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September 8, 2000

Presidents and Civil Rights

As this year's Presidential election switches into high gear the words of the candidates face intense scrutiny. Among the words that receive particular attention are those that pertain to race. Already at the Republican and Democratic conventions race was a focal point. And recent TV ads aired by both George W. Bush and Al Gore underscore race again as they focus on the candidates' relationships to Hispanic voters.

One person who pays close heed to race rhetoric is Calvin College communication professor Garth Pauley. Indeed presidential rhetoric on race was the topic of his Penn State University doctoral dissertation, a dissertation that was honored as one of the best in the country and will be published in book form next spring.

The title of the book is "The Modern Presidency and Civil Rights," and in it Pauley examines a subject that every president since Franklin Roosevelt has confronted during his tenure in the White House. Indeed, Pauley notes that most have faced intense demands to speak publicly about the nation's racial problems and possible solutions.

Modern American presidents, he says, have become a major focal point for the civil rights struggle. And their words matter. "Americans have increasingly looked to the president to provide moral leadership on civil rights issues," he says. "In addition, the president can use the bully pulpit to make it clear where the federal government stands on moral issues. This also provides activists with the moral high ground and tells the opposition that they're on the losing side. Moreover, it says to the world that despite our problems, the nation is committed to racial progress."

In the book Pauley focuses on four crucial speeches, the circumstances surrounding them, and their effect on public attitudes and policy. The four are: Harry Truman's address of June 29, 1947, to the NAACP; Dwight Eisenhower's national address on September 24, 1957, following the integration crisis at Little Rock; John F. Kennedy's speech on June 11, 1963, labeling civil rights as primarily a moral issue; and Lyndon Johnson's voting rights message of March 15, 1965.

His perspective is both historical and critical. He explores the pattern of presidential discourse on race in the modern era and considers the promise and limitations of presidential talk with regard to civil rights.

"The president's rhetorical influence can shape civil rights policy initiatives," he says. "For instance, Johnson's discourse helped pass civil rights legislation whereas FDR's silence was a key factor that prohibited the passage of anti-lynching legislation." Pauley says that in his opinion Lyndon Johnson most impacted the nation's progress on civil rights, while he believes that Harry Truman "is a surprising second" because he dared to speak out vigorously at a time when most national politicians were silent on the issue.

Read about a new book by Pauley's colleague Quentin Schultze

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Contact Phil de Haan.