The cartoon ad for retired General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower’s presidential run, “I Like Ike,” was created in 1952 by a Disney employee. It was part of a campaign designed by the advertising agency BBDO and paid for by “Citizens for Eisenhower,” an independent group run by lawyer and New York politician Herbert Brownell.  

“I Like Ike” was a one-minute spot, distributed in the campaign’s last two weeks, and its upbeat message was intended to create excitement around Eisenhower’s Republican candidacy. It featured Uncle Sam leading a parade of homemakers, pipe fitters, cowboys, and other ordinary working Americans who marched past several doleful Democratic donkeys to the beat of a cheerful elephant banging a drum with its tail.

The spot spoke to a society of men in grey flannel suits: I like Ike because—well, because—everybody likes Ike!

Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Eisenhower in 1952, would try to replicate this magic in 1956 by rhyming “madly” and “Adlai,” which worked less well: across party lines, voters flocked to Eisenhower in that rematch too. But what you will also notice about “I Like Ike” if you watch it, other than its upbeat tune (and constant repetition of “like” and “Ike”), is that all the human cartoon characters are white. In at least 13 states, Black Americans voted in tiny numbers because state laws had created an elaborate set of barriers, often in majority-Black counties, to prevent them from wielding political power. In 1952, Black Southerners were also subject to Jim Crow, formal and informal practices that relegated most African Americans to inferior schools, prevented them from accessing public accommodations, put children to work at an early age, and required complete deference to whites. These laws, and social mandates, were enforced by violence: beatings, imprisonment, forced labor, and lynching.

In the former Confederacy, those values were the values of state Democratic parties, if not the national Democratic party, and Democrats ran those states with an iron fist. (Today, those same Democrats and their descendants are Republicans.) So, the ad sought to reassure white Americans everywhere that their values were Ike’s values, too. And “I Like Ike” had a seismic effect in a South where civil rights activists were already mobilizing against racist violence and official bigotry. Eisenhower not only took 39 states, he also captured the Democratic strongholds of Virginia, Florida, Texas, and Tennessee. In 1956, he added Louisiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

Eisenhower’s political affability, and his sheer blandness, often concealed and distracted from profound and growing political dissent in the United States. For decades, the 1950s was imagined in popular culture as an age of innocence and a site for white nostalgia. Dozens of books have declared the Age of Eisenhower to be a decade of conformity and consensus, of poodle skirts and the birth of rock n’ roll, high wages, home ownership, and college enrollments that boosted white working Americans into the middle class.

This collides uncomfortably with parallel histories of those years. The 1950s was also a time of political repression, led by anti-Communists in Washington and statehouses across the country. Students and progressives were already mobilizing to end nuclear proliferation. Gays and lesbians were beginning to organize publicly.

And most importantly, a mass movement of African Americans was mobilizing to end Jim Crow. As Eisenhower was still waffling on whether to run in April 1951—after all, he had never registered with a political party or even voted because he had spent his whole adult life in the military—Black activists had begun to launch civil disobedience campaigns to support existing National Association of Colored People lawsuits. Students in Prince Edward County, Virginia, launched a student strike to protest the conditions in their school. In 1952, that suit would be wrapped into Brown v. Board of Education.

The Supreme Court decided that case in favor of the plaintiffs in 1954, ordering that the nation’s schools be desegregated. That decision launched what was called “massive resistance:” white Southerners determined to defend segregation and white supremacy by any means necessary.

But as we know from prior episodes of this podcast, some white Southerners saw the world of privilege and violence they lived in and recoiled from it. One of them was Catharine Drew Gilpin, the daughter of two old Virginia families. Born in 1947, her youth unfolded during the phase of civil rights activism and massive resistance inaugurated by Brown. Increasingly, she looked at the society surrounding her beautiful Shenandoah Valley family home and understood that a world which expected her to uphold its values, and take her place as a well-behaved young lady, was wrong. As she grew up, she joined the ranks of Southern white women who have fought to make the United States a more democratic and just nation.

We now know this woman as Drew Gilpin Faust, a prize-winning historian of the United States South and the first woman president of Harvard University. And now, she’s the author of a new memoir, Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Mid-Century, out this month from Macmillan Publishers. In it, she recounts how she came to consciousness as a person who not just cared about social justice but also did something about it.

Program notes:

  • Drew mentions Civil War historian Douglas Southall Freeman (1886-1953) who wrongly characterized segregation in Virginia as a tacit agreement between Black and white Americans to remain separate which he called “the Virginia way.” You can read a critical study of the politics behind this myth in Jeff Thomas, The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power after 2016 (The History Press, 2019.)
  • You can learn more about massive resistance to school integration in Virginia in Matthew Lassiter and Andrew Lewis, eds., The Moderates’ Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 1998.)
  • Claire and Drew discuss the creation of so-called “segregation academies,” private schools that white Southerners established so that there children would not have to attend school with African American children. You can read more in this article by Slate’s Rebecca Onion (November 7, 2019.)
  • You can read more about Headmistress Elizabeth Hall in a speech that Faust gave at Concord Academy on November 2, 2012.
  • Drew mentions attending a talk by Martin Luther King at The Groton School, where he challenged white liberal students to support the movement for racial justice, a speech which echoed his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963.)
  • You can learn more about the history of Bryn Mawr College, as well as its similarities and differences from other women’s colleges, in Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930s (University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.) Horowitz has also written a biography of M. Carey Thomas, who shaped the college in the decades she was president.
  • Drew mentions the Port Huron Statement (1962), which called to college students to exercise moral leadership.
  • Drew discusses the changes women students demanded from college administrations as they sought to take control over their own lives and bodies. You can read more about this in Beth Bailey, Sex in the Heartland (Harvard University Press, 2002)

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).