employment. All of these were sunk by Southern senators, who used the seniority system and the filibuster to “revenge the Civil War” for a century.

In 1957, President Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to Arkansas to enforce federal court orders for the desegregation in Little Rock and protect nine Black high school students from white mobs. Eisenhower also made five appointments to the Supreme Court; those justices moved SCOTUS left on civil rights and civil liberties.

Eisenhower’s mid-decade civil rights proposals would probably have gone down the drain of the Senate’s Southern domination, as all other civil rights proposals had, if not for Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Though Johnson compromised the bill to essential toothlessness, when the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was signed it was symbolic for being the first piece of civil rights legislation since the 1870s.

Johnson, once the pride and joy of the South, would go on as president to strong-arm the major civil and voting rights laws of the mid-1960s. He engineered the breaking of the seventy-five-day filibuster by Southern senators against the 1964 Civil Rights Act—not least by making sure that dying California Senator Clair Engle was there in the Senate chamber. In a wheelchair and unable to speak, Engle dramatically pointed his finger to his eye to signify “aye.” Senate racists—including Georgia’s Richard Russell (for whom the Russell Senate Office Building is still named)—sputtered and raged against the “turncoat” Johnson, Goldfield writes.

The President missing here this is John F. Kennedy, who was, of course, a Northerner. Southern Democrats stood behind him in 1960 because he hadn’t pushed for civil rights as a Senator—they could overlook their anti-Catholicism for that. As President, Kennedy followed through by not leading on civil rights. But after Kennedy’s assassination, Mississippi Senator James Eastland, who steadfastly blocked civil rights from his chair on the Judiciary Committee, exclaimed “Good god, Lyndon’s President. He’s gonna pass a lot of this damn fool stuff.”

Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson were of course pushed from below by the Civil Rights Movement and from without by the Cold War, which made Jim Crow an international liability for the US. When push came to shove, however, they went in ways that surprised those who knew, or thought they knew, where they had come from.

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The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 80, No. 1 (FEBRUARY 2014), pp. 7–38
Southern Historical Association