It was 1954, and the Supreme Court had just issued the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision banning racial segregation in schools.

In his first news conference afterward, President Dwight D. Eisenhower chose not to strongly endorse it.

“The Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country, and I will obey,” he said.

That statement helps illustrate that Eisenhower was lukewarm on desegregation, said one of his biographers, Jim Newton.

"He did what was required of him but evidenced no enthusiasm for it," Newton said recently.

David Nichols, another of Eisenhower's biographers, agreed Eisenhower's statement was lukewarm but said the president nevertheless felt strongly about desegregation and fought hard to accomplish it.

"It is much more important what he DID, not what he said or failed to say," he said.

Nichols, the retired academic dean at Southwestern College in Winfield, has written three books about Eisenhower:

• "A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution," published in 2008.

• "Eisenhower 1956: The President's Year of Crisis — Suez and the Brink of War," published in 2011.

• "Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower's Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy," published in 2017.

Newton, a former Los Angeles Times writer and editor who is a full-time public policy lecturer at UCLA, has written:

• "Earl Warren and the Nation He Made," published in 2006.

• "Eisenhower: The White House Years," published in 2011.

Newton and Nichols agree that Eisenhower, who grew up in Abilene, Kan., helped lay the groundwork for school desegregation in 1953 by choosing then-California Gov. Earl Warren as the 14th chief justice of the Supreme Court.

At the time, Nichols stressed, Eisenhower was in the process of taking steps that brought about  the desegregation of all Armed Forces combat units by October 1954.

Though President Harry S. Truman had issued an executive order requiring that in 1948, most of the actual enforcement of the order was accomplished by Eisenhower, a former five-star general who was highly respected by the military, Nichols said.

He noted that Eisenhower appointed Warren as chief justice while Congress was in recess on Sept. 30, 1953, at a time when the Brown v. Board case was already in front of the high court. Warren's appointment was not confirmed by the Senate until March 1, 1954.

In the meantime, Nichols said, Warren was laying the groundwork for the unanimous decision the high court issued in the Brown case on May 17, 1954.

Newton said he didn't think Eisenhower fully anticipated what he was getting in the area of civil rights when he appointed Warren.

Eisenhower was ambivalent about desegregation, having not made support for that a key issue during his successful presidential campaign in 1952, Newton said.

"I think Eisenhower's heart was in the right place and his appointments helped him compile a good record, but i don't think he understood the moral urgency of it — and Warren did," Newton said.

He suggested that in choosing Warren as chief justice, Eisenhower primarily "relied on his gut" and took into account that they both came from the moderate, internationalist wing of the Republican Party.

"Eisenhower certainly imagined that they were more alike than they were," Newton said.

He said their differences in opinion were illustrated by a discussion that occurred at a White House stag dinner as the Supreme Court deliberated over the Brown case. 

Newton's book about Warren quotes from his memoirs in saying Eisenhower told Warren the Southern states were full of goodwill and good intentions.

It shares Warren's story that Eisenhower said: "These are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes."

When the high court subsequently banned school segregation, Eisenhower and his administration were "pulled in" to having to support that, Newton said.

Nichols disagreed. He said Eisenhower demonstrated his enthusiasm for civil rights by taking steps that included fighting successfully to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and sending federal troops that year to Little Rock, Ark., after Gov. Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block nine black students from entering a formerly all-white high school.

The federal troops subsequently escorted the "Little Rock Nine" into the school.

"That was an extraordinary thing, the first time federal troops sent into a Southern state since the Civil War," Nichols said.

Newton suggested the steps Eisenhower took regarding Little Rock were more about power than about desegregation.

"Eisenhower was somewhat ambivalent on desegregation, but he had no difficulty understanding force and power," he said.

Eisenhower was not willing to allow a state governor to defy federal law and, in doing so, deprive Americans of their constitutional rights, Newton said.

"If his ambivalence on this issue is to his discredit, his willingness to respond forcefully is to his credit," he said.

Nichols said he thinks, for the most part, historians have not been fair to Eisenhower. He attributed that to the profession's consisting largely of "Ivy League, liberal Democrats" whose political beliefs differ from those Eisenhower held.

Still, Nichols said, Eisenhower's reputation among those historians has improved in recent years.

He noted that results released in 2017 from a C-SPAN historian's survey of presidential leadership ranked Eisenhower as being fifth best among the nation's first 44 presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama.