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Mark McCormick: Ike was civil rights leader

  • Published Friday, March 21, 2014, at 12 a.m.

If you’ve followed the news in the past few months or the past nine years, you may know of my support for renaming the new airport after President Dwight D. Eisenhower. That might puzzle you. It shouldn’t.

I’m hoping you’ll support the idea, after learning more about our 34th president and about the misleading costs circulated by the opposition.

The Kansas African American Museum has copies of the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper circulated nationally. One features a banner headline of Eisenhower praising black troops during World War II’s period of military segregation. He’d change that later as president.

President Truman ordered military desegregation, but Ike made it happen.

He didn’t stop there. Ike insisted that Washington, D.C., desegregate its schools. He ordered federal facilities around the country desegregated. He passed the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. He refused to appoint segregationists to the federal bench.

He may have done his best civil rights work in the judiciary. Understanding early the importance of the Brown v. Topeka case wending its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he helped engineer the decision by tapping known integrationist Earl Warren as chief justice.

Many consider “Brown” one of our five most important legal decisions. Ike then enforced it by sending troops to Little Rock’s Central High School to make sure nine black children could attend.

Some name-change opponents initially tossed out the hideously inflated $700,000 cost number presumably to kill the idea. Even the latest $140,000 figure includes $70,000 for marketing that likely would be spent anyway promoting the new terminal. Signage, stationery and uniforms account for the remainder, and the Ike committee has offered to raise funds.

But absent folks legitimately concerned about cost, the loudest opponents resemble cranky city fathers clinging to authority by opposing a legal petition by earnest citizens. Without Ike’s towering but largely overlooked civil rights work, the integration of the nation may have been delayed by decades. We want to honor that history by honoring Ike.

Mark McCormick is executive director of the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita.

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