The Little Rock Central High School incident of 1957 in Arkansas brought international attention to the civil rights cause. The Montgomery Bus Boycott may have been important but it hardly had media appeal. Here at Little Rock, you had a state fighting against federal authority, national guard troopers facing professional paratroopers and a governor against a president. As part of a media circus, it proved compulsive viewing – but what happened was shown throughout the western world and brought the civil rights issue into the living rooms of many people who may have been unaware of what was going on in the South.
Eisenhower had shown that he had little faith in measures to support the African American community in the South simply because he believed that a change of heart was required and that enforcement would not work – if anything, enforcement would make matters worse. In 1957 a civil rights bill was being pushed through Congress and Eisenhower made it clear that it did not have his support. This bill was very mild but the leader of the Senate majority, Lyndon Johnson (a future US president and from Texas) watered it down so that Southern senators would not ruin what was on paper. The bill was passed into law in 1957 with a 72 to14 vote. It barely changed anything but it was more a symbol of hope that the law could be used to change Southern society. It was, in fact, the first civil rights act to pass Congress since the Civil War. The “New York Times” called it:
“incomparably the most significant domestic action of any Congress this century.”
However, 1957 also saw serious problems for Eisenhower over desegregated schools in Little Rock. What happened at Little Rock surprised many as the school board and the city’s mayor both agreed that token efforts should be made to accept the law desegregating schools. But the governor of Arkansas, Orville Faubus, had other ideas.
On the day before the school should have accepted a number of African American students, Faubus ordered 270 National Guards troops to move into the Little Rock Central High School. He argued that the troops were needed to maintain law and order as the introduction of African Americans youths to a white school could provoke trouble. Therefore, his rationale for the troops being there was the maintenance of social order. In fact, their task was to keep out of the white Little Rock Central High School, nine African American students.
On the first day of the school year, the nine students did not show up – on the advice of the school board. On the second day, they arrived escorted by two white ministers and two African American ministers. They were stopped from entering by the National Guard. As the students left, they were verbally abused by white students and adults from Little Rock. These scenes were captured on television and shown throughout the world. America was shocked at what it saw. In this case, the camera could not lie.
Here was a federal law being challenged by a state governor. If Eisenhower failed here, where would it end? Ironically, only two months earlier Eisenhower had publically stated that he would not use Federal troops to enforce desegregation. Eisenhower spent 18 days conferring with Faubus and the mayor. During this time, the African American students stayed at home and the school remained guarded by the National Guard. They only left the school when a federal court ordered them to leave.
By this time, Little Rock was in a state whereby the people could have become very violent and law and order could have disintegrated.
On Monday 23rd September, the nine African American students arrived at the school again. They got in to the school by a delivery entrance. When a large white mob heard that they were in the school building, their anger spilled over and African Americans in the street were attacked as were reporters known to be writing for northern newspapers – only 150 local police were on standby to protect everybody from a much larger body of thugs. The mayor of the city phoned the White House to ask for Federal help fearing a total breakdown of law and order. The nine students were smuggled out of the school for their own safety and sent home. The 150 police clearly showed that they were in sympathy with the mob – one took off his badge and simply walked away.
On that day Eisenhower did nothing and simply asked for the mob to go home. The next day – the 24th September – another white hate mob turned up at the school and Eisenhower was forced to send in 1,100 paratroopers to establish law and order and he federalised the Arkansas National Guard and put it under Washington’s command. He found such actions “repugnant” and he did them not to support desegregation but to establish law and order and he did so not as president but as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It was the first time since the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction that federal troops had been sent to the South to assist the African American community there.
His actions pleased no one. The north and west felt that he had been too slow in dispatching federal troops and had not been decisive. The South turned on one of their own – Eisenhower was from the South. Senator Russell of Georgia likened the paratroopers to “Hitler’s storm troopers”. Another senator likened the act to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The paratroopers stayed until the end of November. The National Guardsmen – under Federal control – stayed for one year. Eight of the nine students stayed for the whole academic year and one – Ernest Green – graduated to college. The students during their year were regularly spat at by a small but nasty minority. The school’s principal had his life threatened and threats were made to bomb the school.
Faubus was re-elected for another four terms as governor of Arkansas. In the academic year 1958 to 1959, he closed all schools in Little Rock rather than accept desegregation. In this sense, he lost the battle of Little Rock but he won the war. Little Rock Central High School did not open up with a desegregated school population until 1960. As late as 1964, only 3% at a maximum of African American school children attended desegregated schools. Forcible desegregation of schools simply would not work if the students there did not want it to work.