Michael J. Klarman is the author most recently of Unfinished Business: Racial Equality in American History and is the James Monroe Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia. His book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality won the 2005 Bancroft Prize. In the post below Klarman commemorates the dispatch of federal troops to Little Rock by reminding us why this was such a pivotal moment. Read more posts by Klarman here.
Why Little Rock Mattered
Sept. 24, 2007 (50th anniversary of the dispatch of federal troops to Little Rock)
Fifty years ago today, President Eisenhower sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to defend the right of nine African American students to attend formerly all-white Central High School. For three reasons, Little Rock was an epic event in the modern civil rights movement.
First, the president’s willingness to use troops demonstrated that southern school districts could no longer ignore desegregation orders issued by federal courts. Most southern whites preferred to maintain segregated school systems even after the Supreme Court had ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954. In fact, between 1955 and 1957, the percentage of southern whites believing that school integration was inevitable decreased. Almost no desegregation occurred in the South during these years, and President Eisenhower showed little inclination to enforce the Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Indeed, during the summer before the Little Rock crisis, the president declared that he could imagine no set of circumstances in which he would use federal troops to enforce court desegregation decrees.
But in September 1957, Eisenhower changed his mind. With the president backing up the Supreme Court, white southerners were left with one avenue to preserve racial segregation—closing the schools. Governors Orval Faubus of Arkansas and Lindsay Almond of Virginia did close some schools in the fall of 1958, but the costs to local communities proved prohibitive, and public opinion quickly turned against school closures and in favor of token compliance with Brown.
Second, Little Rock was the first in a series of dramatic public confrontations over civil rights that ultimately shifted national opinion in favor of progressive racial change. From the day Brown was decided, opinion polls revealed that most whites outside of the South agreed with the decision, but they mostly favored gradual compliance over aggressive enforcement. In the mid-1950s, southern whites were far more intensely committed to preserving the status quo of racial segregation than were northern whites to changing it.
It was southern white violence against peaceful black civil rights demonstrators that changed national opinion on race. Violent confrontations over school desegregation tended to reveal blacks at their best and whites at their worst. The few blacks who had been handpicked as desegregation pioneers were almost always middle class, bright, well dressed, well mannered, and nonviolent. The mobs fighting to exclude them from white schools tended to be lower class, vicious, profane, unruly, and violent. Media images of these confrontations, according to one contemporary newspaper editorial, showed “quiet, resolute Negro children defying jeers and violence and sadism.” One NAACP leader “thanked God for Governor Faubus. He has hastened integration five years by opening the eyes of the country to the kind of thinking that will call out the National Guard to keep nine Negro students out of Little Rock High School.”
Third, although Little Rock should have discouraged extremism by demonstrating the futility of massive resistance to Brown, its immediate effect was to further radicalize southern opinion and to empower politicians who promised to defy “federal tyranny.” On statewide television, Governor Faubus referred to Little Rock as an “occupied” city, implicitly appealing to the bitter historical memories that Arkansas whites had of the Civil War and of Reconstruction, when federal troops had invaded the South.
Southern whites overwhelmingly supported Faubus and condemned Eisenhower. A North Carolina congressional representative asserted, “The issue of integrated schools is dwarfed by the precipitous and dictatorial stab at the rights of an individual state.” Several southern politicians compared the president’s use of federal troops at Little Rock to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia condemned the president’s use of “storm troopers.” In Alabama, circuit judge George Wallace compared Eisenhower to Hitler and accused the president of substituting “military dictatorship for the Constitution of the United States.”
Faubus parlayed his defiance of federal authority into a landslide victory in his 1958 quest for a third term as governor; he subsequently won three more consecutive gubernatorial elections. Throughout the South, huge and wildly enthusiastic crowds attended Faubus’s speeches, and a national Gallup poll identified him as one of the world’s ten most admired statesmen, along with Eisenhower, Truman, and Churchill. Elsewhere in the South, post-Little Rock political contests featured militant segregationists competing for the most extreme positions and bragging of their willingness to defy federal authority.
The racial extremists elected to office after Little Rock promised uncompromising stands against integration and used incendiary rhetoric that inspired violent resistance. For example, Senator James Eastland of Mississippi condemned Brown as “illegal, immoral, dishonest, and a disgrace” and proclaimed that “resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” Congressman James Davis of Georgia called Brown “a monumental fraud which is shocking, outrageous and reprehensible” and denied that citizens had any obligation “to bow the neck to this new form of tyranny.” These politicians either knew that such rhetoric was likely to incite violence, or they were criminally negligent for not knowing it.
When such violence erupted—in places like Birmingham and Selma, Alabama—it outraged national television audiences. Newspapers called the violence “a national disgrace.” Citizens voiced their “sense of unutterable outrage and shame” and demanded that Congress take action to suppress such “barbarism and savagery.” President John F. Kennedy went on national television to announce that civil rights were a “moral issue as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution,” and his administration introduced landmark civil rights legislation. It was the violence inspired by confrontations like the one in Little Rock that made such legislation possible. Ironically, the harder southern whites fought to maintain white supremacy, the more they seemed to accelerate its demise.
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