Presidential Leadership and Civil Rights in the Era before Brown

60 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2013  

Lynda G. Dodd

The City University of New York (CUNY) - City College

Date Written: February 28, 2013


Influential scholarship by political scientists studying the courts has highlighted the ways that leaders of political regimes, especially presidents, use judicial politics to promote their agendas. Taking the Truman administration's efforts to reform civil rights enforcement policies as an exemplary case study of presidential leadership, this article offers a critique of recent scholarship that centers the analysis on the institutional resources of the presidency. Through an extensive review of leading newspapers of the era and the archival records of the President's Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR), this article instead highlights the work of social movement leaders, interest groups, and the African American press in organizing and calling for presidential action and more vigorous enforcement by federal government prosecutors. The result was an interactive dynamic of pressure and change. Civil rights leaders' forceful advocacy moved the president to act, and Truman's leadership — creating the PCCR, ordering the desegregation of the military, and raising the stature of the civil rights movement in a series of important presidential addresses — offered an unprecedented level of support to the cause of civil rights, even as his proposals for civil rights legislation were thwarted in Congress. This same interactive process produced one of the unheralded achievements of this historic presidential committee: the PCCR's endorsement of calls, from the NAACP and other civil rights attorneys, for a more active amicus practice in the Solicitor General's office, an endorsement that triggered an abrupt change in the federal government's amicus role. Previous scholars have described this amicus policy shift as an example of independent executive branch action to promote civil rights. This article instead reveals longstanding resistance by the Justice Department to a robust amicus practice and shows that the origins of the policy shift are properly located in the private civil rights bar's advocacy, bolstered by the support of the PCCR.

Keywords: civil rights, President Truman, NAACP

JEL Classification: K39

Suggested Citation

Dodd, Lynda G., Presidential Leadership and Civil Rights in the Era before Brown (February 28, 2013). Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 85, No. 4, 2010. Available at SSRN:

Lynda G. Dodd (Contact Author)

The City University of New York (CUNY) - City College ( email )

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