In Little Rock, a Matter of Justice
Eisenhower confronts a political and moral crisis
The other event that derailed Eisenhower's plans was a telegram from Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia. "There are millions of patriotic people in this country," he wired, "who will strongly resent the strong armed totalitarian police-state methods being employed at Little Rock." A red flush must have crept up the president's neck. But his response to the senator was restrained: "Few times in my life have I felt as saddened as when the obligations of my office required me to order the use of force with a state to carry out the decisions of a federal court."
"Racist outrages." A flood of other responses rolled into the White House. Pratt Remmel, the former mayor of Little Rock, wired the president that he had made "a wonderful speech" and that his "action had to be taken." One supporter telegraphed: "Hell hath no fury like the anger of a righteous man scorned. Go to it." The Soviet Union exploited what it called "racist outrages" in the United States; commentators pointed to "Negro persecution" and recounted "new acts of anti-Negro terror and oppression" in Little Rock. Mississippi state Republican chairman Wirt A. Yerger charged Eisenhower with "joining hands with the NAACP and the Democratic High Command in a scheme to destroy the Constitution of the United States." And South Carolina Democratic Sen. Olin D. Johnston called for "warrants to be issued for the arrest of federal soldiers responsible for unnecessary bludgeoning of Arkansas citizens and unlawful invasion of their homes."
Martin Luther King Jr., a few days after he had labeled the president "wishy-washy" on Little Rock, also wrote to Eisenhower. "The overwhelming majority of southerners, Negro and white, stand firmly behind your resolute action," he said. He worried that white violence against blacks would elicit a violent reaction from African-Americans. But he challenged the Negro community to adhere to nonviolence.
"You must meet physical force with soul force," he urged the Little Rock leaders. "Keep struggling with this faith, and the tragic midnight of anarchy and mob rule which encompasses your city at this time will be transformed into the glowing daybreak of freedom and justice."
From A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution by David A. Nichols. Copyright © 2007 by David A. Nichols. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, New York.