President Trump first asked reporters to define the "alt-right," before saying members of the "alt-left" were also to blame for violence in Charlottesville, while taking questions from reporters on Aug. 15 at Trump Tower in New York. (The Washington Post)

During the civil rights movement and an intense struggle over desegregation in the United States, some political leaders would chide “extremists” on both sides.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower preached patience without complacency in complying with the Supreme Court decision that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

“He never accommodated himself to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that school segregation was unconstitutional,” columnist Richard Cohen wrote for The Washington Post in 1990. “If anything, he seemed to sympathize much more with whites who were trying to keep their schools segregated than with blacks who wanted nothing more than a better education. Ike criticized ‘extremists’ on both sides, as if racism and equality were somehow the same. If such thinking is somewhat short of racist, it also has to be somewhat short of ‘great.’”

When President Trump spoke Tuesday about the weekend violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, it was a reminder that false equivalence is not new.

“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis,” Trump said at a news conference about national infrastructure. “I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.”

“There was a group on this side — you can call them the left, you’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group,” he added. “I think there’s blame on both sides.”

Kevin M. Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University, said Eisenhower and other politicians blamed “extremists” on both sides of the segregation struggle — those two sides being the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan; in other words, he said, comparing those calling for immediate integration with those vowing to resist it at all costs.

“I think it shows that this sort of false equivalence that Trump’s been engaging in with Charlottesville is something we’ve seen before — and we’ve seen it before in almost this exact context,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview. “It’s not identical in that those people in the ’50s when they were talking about extremists on both sides, they were talking about NAACP activists asking that the South to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling of Brown v. Board of Education on the one hand and they equated that with Klan extremists and terrorists on the other hand. Whereas today, what Trump tried to do was say, ‘Look, you’ve got the Klan but you’ve also got a few violent people in the anti-fascist movement and that’s the totality of what the other side represents.’”


A black woman watches as Ku Klux Klansmen walk in downtown Montgomery, Ala., before a cross burning rally on Nov. 24, 1956. (AP)

Kruse tweeted out old newspaper clippings with headlines declaring, “La. Governor Raps Both ‘Extremists’” and “Integration Extremists on Both Sides Urged by School Head to Keep Quiet.”

It was no doubt a different time then.

State and local laws that enforced racial segregation were still in effect in many parts of the country, leading to widespread protests for equal rights. Many people in the South still supported segregation, and states were grappling with how to integrate public schools that had been segregated for a long time.

Civil rights advocates leading that charge, including Martin Luther King Jr., and the NAACP, were branded “outside agitators” at the same time that “people in the KKK or in the segregated South engaged in extremist behaviors that cost the lives of people who were simply trying to assert their constitutional and legal rights,” said Theodore M. Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Shaw added in an email that segregationists at the time were not “compelled to argue moral equivalency with those arguing for civil rights. They were openly and unapologetically racist, and they felt no need to defensively argue morality on their part.

“It is only now, when racism is widely considered to be immoral, that racists argue moral equivalency in opposition to civil rights advocates,” he said.

Shaw called the civil rights era “an uphill struggle” for the country but said that Eisenhower was “pushed to move forward and be on the right side of history.”

“Donald Trump and what he said yesterday is regressive — it’s looking backward, it’s taking us back,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview.

“This is extraordinary in ways that I think it’s difficult for most Americans, as shocked as people of good will are, to really comprehend,” he said. “This is someone who occupies the White House, who has no moral bottom when it comes to racism, and who has in many ways encouraged hatred and bigotry in his quest for power.”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said that even though there is a history of leaders making false equivalences, Eisenhower’s cannot be compared to Trump’s.

“Eisenhower was not making an equivalency that indicated whatsoever any disinclination on his part to condemn neo-Nazis or to compare neo-Nazis with Americans who were protesting against Nazis,” he said.

“Trump’s speech,” he added, “indicates the dangers of not confronting honestly an important and disgraceful component of the American past: Slavery itself and the attempt to create a separate nation that Mississippi’s declaration of secession identified as ‘thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.’”

Read more Retropolis:

How statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederates got into the U.S. Capitol

No, Mr. President, Washington and Jefferson are not the same as Confederate generals.

Removing a slavery defender’s statue: Roger B. Taney wrote one of Supreme Court’s worst rulings

The Ku Klux Klan was dead. The first Hollywood blockbuster revived it.

Anarchists and the antifa: The history of activists Trump condemns as the ‘alt-left’