In Little Rock, a Matter of Justice
Eisenhower confronts a political and moral crisis
At their meeting, Eisenhower had demanded that Faubus change his orders to the Arkansas National Guard troops, from blocking desegregation to enabling it. The press knew nothing about the president's ultimatum to the governor at Newport. Now Faubus had done what the public erroneously assumed the president had requested.
At 3:44 p.m., Eisenhower received a frantic wire from the mayor of Little Rock, Woodrow Wilson Mann, who declared that the mob at Central High School "was no spontaneous assembly" and alleged that followers of Faubus had "agitated, aroused, and assembled" the mob. Eisenhower's rage was still evident in his memoirs: "Cruel mob force had frustrated the execution of an order of a United States court, and the governor...was refusing to lift a finger to support the local authorities." The president now had the justification and the obligation to act.
A decision to send troops into a southern state for the first time since Reconstruction would be controversial, to say the least. An address to the nation, preceded by a statement providing legal justification for the intervention, would be crucial.
The speech that was drafted was vintage Eisenhower, rippling with the vivid language he used when intending "to make several things clear." First, he said: "the federal law and orders of a United States District Court...cannot be flouted with impunity"; second, "I will use the full power of the United States, including what ever force may be necessary, to prevent any obstruction of the law and to carry out the orders of the federal court." His anger flashed in Point 3: "It will be a sad day for this country," Eisenhower said, "if school children can safely attend their classes only under the protection of armed guards."
On the morning of September 24, the president and the attorney general also discussed military options. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor preferred using Guard rather than Army troops, but Eisenhower feared that using Arkansas units might pit "brother against brother." As he waited for further word from Little Rock, he called his spiritual adviser, the Rev. Billy Graham. Graham told the president that dispatching troops was "the only thing [he could] do."
Frantic. At 9:16 a.m., Eisenhower received a second frantic telegram from Mayor Mann: "The immediate need for federal troops," he wired, "is urgent." At 12:22 p.m., Eisenhower signed the executive order dispatching troops. The first of 52 aircraft carrying approximately 1,000 troops departed from Fort Campbell, Ky. Two hours later, the Army announced that 500 men of the 101st Airborne Division would land in Little Rock "within the hour."
That night, at about 9, Eisenhower sat at his desk in the Oval Office, wearing a gray suit with a blue shirt and tie to deliver his remarks. He began: "I felt that, in speaking from the house of Lincoln, of Jackson, and of Wilson, my words would better convey both the sadness I feel in the action I was compelled today to take and the firmness with which I intend to pursue this course." Ike had carefully chosen these words. His consistent stance on civil rights, to the dismay of his liberal critics, had been to avoid saying anything that would further inflame feelings in the South. Yet, at this moment, with soldiers on the ground in Arkansas, he chose to invoke the name of the president who had made bloody war on that region.