Racial Issues Have Often Been A Test for U.S. Presidents With Conflicted Feelings President Eisenhower was not a fan of the 1954 Supreme Court order against segregated schools; but he sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Ark., to ensure it was enforced at Central High.

Racial Issues Have Often Been A Test for U.S. Presidents With Conflicted Feelings

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President Trump's reaction to the violence in Charlottesville last week seemed to change by the day. He's far from being the first president to struggle with his response to the country's racial divisions.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: When we want a history lesson, we go to Professor Ron. You know him as NPR's Ron Elving.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: World War II marked a new moment in race relations for the U.S. Many African-Americans had served in the military, where they were generally consigned to segregated units reflecting their status back home. And then President Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, decided it was time for a change.


HARRY S. TRUMAN: I should like to talk to you briefly about civil rights and human freedom.

ELVING: On July 26, 1948, Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ending segregation in the armed forces. It is hereby declared to be the policy of the president that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. That order took many people by surprise, not least because Truman himself hailed from Missouri, a one-time slave state, and his ancestors had fought for the Confederacy. He also knew that the support of southern states would be crucial in the election of that November, yet he signed the order and always defended it as the right thing to do. Nearly a decade later, the nation would witness a president struggling with issues of racial division on television.


DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: Good evening, my fellow citizens.

ELVING: In September of 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower gave this address.


EISENHOWER: I should like to speak to you about the serious situation that has arisen in Little Rock.

ELVING: Soon after Eisenhower had come to the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation in schools unconstitutional. And then nine teenagers in Little Rock, Ark., tried to enroll in that city's otherwise all white Central High School. A mob gathered outside to block them. Eisenhower intervened and sent in the 101st Airborne Division to enforce his order.


EISENHOWER: In speaking from the house of Lincoln of Jackson and of Wilson, my words would better convey both the sadness I feel and the action I was compelled today to make.

ELVING: The Civil Rights Movement continued to gain momentum through the later 1950s and early 1960s. Yet in 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the door to block enrollment of black students at the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy had tried to avoid offending his Southern supporters, but Wallace's challenge drove him to issue this rebuke on June 11, 1963.


JOHN F. KENNEDY: This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal and that the rights of every man are diminished when the right one man are threatened.

ELVING: But it would be Lyndon B. Johnson's task to fulfill Kennedy's promise. Johnson, a Texan, grew up in the segregated south. When he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he said it was long overdue. But he feared his Democratic Party would lose the South for a generation. And he was right. In 1965, he was nervous about promoting another law guaranteeing the right to vote. But events forced his hand.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It is a Sunday to be remembered. The long awaited, long delayed Freedom March to Montgomery begins.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Go home or go to your church. This march will not continue.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: President Johnson addresses a joint session of Congress to push a voting rights bill aimed at ending discrimination. It would appoint federal voting registrars in some instances and put an end to complicated literacy tests and other hampering tactics.

LYNDON B JOHNSON: The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong, deadly wrong to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.

ELVING: President Barack Obama, as the first African-American president, was forced to confront the issue of race repeatedly. While campaigning in 2008, he was criticized for incendiary sermons given by the Minister of his church in Chicago, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama chose this occasion to deconstruct his own complex racial identity and its implications.


BARACK OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

ELVING: Although some hailed Obama's presidency as the coming of a post-racial America, the reality was far different. While aspirations were inspired and expectations raised, tensions also increased in many parts of the country.


OBAMA: But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin.

ELVING: In Florida, the shooting of a black teenager named Trayvon Martin became a flashpoint.


OBAMA: You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.

ELVING: No issue has challenged presidents more profoundly, whether in political or personal terms. Each generation has entertained the hope that race would recede as a dividing line in America. But as recent events prove, the problems posed by the nation's deepest conflict persist. And the words that any president brings to bear on that conflict always matter. I'm Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.


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