The Atlantic

Commander v. Chief

The lessons of Eisenhower’s civil-rights struggle with his chief justice Earl Warren
Source: Mike McQuade

At a White House stag dinner in February 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower shocked the new chief justice of the United States. Earl Warren was Eisenhower’s first appointment to the Supreme Court and had been sworn in just four months earlier. Only two months into his tenure, Warren had presided over oral arguments in the blockbuster school-segregation case Brown v. Board of Education. As of the dinner, the case was still under advisement. Yet Eisenhower seated Warren near one of the attorneys who had argued the case for the southern states, John W. Davis, and went out of his way to praise Davis as a great man. That alone would have made for an awkward evening. What happened next made it fateful. Over coffee, Eisenhower took Warren by the arm and asked him to consider the perspective of white parents in the Deep South. “These are not bad people,” the president said. “All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big black bucks.”

It was an appalling moment. Here was the president leaning on the chief justice about a pending case while using the racist terms of an overseer. Several of Eisenhower’s admirers have attempted, Bernard Schwartz, one of Warren’s confidants, recorded the actual phrase in all its rotten vinegar. Warren had been a prosecutor and a governor, and was no choirboy; he had heard bigoted language before. Yet as the chief justice, he embodied the impartiality of the entire federal judiciary. He was a man who believed in fairness and dignity. The president’s words had shaken him.

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