Week In News: Looking Back At Other Civil Rights Battles

President Obama's change of position this past week on the subject of same-sex marriage has prompted news analyst James Fallows to think back to similar moments in civil rights history. Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz speaks with Fallows about everything from FDR's facilitating Marian Anderson's performance at the Lincoln Memorial to LBJ's address to Congress after racial violence in Selma, Ala.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK, let's bring in James Fallows of The Atlantic now. He is with us most Saturdays for a look behind the headlines. Jim, great to have you.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: A lot of ink has been spilled over the significance, of course, of President Obama's remarks in support of gay marriage this week. I know you've been thinking a lot about this in a historical context. So take us back to some comparable moments.

FALLOWS: So there's nothing that is exactly parallel, but it's interesting to see the pattern. I would start in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution had denied permission to the great black American opera singer Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. And in response to that, Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, the incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt, arranged for her to sing to a national audience on the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, which had a huge symbolic effect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FALLOWS: In 1947 and 1948, President Harry Truman prepared the ground for and then ordered the integration of the armed forces at a time when this was still quite controversial and indeed probably there was more resistance to it than support at the time.

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PRESIDENT HARRY TRUMAN: There is much that state and local government can do in providing positive safeguards for civil rights. But we cannot, any longer, await the growth of a will to action in the slowest state or the most backward community. Our national government must show the way.

FALLOWS: In 1957, Dwight Eisenhower who personally had been opposed to or skeptical of the Supreme Court ruling ordering school integration nonetheless directed that federal troops go into Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the integration of Little Rock Central High School, which Governor Faubus of Arkansas and local forces were resisting.

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PRESIDENT DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Whenever normal agencies prove inadequate to the task, and it becomes necessary for the executive branch of the federal government to use its powers and authority to uphold federal courts, the president's responsibility is inescapable.

FALLOWS: Then last on this list would be in 1965 after the protests and riots and showdowns and bloodshed in Selma, Alabama. President Lyndon Johnson appeared before the Congress to give what's known as his we-shall-overcome speech, saying that this moment had to be the impetus for new civil rights legislation.

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PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Because it's not just Negroes, but really, it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Jim, all of these stamps, of course, involved race and not sexuality, and in most cases involved actions that presidents took, things that they decided to do in response. Are they fair comparisons to what President Obama said this past week?

They're not perfect comparisons, because as you say, the racial struggle of America is more intrinsic to our entire national drama than other struggles for equality. And also, President Obama very markedly did not order any change in policy this past week with his comments. But I think they're similar in a president deciding that there is a change underway in public opinion and he's going to side in favor of a group that at that moment he views as being unfavored and even mistreated.

Jim, in the past, presidents have also expressed regret for not speaking out, for not saying what they felt they should have said at the time.

FALLOWS: For example, Dwight Eisenhower, for my money, one of the greatest Americans, has said that among the few things he regretted in his public life was not taking a step like the one President Obama has just taken. In the early 1950s, President Eisenhower did not publicly criticize or fight back against Joseph McCarthy in the original version of red bating. He worked against him privately but not in public. Also, in 1954, when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, President Eisenhower did not take a stand against that publicly either. And I know that that caused him a regret too. So of the regrets Barack Obama may later have, I think this moment will not be among them.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can find his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thank you so much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Guy.

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