|Things were not as cordial as they looked in this posed photo of President Dwight Eisenhower and Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus taken at the White House before Little Rock school desegregation blew up into a full blown Constitutional crisis.|
Sixty years ago President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus went eye ball to eye ball in what Eisenhower feared could be the nation’s second Fort Sumner moment—a spark the could ignite a second Civil War. All of the ingredients were there including long building and bitter Southern resentment of Federal meddling in the cherished traditions of segregation and White supremacy, a defiant governor and inflamed White population, equally intransigent neighboring states that might leap at the opportunity to join a rebellion, and both executives had armed military forces under their command.
Under the circumstances it was understandable that the Republican President had significant qualms about taking confrontational action. But the old general was deeply steeped in ideas of Constitutional responsibility, a chain of command, and adherence to the rule of law. He might not have been wildly supportive of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that mandated and end to “separate but equal” public schools. He might even have had qualms about its sweeping reach and effect on civil tranquility—Ike was never entirely clear on the depth of his personal commitment to Civil Rights. But he was absolutely clear on the rule of law and considered it his sworn duty at President to uphold established law no matter the hazard.
Faubus bet everything on the chance that a man born in Texas to a Virginia bred mother would not act against White people. He would regret that gamble.
|The true heroes of Little Rock these nine students endured violence, harassment, constant threats, and soul crushing hatred.|
On September 4, 1957 Faubus mobilized the state National Guard to block 9 Black students from beginning classes at Little Rock Central High School. The nine students, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo, were all legally registered at the school after the local Board of Education had voted unanimously to follow the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and desegregate the school.
The local chapter of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) had carefully recruited the students, picking only outstanding students with excellent attendance records and “respectable” families. The Mothers’ League of Central High, a thinly disguised front for the White Capital Citizen’s Council, had appealed to Faubus in August to block the Board’s decision to integrate the school. The Governor supported the group’s appeal for an emergency injunction to block integration to “prevent violence.” Federal Judge Ronald Davies denied the request and ordered that school open with the students.
Faubus went on television on September 2, the eve of the scheduled opening of classes, to announce his call up of the Guard, again supposedly to prevent violence. The School Board asked the nine students not to attend the first day of school, but Judge Davis ordered the Board to proceed on September 4.
Guardsmen circled the building and a mob of hundreds of white protestors clogged the surrounding area. Guardsmen turned back one group of students. Fifteen year old Elizabeth Eckford, approaching alone toward a different entrance was also turned away. As she turned to walk to a bus stop, she was surrounded by the mob. “They moved closer and closer,” she later recalled, “...Somebody started yelling ... I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.” She finally made her way to the bus stop and escaped, but her ordeal was captured by national television cameras and still photographers.
|The gauntlet run by 15 year old Elizabeth Eckford after she was turned away from Little Rock Central on the first day of school was terrifying.|
The Board again appealed to Judge Davies for a relief injunction. He again refused and directed U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. to file a petition for an injunction against Faubus and officers of the Arkansas National Guard to prevent them from obstructing his court order to desegregate the school.
As legal maneuvering continued, tension in the city mounted. On September 9 the Black students did get some support from the Council of Church Women who asked the Governor to remove the troops and allow desegregation to proceed. They announced a city-wide prayer service for September 12. Members of the council were threatened with violence.
Meanwhile Democratic Congressman Brook Hays arranged a meeting between the Governor and President Dwight D. Eisenhower at his vacation home in Newport, Rhode Island. Faubus refused to back down.
On September 20 Judge Davies issued a direct order to cease interfering with the enrollment of the Black students. Faubus recalled the Guard and left the state for a Southern Governor’s Conference where he hoped to rally support.
On Monday, September 23 Little Rock Police were left to contend with a snarling mob of over 1000 people. The Black students slipped into the building by a side entrance while the crowd was distracted by beating four black reporters covering developments. When the mob discovered that they were inside they threatened to storm the school. Once again the nine students were sent home for “their own safety” with police protection.
Eisenhower had enough. When Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann appealed for Federal support for his overwhelmed police, the President was ready to act. He nationalized the Arkansas National Guard to take it out from under the command of the Governor although he was not entirely sure that senior Guard Officers would obey order or that the Guard troops might not mutiny and declare allegiance to their state.
In a move unprecedented since Reconstruction, Eisenhower ordered the elite 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock.
|Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock 9 after they arrived at school in a military convoy.|
His decision to use those troops was highly significant. The 101st was based in Fort Campbell, Kentucky but several other units were nearer. The bloated Army was near it peak of peace time manpower with the height of the Cold War and near universal service via the draft. But only a handful of elite divisions were fully combat ready and more important highly disciplined under the most trusted officers. And most of those were deployed with NATO in Germany or in Korea. Other units were what might be called the Beetle Bailey Army, barely trained beyond basic and mired in the boredom of camp life. They were viewed as an on-duty reserve that could be mobilized and trained in the event of a war crisis. Some of those units might have been regarded as lax if deployed. No one would think that of the Screaming Eagles.
The next day, September 27, troops took up positions and escorted the students into the building.
Federal troops continued to escort the students daily for a week. The majority of the troops were withdrawn and duty transferred to the Guard under close supervision of Regular Army officers on October 1. Students first attended school in civilian rather than military vehicles on October 25 and all Federal troops were finally withdrawn in November.
The students were enrolled, but their ordeal was far from over. All were harassed and threatened by white students in the school. Melba Petillo had acid thrown in her eyes. Minnijean Brown was assaulted several times and eventually suspended and expelled for dropping a bowl of chili on an assailant in the lunch room. All students were completely ostracized by their white classmates. School authorities eventually also suspended more than 100 white students and expelled four.
Despite the distraction, at the end of the school year Ernest Green became the first black student to graduate from Central High.
But it was not over. Faubus closed not only Central High but all four Little Rock high schools t for the 1958-’59 term. When courts ordered it re-opened in September of 1959 only two of the original Little Rock 9, Carlotta Walls and Jefferson Thomas, came back. They both graduated in 1961.
Other Southern Governors, notably Alabama’s George Wallace would continue defy Federal school desegregation orders, but the knowledge that the government was willing to call out the Army to enforce the desegregation undoubtedly prevented much future violence.