Issue Civil Rights

Lena Washington


Museum of the Moving Image
The Living Room Candidate
"Lena Washington," Eisenhower, 1956

LENA WASHINGTON: I'm Lena Washington, a mother. I'm voting for Ike because I think he can give us lasting peace. He stopped Communist aggression in Indochina, Iran and right here in America. And Guatemala. Ike ended the Korean war too. That's why I like Ike, and he'll get my vote.


"Lena Washington," Citizens for Eisenhower, 1956

Video courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

From Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2012. (accessed June 21, 2024).


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Civil rights didn't really emerge as a potent and divisive issue in presidential politics until the late 1960s. Before that, candidates made occasional ads courting African American voters. By viewing these ads, one can see changing attitudes toward race as a political issue.
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Lena Washington Equal Opportunity Harry Belafonte Civil Rights Busing/Law and Order Civil Rights The First Civil Right Busing Pearl Bailey Willie Horton
In 1952 and 1956, African Americans did appear in a number of Eisenhower ads. The ads didn't focus on any controversial issues; instead, they indicated an attempt to reach a wide demographic. Also in 1956, many of Eisenhower's ads targeted women voters.
Beyond its general plea for equal opportunity for all citizens, this ad can be seen as a precursor to the legislative battles of the 1960s. Stevenson states that new policies are needed in housing and employment regulations in order to ensure equal opportunity.
Harry Belafonte was a popular recording artist and film star, and the first African American to win an Emmy award, when he made this ad endorsing John F. Kennedy. In the 1950s, he became an active participant in the emerging civil rights movement, and he became a friend and financial supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. President Kennedy appointed Belafonte a cultural adviser to the Peace Corps.
Richard Nixon speaks on behalf of civil rights by making the argument that equal rights for all citizens will help the United States fight the war on Communism. The fight against Communism was Nixon's signature issue throughout the 1950s.
Third-party candidate George Wallace ran a relatively successful campaign in 1968 with a strongly segregationist platform. Wallace won five Southern states, signaling a seismic shift in the electoral map. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Republicans have dominated the South in presidential elections, except for the years that Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton won their elections.
Hubert Humphrey was a passionate advocate of civil rights throughout his career, and a pioneer on the issue. At the 1948 Democratic convention, he made a landmark speech, saying, “To those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late! To those who say this civil rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!”
The riots and demonstrations that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King were part of the growing turbulence that formed the backdrop of the 1968 election. Richard Nixon ran as a “law and order” candidate, speaking on behalf of what he called the “Silent Majority.” In this ad, he created a new definition of civil rights by arguing that “the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence.”
In this cinéma vérité ad that takes us inside the Oval Office, Richard Nixon talks about his opposition to busing, a program of government-mandated integration of schools.
Republican Pearl Bailey gives a rather lukewarm endorsement of President Ford in an ad that seems to be pitched at African American voters.
With the notorious Willie Horton commercial, about an African American convict who brutally assaulted a white couple while on a weekend leave from prison, the Bush campaign injected racial fear into the 1988 election. The ad was produced by an independent group, and only aired as a paid spot in Maryland, but it received extensive national media coverage.