In Little Rock, a Matter of Justice
Eisenhower confronts a political and moral crisis
Corrected on 8/21/07: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of former Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus.
Fifty years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered troops into Little Rock, Ark., to enforce a federal court order for school desegregation. It was an extraordinary action under any circumstances, more so in a former Confederate state.
But Little Rock was just the tip of the civil rights iceberg for Eisenhower. He had also desegregated the District of Columbia, completed the integration of the armed forces, appointed progressive federal judges, and secured passage of the first civil rights legislation in over 80 years.
Yet the myth persists that Eisenhower was, as even admiring biographer Stephen Ambrose put it, "no leader at all" in civil rights and that his "refusal to lead was almost criminal."
Why did the myth endure? Eisenhower, although a political success, was not a professional politician. He was a man of deeds rather than words, so a focus on what he said can overlook what he did. Secondly, many documents illuminating Eisenhower's civil rights leadership have only just become available. And finally, Ike was a 19th-century man, raised in an era of blatant white supremacy. When he was born, slavery had been supplanted by racial segregation, enshrined in law in the South and in practice in the North. It was Eisenhower's lot to serve as president when frustration with this situation boiled over.
The morning of Monday, Sept. 23, 1957, chaos reigned at Central High School. A mob gathered, determined to keep the African-American students from entering the school. The men were dressed in gray and khaki work clothes, straw hats, and work shoes. Among the "obvious ringleaders," according to reporters, was Jimmy Karam, the state athletic commissioner and a close associate of Gov. Orval Faubus.
During the melee, eight of the Negro students slipped through a side door of the school. "Oh, my God, they're going in! The niggers are in!" Negro reporters had, in effect, distracted the rioters while the students entered. A mob ringleader bellowed: "Come on, let's go in the school and drag them out!" A white girl ran down the street and shouted hysterically: "The niggers got in! They tricked us! The niggers got in!"
At noon, Virgil Blossom, the superintendent of schools, called Arthur Caldwell, the chief of the civil rights section in the U.S. Justice Department, and pled for federal assistance. Blossom estimated the size of the mob at 1,500. Eventually, the crowd broke through the police barricades surrounding the school, and the police removed the students for their own protection.
About-face. Meanwhile, President Eisenhower had returned to Newport, R.I., where he had been taking a short vacation. Earlier that month he had met there with Faubus, urging him to obey the court order. Now, he was boarding his yacht to go to the country club, where he was intent on playing golf. But when he landed, he received an urgent message from the attorney general. He ordered the boat turned around.