As Winston Churchill once posted, all history is revisionist. It all depends on the bias of the writer. Take, for example, the revisionist distortion of Dwight Eisenhower’s civil rights record in HBO’s recent production of the one-man play, “Thurgood.”
The writer-producer in this case, George Stevens, Jr., set out to dramatize the life-and-legend of Thurgood Marshall, the first black member of the Supreme Court and leading counsel in the NAACP’s effort to break down the barriers of segregation in the 1940’s and Fifties.
Having lived in the South during that turbulent period and met Justice Marshall after coming to Washington, I was naturally drawn to actor Laurence Fishburne’s vivid depiction of the man and his times. Then, three-quarters of the way through the performance, came the playwright’s negative account of Eisenhower’s stand on racial equality.
To hear Fishburne’s “Thurgood” tell it, Ike was little more than a closet segregationist, lukewarm if not in fact hostile to the Warren Court’s 1954 decision de-segregating public schools in the South.
There’s nothing new about this negative view of Eisenhower’s civil rights record. It’s been spun for over half a century, since the days when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was in his revisionist prime. However . . .Call me a Right-wing eccentric (it wouldn’t be the first time), but that’s not the way I remember the history of that period. As I recall:
1. It was Eisenhower, not Franklin D. Roosevelt or Harry Truman, who by executive order put an end to segregation in the District of Columbia in 1953;
2. It was Eisenhower, not John F. Kennedy who, over the bitter resistance of Southern segregationists, appointed integrationist judges like Alabama’s Frank Johnson and Louisiana’s John Minor Wisdom to the federal bench;
3. It was Eisenhower, not Lyndon Johnson who, despite warnings that he would alienate white Southern voters, sent the 101st Airborne Division to Arkansas to escort black children into school at Little Rock’s Central High.
Poor Ike, the Rodney Dangerfield of mid-20th century presidents. Even his most memorable role in history is downplayed, if not forgotten. Ask your average teenager of today to name the American general who led the Allies to victory in Europe and odds are (thanks to screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola and George C. Scott) the answer will be “Patton.”
The lesson for future presidents? There’s no point to being on the right side of history if you’re on the wrong side of the history-writers.