When I was growing up, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first President whose name I knew. Having served as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, Eisenhower was a nonpartisan national father figure, presiding over peace, prosperity, and strong steps on America’s journey from segregation to simple justice.
Eisenhower wanted to be President of all the people. He believed in the rule of law. And having fought fascism overseas, he abhorred racial and religious bigotry here at home.
Sixty years ago this month, the architect of D-Day sent federal troops to Arkansas to protect nine black students who sought to integrate Little Rock High School. These youthful heroes were asserting their rights under the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which had been resolved unanimously under the leadership of Eisenhower’s nominee, Chief Justice Earl Warren.
For the first time since Reconstruction, federal troops were sent south on behalf of black people. Small wonder that our predominantly African-American community in a still-segregated Washington, D.C., joined our fellow citizens in saying, “I like Ike,” who won almost 40 percent of black voters for re-election in 1956.
Now, there’s another Republican President who never before held elective office, is internationally famous, and enjoys GOP majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. While repeatedly reminding us that he’s not a racist, his civil rights record says loud and clear that Donald J. Trump is no Dwight D. Eisenhower.
As I learned years later as a civil rights attorney and advocate, Eisenhower’s record extended well beyond Little Rock. That same year, he signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first civil rights law passed by Congress since 1875.
While civil rights activists at the time called it “weak tea,” the 1957 law did two critical things: it created the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, the nation’s civil rights law firm, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to report on systemic discriminatory rules and procedures. Together, they paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights act of 1965, and federal action to advance equal justice and expand opportunities for African Americans.
But Presidents must be moral leaders as well as legislative strategists. While Eisenhower acted decisively against segregationist stalling tactics in Little Rock, Arkansas, Trump dithered over racist violence in Charlottesville, Va. When white supremacists sporting swastikas held a “Unite the Right” rally, at which a counter-protester and two state troopers were killed, Trump stalled and stonewalled before making mealy-mouthed statements deploring the “Alt Right” and the anti-fascists alike.
But Trump vehemently attacked African-American athletes exercising their First Amendment rights to protest police shootings of unarmed black men and other injustices by “taking a knee” at the playing of the National Anthem. Screaming the slur “S.O.B.” at a raucous rally in Alabama – the same state where churches were bombed and demonstrators beaten – Trump reopened racial wounds that the South has strived to heal.
Because “Personnel is policy,” Presidents are also known by their nominees. Trump has selected Alabama Senator Jefferson Sessions, with an atrocious civil rights record, as his Attorney General. And Trump has appointed a sham “Voter Integrity” Commission that seems intent on intimidating or disqualifying people of color from casting their ballots.
In contrast, as Attorney General, Eisenhower chose Herbert Brownell, who saw civil rights enforcement as a national responsibility. Brownell, in turn, helped to select federal judges who transformed the civil rights landscape in the Southern states. Sixty years later, Sessions is nominating nonentities who barely pass the “laugh test” of acceptability. But, without a Senate filibuster, these mediocrities are getting a free ride to the federal bench.
Similarly, Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Commission had the moral authority to tear down barriers to African-American voter participation. But Trump's sham voting rights commission commands no respect and displays no commitment to voting rights for all. Trump should ask the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to investigate the Charlottesville deaths, but he’s too busy tweeting about football players to tackle racist violence.
Meanwhile, today’s Republicans are a far cry from the GOP that mustered a majority of the votes for the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Trump’s party can’t even hold a congressional hearing on obstacles to the right to vote.
When Trump talks about “Making America Great Again,” some hear a call to return to the segregated, sexist 1950s. If only he’d model his presidency on the grinning ex-general who laid the groundwork for the more inclusive America we celebrate today.
I still like Ike. But I dread Donald.
Wade Henderson is the Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Professor of Public Interest Law at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. He is also the immediate past president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.