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1956-1965: Jim Crow Meets the Great Society

By Herblock
Sunday, December 31, 1995

President Eisenhower, re-elected in 1956, seemed to occupy a position above the battle. Unfortunately, one of the battles he seemed to avoid was the one for civil rights. When the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, issued its unanimous desegregation decision two years earlier, Eisenhower acknowledged that it was the law of the land but opined that you can't change the hearts of men. While he failed to use the "bully pulpit," a campaign of "massive resistance" built up. The cartoon of the little girl outside the James Crow Public School was reprinted two years later with the number eight crossed out and changed to 10. Eisenhower reportedly felt that his biggest mistake was naming Warren chief justice.

The Warren Court also handed down a decision on school prayer. And, in what Warren considered its most important decision, the court issued its "one-man, one-vote" ruling. This provided such areas as the cities and suburbs with fairer representation in Congress than they had received in districting that gave undue weight to the more sparsely populated rural areas.

In what now seems like an American Dark Ages, some states denied to blacks the most basic rights. Some required "literacy tests" – one version that the most ignorant and bigoted redneck could pass, another for blacks that even the most highly educated person would fail.

The election of John F. Kennedy brought new hope for civil rights. Also, on the world front – after the two superpowers teetered on the edge of nuclear disaster over the Cuban missile crisis – Kennedy negotiated a test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile the United States, which had "advisers" in Vietnam, suffered its first casualty there.

After Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson, acting while the country still mourned, moved to pass civil rights and voting rights legislation. Johnson, at his very best, gave a speech in which he said, "We shall overcome." He inaugurated the Great Society programs, later much maligned.

Johnson swamped Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. But what he did not overcome was the Vietnam problem, where he increased our involvement by sending more troops after the election.

A joke at the time quoted a man as saying: "They told me that if I voted for Barry Goldwater, we'd be at war within a year. I voted for Goldwater and, by golly, they were right."

Another dark era began with increasing casualties on the other side of the world.

During this time of military generals, the U.S. surgeon general's committee issued a report on another hazard. It verified a predecessor's 1957 warning on a less noted cause of American fatalities that would involve an even longer conflict – the dangers of cigarette smoking.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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