Betrayed: A History of Presidential Failure to Protect Black Lives. By Earl Ofari Hutchinson. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996. Pp. ix, 255. $27.00.)
Recent acts of racial violence, the rise of white supremacy groups, and the reluctance of presidents to condemn such violence have led Earl Ofari Hutchinson to investigate presidential failures to provide leadership, ranging from Warren G. Harding to Bill Clinton. Hutchinson examines Justice Department records, interviews with former attorneys general and top officials of the Civil Rights Division, FBI files, NAACP records, correspondence with civil rights leaders, the public and private papers of presidents, and reports from various advisory committees to trace the inaction that he perceives.
The author sets the context for presidential posturing by showing a pattern of excuses in which each leader blamed inaction on the strength of southern conservatives in Congress, an inability to intervene in state cases, and lack of interest on the part of the public. Presidents and their appointed attorneys general sat on reports, failed to reply to charges, prevented black leaders from obtaining appointments for meetings, and diverted the protest organizations' energies and resources into different strategies or to different government agencies.
The difficult work of racial advancement organizations is carefully delineated. Providing graphic details about cases of racial violence, the author shows how hard the NAACP worked to hear the scant few words uttered by presidents against these acts. The organizational leadership of the NAACP, CORE, SCLC, and SNCC all tried to gain presidential support for the protection of the civil rights of African Americans. Not until a significant black vote emerged, first in the cities of the North and then later in the South as a result of voter registration drives, did political leaders start to respond to the issues. Hutchinson shows the direct correlation between the public support of presidents for civil rights and black voting behavior. Lobbying and educational campaigns did change public opinion, which favored federal protections far in advance of political leaders.
Only political pressure moved presidents. During World War II, the needs of the wartime economy pushed Franklin Roosevelt to send troops into Detroit to quell race riots in 1943. The fear of unfavorable political propaganda during the Cold War pushed Eisenhower to enforce the constitution in Little Rock. However, the personal perspective of the attorney general or of the director of the FBI could prevent the timely response of federal powers to protect civil rights.
Such a book has few heroes. Eleanor Roosevelt receives praise for her role in badgering her husband into recognizing injustices during his administration. Harry S. Truman is credited for addressing a civil rights rally for the first time and for leading through executive action. Lyndon B. Johnson, who voted against civil rights legislation for twenty years, sponsored the most civil rights legislation of the century once he became president.
Though more detail is needed to satisfy scholars, Hutchinson provides a readable analysis of complex political relationships. The book enables the general reader to understand the feelings of betrayal on the part of African Americans of both yesterday and today.
By Dorothy C. Salem, Cuyahoga Community College
Editor, Richard F. Spall Jnr., Ohio Wesleyan University