TAHPDX: History Topic

Eisenhower & School Integration: Crisis in Little Rock


Image Citation: Elizabeth Eckford enters Central High School from PBS: Eye on the Prize (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eyesontheprize/


Time Period: 1950s

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NOTE: This is one of twenty-four topic summaries included in this TAH program and is designed to orient readers to the breadth and depth of the subject each discusses.   These summaries are by no means exhaustive.  Each one is a brief overview of a complex historical topic.  Because of the informal nature of a summary, they are not necessarily based on primary sources nor do they employ the full range of scholarly techniques, such as foot- or endnotes.  This style of presentation is merely one of the varieties of historical writing that readers will encounter in the exploration of history. 

A welter of landmark legal cases, dramatic legislative actions, and physical confrontations have defined the history of race relations in the United States.  One of the most important, but least appreciated decisions of the twentieth century concerning race was the one made by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to insert the federal government into the racial politics of Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958.  The Supreme Court, in its magisterial 1954 majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, had reversed the doctrine of “separate but equal,” the heart of its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, ensuring segregation for 58 years.  But Brown was not a guarantee of swift change.  When nine black students attempted to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School in the face of violent opposition by many whites and defiance from Governor Orval Faubus, the President, a decent man who like most whites was indifferent to the plight of blacks, first reluctantly, then increasingly firmly, acted.  By sending in the 82nd Airborne and federalizing the Arkansas National Guard, Eisenhower framed the difficulty of enforcing the fundamental civil rights of an oppressed minority, even in the face of a Supreme Court opinion.  The crisis of Central High School stretches back in history to the Plessy case and forward through the bussing crisis of the 1960s and ‘70s and onward to recent conflicts over school desegregation in Louisville and Seattle.  Through study of this topic teachers will learn about the arc of influence a key decision may travel over time, how leadership can affect events, and the chronic struggle over equality in American life.  At the same time, through study of desegregation issues in the Northwest, they will learn that it has been not merely an issue for an isolated part of the nation, but a pervasive problem in American life.

Image Citation: Elizabeth Eckford
reconciles with Hazel Massey



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  1. Introduction
  2. Race Relations Post-Brown, Pre-Little Rock
  3. Orval Faubus, Progressive Reactionary
  4. Ike Takes Charge
  5. Anatomy of a Decision
  6. Desegregation in the Pacific Northwest
  7. Bibliography

Curricula developed for this topic:

1. Introduction

Most Americans, asked what the critical decision in the drive to end racial segregation in this country during the twentieth century was, would probably name the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas of 1954 [pdf resource].  This momentous finding by the Supreme Court of the United States was undoubtedly the single most important triumph over the entrenched system of segregation in America.  Yet in a 1955 subsequent decision known as Brown II [pdf resource] that followed an appeal from schools for relief from the judgment, the high court ordered desegregation to take effect “with all deliberate speed,” angering supporters of the first decision because of that phrase’s ambiguity, but pleasing segregationists for the same reason.  Those who were resistant to ending the system of separation of the races could, they realized, use the ambiguous words – deliberate speed – as a lawful excuse to resist, postpone, and evade integration for years.

Web Resource:  The Brown Foundation. A foundation established as a tribute to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.  Provides background of the case, a traveling education kit and other resources.

In that way, the Brown decision became, at least temporarily, an abstraction – a mere essay on the harmful effects of the concept of “separate but equal” (the legal doctrine announced in Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896 [pdf resource] on which the division of the races was carried out on a daily basis in America).  A special concerted effort, perhaps a monumental struggle, would have to be mounted to implement Brown for its promise to be realized.  In 1832, President Andrew Jackson, had mocked the Supreme Court’s decision in Worcester v. Georgia protecting the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation, with the observation that Chief Justice John Marshall “has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”  The Cherokee never received the justice they had won.  In much the same way, the Brown decision lay inert, sneeringly ignored by officials all over the country, but especially in the South.  There, Jim Crow laws, instituted in the wake of Reconstruction in 1877, continued to govern every detail of daily relations between the races to ensure their separation from each other.  There had to be some deliberate action that would confirm Brown’s power to transform American society.

PDF Resource:  Plessy v. Ferguson Teaching Guide.  A complete teaching guide for the Plessy “separate but equal” case.

That action came in the form of a decision made roughly three years later, in 1957, when President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to assure the integration of the city’s Central High School.  Eisenhower was at best a reluctant warrior in the civil rights struggle, at worst an enabler by default of the perpetuation of segregation.  Like the majority of whites of the day, Ike was a complacent man satisfied with his own lot, and not imaginative enough to comprehend how difficult the lives of most African Americans were or how their plight could be ameliorated.  Once awakened to the profound slights of segregation endured by the nation’s African American population, he was not particularly interested in rectifying the difficulties under which they struggled on a day-to-day basis.  His view was that too rapid a march to desegregation would dangerously destabilize the country.  However, in eventually enforcing the law made by Brown, Eisenhower struck a blow which, in combination with other acts, forced Americans, let alone the citizens of Little Rock, to confront the reality of racial prejudice, the separation of the races, and its most important by-product, the oppression of black people, and set the country on the path to the dismantling of this crippling system.

The circumstances under which the Little Rock crisis unfolded were at once straightforward and complex.  In 1957, Little Rock’s leadership decided to desegregate its public schools.  Even though this was an extraordinary decision in the context of the 1950s South—only one other southern state had decided to comply with Brown—it was not unusual for Arkansas or the city itself.  By 1957, seven of the eight state universities had been desegregated, the state law school had been opened to blacks since 1949, and blacks were serving on various state boards and in elective office at the local level.  In Little Rock, the zoo, library, parks, and public buses were already desegregated.  The school board thought it could successfully desegregate its public school system with a cautious, well-thought-out program that included the desegregation initially of the high school in 1957, then in subsequent years the junior highs and finally the elementary schools.

As in the classic formulation concerning “the best laid plans…,” Little Rock’s orderly blueprint was not to come to fruition.  Rather, the city and its lone high school fell into a maelstrom involving regional culture, traditional social patterns, and banal politics that would paralyze it for two years, make it an exemplar of the stark realities of life in the segregated South, and force the President of the United States to use military might to compel an outcome with which he himself was at first highly uncomfortable.

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2. Race Relations Post-Brown, Pre-Little Rock

The eleven late states of the Old Confederacy [primary map resource] composed the South.  They included Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.  As the great historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in his classic work, The Burden of Southern History, “[t]he Southern heritage is distinctive.  For Southern history, unlike American, includes large components of frustration, failure, and defeat.”  This depressing legacy set the South apart from the rest of the nation in a negative way that was only emphasized by the economic backwardness of the region in the twentieth century.  Even after World War II, when the rest of the US was entering the greatest economic boom in history, the South largely remained an underdeveloped enclave dependent largely on agriculture and extractive industries.  Its romantic conception of itself as an at once misunderstood but superior part of the country, owing to its adherence to an idealized and outdated vision of Southern culture and the Democratic Party’s hegemony in politics, isolated it even further from the mainstream of American life.

Book Resource:  C. Vann Woodward. 1993.  The Burden of Southern History, 3rd Edition (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State University Press).

Perhaps the key distinction between the South and other parts of the nation lay in the large numbers of African-Americans who continued to live there.  Even after the advent of the mechanical cotton picker and other technological advancements in agriculture that dramatically reduced the need for their labor and triggered a mass exodus to the industrial centers of the North, African-Americans remained heavily concentrated in the region.  But they were immured at the bottom of a caste system underpinned by the stringent segregation laws that regulated every aspect of interaction between the races.  The vast majority of them were socially and economically immobile, stuck in profound poverty because of lack of educational opportunities, the poor health conditions under which they lived, the often brutal repression of their ability to express themselves politically, and the rigid and arcane customs of social intercourse that dictated social separation and reinforced every disadvantage under which they labored.

Map and GIS Data Resources:  African-Americans in the United States, 1950.  A series of maps showing the demographics of African-Americans from the 1950 U.S. Census (population, education, employment). African-American Demographics [Google Earth Project]

Although Brown was an “event” of earthshaking magnitude, it was not, as noted, an immediate cure for the plight of black people in America, let alone the South.  For one thing, it would take years for the federal bureaucracy to gear up to enforce it.  For another, as also already said, the dirty secret of American life was that even far outside the South, de facto if not de jure Jim Crows existed in many, if not most, places across the country.  No jurisdiction stepped up immediately to dismantle the edifice of separation that existed informally in northern cities and towns (although Nashville, Tennessee had tried to set a plan in motion, only to be thwarted by the clamor of the white public against it).  As a result, there was a period in the march toward equality that left the impression in white America that not much would change in the wake of the Brown decision.

PDF Resource:  From Terror to Triumph: The History of Jim Crow (by Ronald L. F. Davis, Ph. D.).  An essay on the origin and effects of Jim Crow in both the North and South.

A mantle of relative calm lay over the nation despite the strong negative feelings about integration that many whites harbored and the impatience black people felt now that the foundational legal principle of segregation had been negated.  Few white people could conceive of how the country could be integrated swiftly, and many were fearful of the consequences of any attempt to do it.  To most it was clear that implementing the Supreme Court’s order would take a long time, and even if Northerners didn’t use the Southern watchword, “gradualism,” that was what they expected and thought the prudent course.  Blacks had waited patiently for equality more than three quarters of a century since the end of the Civil War and were not expecting overnight miracles, but there was nevertheless a sense that the time for change had long passed. They wanted to see clear progress.

Two major racial incidents in the years between Brown and the integration crisis in Little Rock and one piece of legislation indicated the profound work to be done. One was the murder of the fourteen-year-old African American boy Emmett Till [web resources, see below ] in rural Mississippi and the subsequent trial of his accused killers.  Till, from Chicago and visiting relatives in Mississippi, had allegedly whistled at a white woman and asked her for a date.  Her husband and a relative, it was proved years later, killed him for this impudence.  However, the nation was treated to the spectacle of the defendants’ acquittal after a perfunctory trial.  Indeed, members of the jury later recounted with humor that they arrived at their verdict so quickly they whiled away some time chatting and drinking soda pop before announcing their decision, in order to lend an air of actual thoughtfulness to their deliberations.  Few were fooled by the attempt to dress the proceeding in the trappings of justice and the nation at large was shocked by the depth of oppression of blacks in the Deep South that the Till case illustrated.

Web Resources:

From PBS American Experience, The Murder of Emmett Till.

From Facing History, a series of four lessons using the PBS documentary, The Murder of Emmett Till Lessons.

The Emmett Till Story, a website dedicated to this incident. Includes information about the incident, the court case, articles and interviews.

The second major event was the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott [web resources, see below] which lasted from December 1, 1955 to December 20, 1956.  This episode brought Dr. Martin Luther King, then a young pastor at a black church in the city, and Rosa Parks, a local seamstress, to national recognition as symbols of the struggle for civil rights in the South.  If the Till case showed how  profoundly oppressed southern blacks were, the issue on which the bus boycott pivoted illustrated to the nation the cumbersome absurdity of custom in legally segregated society.  On Montgomery buses, white passengers sat in the front rows, filling the bus to the back.  Blacks packed the back rows, moving toward the front. When the two sections met, the bus was full.  Subsequent black passengers boarding had to stand.   When subsequent white passengers boarded the bus, everyone in the black rows closest to the front had to get up and stand, creating a new row for white people.  Rosa Parks set off the bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a white man who boarded her bus and not obeying the driver's seat assignments.  She was arrested and jailed.

In truth, Parks’s act of defiance was orchestrated by the local NAACP to challenge segregation on the buses.  King was later chosen to lead the movement because he was new to town and hadn’t been resident long enough to be intimidated by the white power structure.  The year in which the city’s blacks refused to ride the buses proved to be a near debacle economically for both the bus company and Montgomery’s downtown merchants.  The membership of the local White Citizens Council, an organization whose reason for being was to thwart desegregation and keep blacks “in their place” increased, as did acts of intimidation and violence against black people and their churches.  But the boycotters persisted, buoyed by national sentiment, which had turned against Montgomery’s white establishment.  In addition, the federal district court held the city’s segregation statute for buses unconstitutional, as did the US Supreme Court in a later appeal.  Three hundred and eighty-one days after it began, the boycott ended with a city ordinance that let black passengers sit wherever they wanted on Montgomery buses.

Web Resources:

The Montgomery Advertiser, links to the articles published during the Montgomery bus boycott and the Rosa Parks court case.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott.  A more detailed narrative and timeline of the bus boycott.

A third landmark of the period was the Civil Rights Act of 1957 [pdf resource], the first such legislation since Reconstruction.  Proposed by the Eisenhower administration, it was intended to ensure that African-Americans in the South could exercise the franchise.  But it was a timid gesture predicated on the fear that for the administration to do nothing on civil rights would alienate black voters in the North, on one hand, and that it would bring extremists on both sides out of the woodwork and destabilize the country, on the other.  However, vociferous opposition developed from Senators James Eastland of Mississippi, Richard Russell of Georgia, and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.  Coupled with the fear of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson that its passage would split and eventually destroy the Democratic Party, there was enough energy to amend the original bill into impotence.  Meanwhile, the drama of its passage threw a spotlight on the division within the Democrats’ ranks.  In fact, the version that passed was so weak that in the 1960 elections, fewer southern blacks voted than in the 1956 election.  Johnson’s ambivalent reaction to the act—he tried to gain credit from civil rights advocates for its passage as well as praise from segregationists for making it meaningless (and he was a friend of civil rights!)—reflected the country’s own ambivalence toward the African American struggle for equality.

Web Resource:  Primary documents regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1957 from the Eisenhower Archives.

Graphic Resource:  President Eisenhower signing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (from the Eisenhower Archives).

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3. Orval Faubus, Progressive Reactionary

Arkansas was both a backward and a progressive state in 1957.  It had a strong tradition of progressivism in its politics, but also of backwoods reaction and local machine domination.  On matters of race, its history was also mixed.  In parts of the state where African-Americans were few, there was little tension and nominal integration.  When it came, it went off untroubled.  In other areas, where the black population was larger, there tended to be greater difficulty because of a strong tradition of white domination.  On May 22, 1954, the Little Rock School Board decided to comply with the Supreme Court’s Brown decision when the court articulated the method and time frame for implementation, which it did in the Brown II decision of the next year.  In the meantime, the board told Superintendent Virgil Blossom to create a desegregation plan.  In May of 1956, the school board adopted the Phase Program Plan of gradual desegregation, informally known as the Blossom Plan, after its author.

This was the broad context in which Orval Faubus [pdf resource] made his decision to interdict the integration of Little Rock Central High School.  Faubus was a paradox and an artifact of Arkansas politics.  Having completed school only to the eighth grade, he nevertheless began his career as a teacher in a rural Arkansas town, eventually earning a high school diploma.  He subsequently attended a college in Mena, Arkansas known as Commonwealth (now long defunct), which had a reputation as a hotbed of leftism.  On returning from service in World War II, Faubus embarked on a political career, serving the state’s progressive Democratic governor Sid McMath as director of the highway commission.

As a protégé of the popular McMath, Faubus was well positioned to seek elective office.  In 1952, McMath fell out of favor with the voters and was defeated in the Democratic primary by a conservative Democrat named Francis Cherry.  Since the Democratic primary was tantamount in the general election, Cherry became governor, but shortly lost voter support himself and in 1954 Faubus challenged him in the gubernatorial primary.  Cherry campaigned against Faubus by painting his matriculation at Commonwealth College as evidence of communist sympathies.  Faubus tried to minimize his connections to the college, but they were eventually revealed to be more extensive than he had admitted—he had, for example, been student body president.  Still, he prevailed in the primary and won what, for the time and the place, was a narrow victory in the general election against his wealthy Republican opponent, Pratt C. Remmel (63-37 percent:  However, Remmel’s numbers were the best for a Republican candidate since Reconstruction).  The difficult campaign against Cherry and the relatively thin triumph over Remmel made Faubus thereafter wary of his right flank in the state’s politics.  In any case, Faubus’s initial months in office were marked by progressive actions that included desegregating state buses and public transportation and studying the prospect of introducing multi-racial schools into the state.  By 1957, Faubus had secured legislation for a divisive tax dedicated to increasing teacher salaries and he faced a primary election challenge from James D. Johnson, a leading Arkansas conservative and segregationist who was running an effective campaign against him.

Did Faubus gin up the school crisis to deflect criticism of the tax increase and to inoculate himself against the ever-growing potency of Johnson’s segregationist rhetoric in a state with an ambivalent heritage?  This was the interpretation of Harry Ashmore [web/video resources, see below ], the executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette and a one-time speech writer for Faubus, who wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning columns about the crisis at the time, advocating compliance with the law, which earned him the enmity of segregationists.

Web/Video Resource:  Harry Ashmore interview with Mike Wallace, 6/29/1958, about the integrity of journalists and the desegregation of Little Rock High School (from the University of Texas at Austin archives).

Web Resource:  Text of interview with Harry Ashmore by Scott London, an independent writer and radio interviewer, aired on National Public Radio on MLK Day in 1998.

Whatever the Governor’s motives, the battle was joined on September 2, 1957, the day before classes were to start at Central High.  That evening, Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard.  He instructed the soldiers to surround the high school and stop any black students from attending so as to protect citizens and property from what he said were caravans of possibly violent demonstrators heading toward the capitol.

On September 4, 1957, the African American students who had been selected by the school board to integrate Central High attempted to enter the building.  Originally, seventeen were recruited, mostly on the basis of grades, but by the fall only nine remained.  These students, subsequently labeled “the Little Rock Nine,” were turned away by Arkansas National Guard troops called out by the governor.  One student, Elizabeth Eckford, arrived at the campus and was immediately confronted by an irate mob of segregationist protestors.  Attempting to enter through the front door, she was directed back out to the street by the guardsmen.  She walked unescorted to the end of the street, engulfed in the surging crowd, and sat down on a bench to wait for a city bus [graphic resources below].  She later recalled that she “tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob—someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.” [pdf resource below]  Other students among the Nine arrived the same day and gathered at a corner near the school where they met an integrated group of local ministers who were there to support them.  They were also turned away by guardsmen.

Graphic Resources (Arkansas Democrat newspaper):
Elizabeth Eckford Arrives at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas (9/4/1957).
Elizabeth Eckford Waits for City Bus, Little Rock, Arkansas (9/4/1957).
Black Students Turned Away at Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas (9/4/1957).

PDF Resource:  Elizabeth Eckford Goes to School, by Daisy Bates (1957).  An article by Daisy Bates recounting the events and emotions of that day in September 1957, much of it told in Elizabeth’s words.

PDF Resource:  Counts, Will.  Life is More Than Just a Moment: The Desegregation of Little Rock's Central HighShort description of Counts’ book detailing the prize-winning photograph of Hazel Bryan [Massey] screaming at Elizabeth Eckford as she tried to enter Central High School and the reconciliation of the two women years later.

The Nine stayed home for more than two weeks, doing their schoolwork as best they could. When the federal court ordered Gov. Faubus to stop interfering with the court’s order, Faubus removed the guardsmen from in front of the school.  It was only on September 23 that the Nine finally entered the school for the first time, serenaded by a crowd outside chanting, “Two, four, six, eight…We ain’t gonna integrate!”   Some members of the mob chased and beat black reporters covering the event.   The Little Rock police, afraid they could not control the increasingly disorderly mass in front of the school, evacuated the Nine later in the morning. Again, the students returned home awaiting word on when they could safely attend school.

Web/Video Resource:  Orval Faubus interview with Mike Wallace, 9/15/1957, about his refusal to comply with the federal order to integrate the Central High School in Little Rock (from the University of Texas at Austin archives).

PDF Resource:  The 1957 Little Rock Crisis as Governor Faubus Saw It.  Faubus offers an explanation and defense of his actions in 1957 (from the Arkansas Online archives).

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4. Ike Takes Charge

If Faubus seems a paradox, President Eisenhower was a more straightforward personality, living in the broadest sense a Horatio Alger life of upward career mobility and relatively uncomplicated character.  Raised a Kansas farm boy, he went on to become a West Point graduate, career army officer, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, chief architect of the Normandy Invasion, first supreme commander of NATO, and eventually, of course, president of the United States.  As a career army officer, Eisenhower had studiously avoided politics and was essentially a blank slate when he was approached by Republicans to run for president, although as he later recounted his values seemed best situated within the Republican ideology.  The most compatible of his views with those of the GOP concerned his belief in the efficiencies of organizations and his suspicion of popular democracy and the masses.  His background also gave him a fierce commitment to duty and to the importance of disinterested public service.

Eisenhower’s views on race relations and civil rights were equivocal, like those of many white Americans outside the South.  He was not particularly sympathetic to the difficulties African-Americans encountered in American life, but believed that blacks should enjoy full civil rights eventually, when both races were ready for it.  He believed, in short, in “voluntarism” and “gradualism” with regard to integration; that, in other words, leaders should slowly acclimatize white society for such a day and offer it to blacks only when they were fully prepared to participate in the political process.  This, in retrospect, was a seemingly moral way to sidestep a complex and vexing issue.  An honorable person could say that he or she was for full civil rights for African Americans, but that a cautious and thus gradual approach would work best to assure an orderly, non-violent transition to full partnership.  The problem with this formulation was, on the one hand, that black people had waited for decades for freedom and had been put off at every turn by the whites in power, and that, on the other, few whites who held this view would—or could—define what the pace of gradualism should be, not to mention when freedom and equality would be achieved.  Also, it assumed insultingly that African Americans were unprepared to handle full citizenship and would have to be taught slowly how to employ its prerogatives responsibly.

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When Faubus ordered the National Guard into the streets of Little Rock, he triggered the first “on-site news extravaganza of the television era,” as the historian Taylor Branch called it.  Crowds of agitated white adults showed up each day to make sure the troops were turning away the Nine; their number grew with each passing day, and so did the contingent of print and TV journalists, as the crisis wore on.  More important, in employing the state’s militia and then wrangling with the federal courts over his right to do so in defiance of their order not to, the Governor, some legal scholars asserted, had also called into being the most severe test of the US Constitution since the Civil War.

Eisenhower found himself under enormous pressure from both sides of the debate about what to do.  Roy Wilkins, the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the newly famous Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), insisted in telegrams to the White House on a firm stand against Faubus.  Meanwhile, leading Democratic senators from segregated states, like James Eastland and John Stennis of Mississippi and Richard Russell of Georgia, implored Ike not to involve the federal government in the escalating tensions of Little Rock, invoking states’ rights.  Inside the administration, Eisenhower was also subjected to strongly held and conflicting opinions.  Sherman Adams, his chief of staff and primary domestic political advisor, consistently worried about the political ramifications of any action the president might take and recommended caution, while Herbert Brownell, Jr., the Attorney General, pushed for action against the Arkansas governor based on his defiance of federal law.  Brownell had filed a strong friend of the court brief for the Government essentially arguing for the plaintiff in Brown, to the displeasure of southern conservatives, and equally bad from their perspective, he was the author of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Meanwhile, the president’s fundamental view of the situation was that the law should be obeyed, but that he could think of nothing worse than trying to impose compliance with force.  This had been Ike’s consistent view of the civil rights issue since the Brown decision was issued and would remain the basis of his treatment of civil rights throughout his tenure.  He always refused to embrace Brown (he said that appointing Earl Warren Chief Justice was the biggest mistake and burning regret of his presidency because of the liberalism he displayed in leading the court to decisions such as Brown).  Nor did he ever endorse the goal of integration.  He saw his job as following the law, not endorsing a particular position.

On September 14, the tenth day of the crisis, Faubus flew to Newport, Rhode Island where Ike was vacationing, to confer with the president privately.  There he demonstrated the contradictions of his personality:  One minute he seemed to be seeking an end to the confrontation; the next he ranted about federal plots to have him jailed.  There were signs of what Taylor Branch calls a “personal psychodrama” playing out through the confrontation, in that it had come to light that Faubus’s own father was attacking him, albeit anonymously, in letters to the editor of the Little Rock newspaper, in which he charged that his son’s true motive in creating the crisis was not allegiance to segregation, but bitterness at the white patricians who had decamped to the city’s suburbs, leaving him to deal with the race problem.  In their conversations, the president repeated his core view that the law must be obeyed, but that he was reluctant to employ the power of the federal government to enforce it.  Faubus agreed to a draft statement, then changed it when he went home, angering the White House.

The next week of the mounting crisis saw the federal district court pin Faubus down with a contempt citation followed by furious negotiations between the governor and congressmen, lawyers, White House functionaries, and various other intermediaries. To escape the consequences of the citation, the governor appeared ready to convert the mission of the Guard from protecting the school from the nine black students to protecting the students from the growing mob of whites that appeared at the school each day.  As he made this accommodation, he proclaimed what became the next morning’s screaming headline:  “Now begins the crucifixion!”  [pdf resource, see below] Yet on the fateful Monday, September 23, he double-crossed the White House by withdrawing the Guard from the high school.  As already noted, the resulting chaos saw the mob beat black reporters, vandalize the school’s exterior, and force the police to evacuate the Nine to avoid mayhem.  Little Rock Central was again segregated and white students mixed with the mob in celebration.

Web Resource:  Little Rock Documents from the Eisenhower Collection.  Includes numerous links to telegrams (to Governor Faubus), press releases, letters, speeches, and executive orders regarding the Little Rock incident.

PDF Resource:  TIME, Case No. 3113.  9/30/1957.  An interesting article in TIME on the Faubus court injunction.  Also provides the context for the “Now begins the crucifixion!” statement.

On the following morning, Faubus again left the mob to its own devices.  In Washington, the president’s patience ran out.  Eisenhower had a decision to make and he was now ready to make it.  Yet, as he crafted his plan to deal with the situation, he refused to see the issue as a confrontation over desegregation.  Rather, he framed it, as was his wont, as a matter of law and the maintenance of stability.  He saw the issue as one of insurrection, even comparing it to Shays’ Rebellion, the 1786 farmers’ revolt in western Massachusetts that had to be quelled by the state militia.

Web/Audio Resource:  President Eisenhower Speech on the Crisis in Little Rock and the decision to deploy the military, 9/24/1957 (from the Eisenhower Archives).

Web Resource:  Text of President Eisenhower’s speech on the Crisis in Little Rock (from History Matters).

Originally, Ike had planned to use US marshals to restore order in Little Rock, but now he realized that a show of real determination and force would be necessary and decided to employ the military to quell the disturbance.  He called General Maxwell Taylor at the Pentagon and told him to send riot-trained units of the 101st Airborne Division as quickly as possible to Central High.  Before the end of the day, Taylor deployed a thousand paratroopers to Arkansas and the integration of the school resumed the following morning with no difficulties from outside of the building.

Web/Video Resource:  Excellent video of the arrival of the Little Rock Nine to Central High School protected by the US Army.  Click on “Film Excerpt of the Little Rock Nine in 1957". 

Governor Faubus was reduced to blustering ineffectuality.  The resistance to integration thereafter occurred within the walls of the school, through a continual crusade by white students against the blacks featuring harassment and often intimidation.  Then, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite sent into space.  In the midst of the Cold War, the news of this achievement hit Americans, both leaders and public, like a slap in the face.  Dire predictions concerning the USSR’s new advantage in the struggle for world supremacy emanated from every precinct and when the US’s first effort to launch its own satellite failed within two seconds of launch, the bleakness of America’s future seemed to increase geometrically.  In press conferences and on every other occasion when he could be questioned by reporters, President Eisenhower was asked about nothing else.  Orval Faubus, Little Rock, integration, and race disappeared from the national agenda as abruptly as they had first appeared.

Web Resources:

40th Anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas.  The school’s webpage commemorating the 1957 event.  Includes video, newspaper clips and interviews.

NPR’s 50th Anniversary Salute to the Little Rock Incident.  Links to several news broadcasts in text and audio.

PDF Resource: Crisis at Little Rock High School.  A lesson plan developed by the National Park Service includes photos and ideas for classroom activities.

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5. Anatomy of a Decision

As observed, Eisenhower was little different from the general run of whites who held ambivalent views on race and integration, but his default position was one of patronization of blacks.   One historian reported that when he talked to eager African American audiences, Ike would remove his glasses and say, “Now, you people have to be patient.”  He had served for forty years in a segregated army and believed, as he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1948, that segregation should continue at the platoon level and below.  He told jokes about black people in bull sessions during the campaign and even in the White House.  He confided to a friend that he did not believe the races need socialize or that “a Negro should court my daughter.”  In office as president, Eisenhower and his advisors worried constantly about civil rights issues and “extremists on both sides.”  Their concerns were fueled by reports from J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, about communist agitators in the ranks of the civil rights movement.

Within his inner circle, the two poles of opinion contended:  On one side was Adams, who, in this instance, worried about the implications of any gesture Eisenhower might make on civil rights that would compromise his political position.  In particular, he was concerned about the votes that could be lost in the North over federal interference; on the other side, Brownell, the committed civil rights advocate, urged swift action against Faubus as a matter of principle.  Without such action, Brown would be meaningless.  In cabinet meetings, their generally opposing views created a tension around any major decision in the civil rights area.  In the case of Little Rock, where the stakes had become so high so quickly, the tension was palpable.

Unlike other whites, however, Eisenhower did have specific views on the process by which blacks would gain their full civil rights.  He did not trust laws to bring about integration.  Instead, he believed, he once said, that it would occur through “changing the hearts of men… appealing to reason, by prayer, and by constantly working at it through our own efforts.”  It would take, he thought, thirty to forty years.  Still, he repeatedly evaded embracing desegregation as a goal of his administration for fear of alienating Southern senators.  In particular, he saw Brown as an error that would actually impede, rather than speed up, progress in southern race relations.  For that reason, he insulated himself from association with the decisions of the Supreme Court on civil rights and from Brownell, the work of the Civil Rights Commission [web resource] which was called into being by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and any action in the field where federal powers might be construed as limited and where the government could be drawn into school desegregation.  If he was to act at all in the field of civil rights, it had to be administratively, when it could be done without great fanfare.  In this way, he desegregated navy yards and public facilities in Washington, D.C.

Web Resource:  U.S. Civil Rights Commission.  Information about the mission and powers of this commission.  Provides links to many working papers – of interest is one that discusses the current status of desegregation in U.S. public schools [Becoming Less Separate Report].

What made his decision to intervene in Little Rock possible was ultimately his view that the situation raised the prospect of civil disorder that would lead to anarchy.  Order was important to him, but he was reticent about employing American troops against Americans—he had been a staff officer at the break-up of the Bonus Army rally in the Capitol in 1932 when General Douglas MacArthur had used force against the marchers and was appalled.  Still, the erratic behavior of Faubus and the threat to order of the mob was more than he could tolerate.  As he told a friend in the wake of his decision, “My biggest problem has been to make people see… that my main interest is not in the integration or segregation question.  My opinion as to the wisdom or timeliness of the Supreme Court’s decision [in Brown] has nothing to do with the case….  If the day comes when we can obey the orders of our courts only when we personally approve of them, the end of the American system … will not be far off.”  [web resource, see below ] In the end, this statement comported clearly with his strongest values, including his distrust of the masses and his fear that leaving the mob unchecked would result in disorder leading to anarchy, as well as the view, reflected in his comments to his friend that an objective assessment of the situation in Little Rock could be the only basis for action.  The irony of this conclusion, at least in retrospect, was that in making it, he gave the imprimatur of the federal government irrevocably to the support of civil rights.  Although there were many instances to come in which presidents would drag their feet in moments of crisis or flee from responsibility in advancing sensitive civil rights legislation when their own interests could be hurt, Eisenhower’s decision on Little Rock left no doubt that the government had a role to play in the advancement of the cause of black equality.

Web Resource:  From PBS American Experience, U.S. Presidents.  Teacher page with quotes from Eisenhower (including the one referenced above) and suggested scaffolding questions.

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6. Desegregation in the Pacific Northwest

The African American population in the Pacific Northwest burgeoned, relatively speaking, during and after World War II.  Always small, it remained so after the war by the standards of other parts of the nation.  But, because of an influx of blacks recruited to work in local war industries it grew proportionately larger, with the greatest numbers concentrated in the largest cities, Seattle and Portland.  To all appearances, these cities were integrated because a few blacks were sprinkled around nearly every area.  But, in reality, most in Seattle were concentrated in the Central District, and in Portland in the Albina neighborhood [map resource] in the north quadrant.  This de facto segregation was underpinned in Oregon by law, tradition, and economic practices.  The state constitution, written in the late antebellum period, contained provisions essentially banning blacks from the state, and the attitude of dislike and suspicion of them that they fostered lingered long afterward [OR 1857 Constitution:  pdf resource].  It was repealed only in 1926 and in the following year the constitution was amended to remove a provision denying blacks the right to vote in the state.  Only in 1951 did the legislature repeal the law banning interracial marriages and it took another eight years for Oregon to ratify the fifteenth amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing that no rights could be abridged due to race.

Map Resource:  Portland’s Albina Neighborhood (1940-1960).

But the lingering effects of these provisions made discriminatory behavior and attitudes that reinforced separation and the traditional view of black inferiority routine in Oregon society.  One artifact of this era that underlines the point was a sentence in the Oregon state real estate broker’s manual.  It said brokers should not introduce into a neighborhood, “a character of property or use which will be detrimental to property values,” which was veiled language for no blacks allowed.  This restricted them to their current neighborhoods, an outcome that, in turn, underpinned the segregation of local schools.  This surreptitious ban lasted until 1957, when the state legislature passed the Oregon Fair Housing Act, which eased to some extent the discriminatory practices of realtors.

With regards to education in Oregon’s biggest city, public school desegregation came through the efforts of the local NAACP in the 1960's.  In 1963, the Portland School Board created an independent blue ribbon citizens’ committee on education and race.  The committee recommended a series of steps to be taken to desegregate the city’s schools gradually.  The board accepted the recommendations and in 1964 began a voluntary transfer program that featured busing minority students to predominantly white schools.  The next year, major policy changes were undertaken including the creation of model schools, the head start program, and compensatory learning activities.  From 1972 through 1975, the voluntary administrative transfer system was reinforced by the recruitment of 725 minority students into the program.  Through the early and mid-seventies, the board continued to support desegregation activities through policy statements and guidelines, the development of early childhood centers in the inner city, support for reorganization, and symbolic moves such as a proposal for an annual school award for interracial understanding.  But the results have been mixed because the effort was limited in scope and because the desegregation program was largely voluntary in nature. In the end change has come only slowly.

PDF Resource:  School Desegregation in Portland Oregon, a staff report from the United States Commission on Civil Rights, September 1977.  An easy to read report that provides more detail about desegregation activities in Portland’s District #1.

PDF Article Resource:  Rist, Ray C.  Jul-Aug 1974.  Busing white children into black schools: a study in controversy.  Integrated Education 12(4): 13-18.  In September, 1973, a white principal in a predominantly black elementary school in Portland, Oregon gave an interview to the city's largest daily newspaper: the resulting controversy helps sharpen the focus of the debate concerning means of achieving school integration.

Washington blacks had somewhat the same experience as those in Oregon in their struggle for equality, with the difference that in the immediate post-World War II era, the state government stepped in to accelerate desegregation.  In 1947, it created the Washington State Board Against Discrimination (WSBD), but not until 1957 did it do much of substance.  In that year, it established four advisory councils around the state to deal with issues of discrimination.  Progress, however, was halting, but the board did hold the first civil rights hearing in the state in 1958.

In education, Seattle laid out a policy of voluntary transfer integration similar to Portland’s.  In 1977, the school board ratified a mandatory busing plan, but in 1978 the state’s voters killed it with an initiative that prohibited student assignments in furtherance of racial integration. A 1982 US Supreme Court decision, however, struck the measure down as unconstitutional.

In the years since then, Seattle has struggled with a plan for integration.  Its aim to truly desegregate its school system came to an unhappy conclusion for advocates, however, in June of 2007, when the Supreme Court struck down its plan (and Louisville, Kentucky’s as well) because it used race as a factor in decision making in school assignments.  Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts decried the use of race-based standards, asserting, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  [pdf resource below]

PDF Resource:  New York Times Article on the Seattle/Louisville Supreme Court Case on using racial categories in school assignments.  Contains excerpts from the majority and dissenting opinions and an interesting opinion piece about the different interpretations of Brown v. Board of Education taken by the justices.

In the minds of some, the court’s rejection of the Seattle and Louisville desegregation plans, interred Brown forever.  Whether that is true remains to be seen, but it certainly suggests that the 1957 decision made pursuant to the clash of wills that occurred between a president and a governor in a remote city in a backwater state, momentous as it was, marked not the end to the struggle for black equality, but a mere beginning.

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7. Bibliography


Branch, Taylor.  1988.  Parting the Waters:  America in the King Years, 1954-1963, 1st edition.  New York:  Simon & Schuster.

Sitkoff, Harvard.  1981.  The Struggle for Black Equality.  New York: Hill & Wang.

Woodward, C. Vann.  1960.  The Burden of Southern History.  Baton Rouge, LA: The University of Louisiana Press.

__________.  2001.  The Strange Career of Jim Crow.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Brown v. Board of Education

Martin, Waldo E.  1998.  Brown v. Board of Education:  a Brief History with Documents.  New York:  Bedford/St. Martins Press.

Kluger, Richard.  1976.  Simple Justice:  the History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black  America’s Struggle for Equality.  New York: Knopf.

Little Rock, Arkansas

Ashmore, Harry S.  1997.  Civil Rights and Wrongs:  A Memoir of Race and Politics, 1944-1996.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Eisenhower, Dwight D.  2000.  Waging Peace:  the White House Years, a Personal Account, 1956-1961 (Vol.2).  New York:  Doubleday.

Faubus, Orval.  1980.  Down from the Hills.  Little Rock: Democrat Printing & Lithographing.

Fradin, Dennis Brindell and Judith Bloom Fradin.  2004.  The Power of One:  Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine.  Houghton Mifflin/Clarion Books.  For young readers.

Jacoway, Elizabeth.  2007.  Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation.  Free Press.

Lewis, Catherine M. and Richard J. Lewis, (eds.).  2007. Race, Politics, and Memory:  a Documentary  History of the Little Rock School Crisis.   Fayetteville: University of Arkansas.

Reed, Roy.  1997.  Faubus:  the Life and Times of an American Prodigal. Fayetteville, AK:  University of Arkansas Press.

Race in the Pacific Northwest

Little William A. and James E. Weiss, eds.  1978.  Blacks in Oregon: A Statistical and Historical Report.  Portland, OR: Black Studies Center and Center for Population Research and Census.

McLagan, Elizabeth.  1980.  A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940.  Portland, OR:  Georgian Press.

Taylor, Quintard.  1998.  In Search of the Racial Frontier;  African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990.  New York:  W.W. Norton.

Whitaker, Matthew.  2005.  Race Work:  the Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West.  Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

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