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.
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.
The president declared: "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts."
Eisenhower sought common ground with white southerners by using language that critics would later portray as pandering to the South or reflecting the president's disagreement with the Supreme Court decision: "Our personal opinions about the decision have no bearing on the matter of enforcement; the responsibility and authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution are very clear."
The president expressed empathy for the South, a region where, he said, "I have many warm friends." He expressed his belief that "the overwhelming majority of the people in the Southincluding those of Arkansas and of Little Rockare of goodwill, united in their efforts to preserve and respect the law even when they disagree with it."
Meanwhile, in Little Rock, the world of the nine African-American students had changed. Melba Pattillo wrote that night in her diary: "I don't know how to go to school with soldiers." She prayed: "Please show me. P.S. Please help the soldiers to keep the mobs away from me." After Melba had gone to sleep, she was jolted awake by the doorbell and loud voices. A group of white men was standing on the porch. Holding a shotgun, her grandmother called through the door: "State your business, gentlemen, or I'll be forced to do mine." One responded: "We're from the office of the president of the United States. We have a message from your president." Displaying their identification, they told Melba's mother: "Let your daughter go back to school, and she will be protected."
A reporter described the scene at Central High School on September 25 as "chilling." "The force of law shows nakedly on the point of a bayonet," he wrote. At 9:25 a.m., jeeps arrived at Central High's main entrance, and 30 soldiers accompanied the nine students up the wide steps and into the school. As many as 50 students left after the black students entered, and approximately 750 had failed to appear for school at all.
Outside, agitators taunted the soldiers. A woman lowered her car window and cried, "Heil Hitler!" A bus driver yelled, "All you need now is a Russian flag." By midday, the crowd around the school had dwindled to about 25. And by the next day, it had disappeared. On September 26, Faubus addressed the state, proclaiming: "We are now an occupied territory."
The peaceful day that Eisenhower had planned for September 26 was not to be. First, the administration's contingency plans for a larger conflict in the South produced an embarrassing gaffe. The Army announced that units "throughout the southern states have been placed on special alert to deal with any possible outbreaks in connection with school segregation." The order, if known to Eisenhower in advance, was not meant to be public. It presented Eisenhower's enemies with more ammunition. Faubus exploited it in a speech, leaving the impression that the troop deployment to Little Rock was only the first step in a larger military occupation of the South. He ignored the fact that the order had been revoked four hours earlier.
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.