The first concrete gains that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement occurred during the Ike/Nixon years, and among those in Ike’s administration, it was Nixon who was the champion for Civil Rights. Ike moved slow in terms of Civil Rights, but when it came to enforcing the laws that were in the books, he acted, such as making sure the Army remained desegregated per
Truman’s Executive Order (even in Army bases in the South). That being said, Ike didn’t like the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. the Board of Education, in that he preferred a more gradual approach to major social change. Ike wanted consensus when and wherever possible, and he labeled Civil Rights leaders as extremists (as he did with white supremacists), which outraged African-American leaders.
Ike’s Civil Rights strategy was to position himself as a captive of events beyond his control, and then to not reverse course on Civil Rights advances (e.g. Ike nominated two pro-Civil Rights Supreme Court Justices in John Marshall Harlan and William J. Brennan, Jr.). In December 1955, the pressure on the dam burst with the arrest of Rosa Parks, and the Civil Rights Movement started in earnest. A Civil Rights bill was introduced to the House in 1956, and it was in part designed to politically threaten Representatives/Senators from the South who stood in opposition to any gains in Civil Rights, in that millions of African-Americans would vote. Ike was in favor of the bill, saying that if re-elected, he would push for its passage; at the time Ike made that statement, the Civil Rights bill was stalled in both houses.
Vice-President Nixon (also the President of the Senate) knew that he risked the wrath of the South if he ruled against the ongoing filibuster that held the Civil Rights bill hostage. Nixon also knew that African-Americans in the South wouldn’t be able to vote en masse to express their gratitude. And there was the reality that Ike’s popularity with African-American Democrats didn’t guarantee transference to Nixon. While waking up at night, Nixon had a “eureka” moment, and he scribbled some things down on his yellow legal pad . . . and he soon did the right thing.
Nixon was now the most invested member of Ike’s administration with the Civil Rights bill, and MLK, Jr. was further impressed with the Vice-President. MLK, Jr. didn’t have a favorable opinion of Nixon until he became VP, since MLK’s lens for viewing Nixon before VP centered on the controversial CA Senate Race in 1950 and serving on HUAC. MLK did qualify his praise for Nixon, hoping that Nixon’s actions were genuine, not for political convenience/gain.
Once again, it was Nixon that saved the day for the Civil Rights Movement in the Senate. But Nixon had company, and it was none other than Senator William Knowland (R; CA), an avowed political enemy. Both Nixon and Knowland understood that the GOP needed to attract African-American voters for their goal of winning the Republican nomination for President in 1960. The leading Democratic contenders, most notably LBJ and JFK, were wooing the Solid South, and were in support of gutting the Civil Rights bill via amendments. (both LBJ and JFK had voted to send the Civil Rights bill to Eastland’s committee). During the floor debate in the Senate, section three of the Civil Rights bill was removed, which spelled out voting rights for African-Americans. Section three had no chance of inclusion after Ike proved noncommittal when asked by reporters for his opinion which favored gradualism. By trying to not anger all sides involved, Ike failed to lead on Civil Rights.
Senator Richard Russell (GA) in essence only gained time until the federal government decided to become seriously involved with Civil Rights in the mid-1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 didn’t in-and-of-itself accomplish much in the short term, but the foundation of the Solid South had started to crack. In his dealings with the Civil Rights bill, Nixon had been advised/guided by MLK, Jr., and in June 1957, Nixon and MLK, Jr. had a follow-up/get ready for the next phase meeting at Nixon’s office in the Capitol. Nixon came away more impressed with MLK, Jr., and in effect endorsed him as a major Civil Rights leader, which also further alienated MLK, Jr. from the envious/jealous Old Guard within the Civil Rights Movement.
Whatever moral high ground Russell had was gone after Little Rock when he sent a telegram to Ike. In that telegram, Russell accused Ike and the Republicans of using the same tactics as Hitler in order to get the Civil Rights bill passed (imagine, sending that telegram to the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe that personally saw the horrors of the Nazi death camps). Ike appeared on television to explain his decision to send the 101st Airborne to Little Rock. Americans saw Ike (finally) acting like Lincoln’s Republican heir, and the vast majority of Americans in the north sided with the President.
Nixon publicly supported Ike, saying the President did his duty and saved the nation from going through a dire Constitutional crisis. Nixon’s pursuit of Civil Rights earned him many plaudits, as well as many additional enemies. Even some of Nixon’s supporters felt he went too far in advocating Civil Rights for African-Americans. There were some that felt Nixon should have let Ike shoulder all the responsibility for Little Rock in order for Nixon to gain Southern delegates for the Republican National Convention in 1960.