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In her book, “Turn Away Thy Son,” Elizabeth Jacoway has written a curious, contrarian history of the Little Rock Central integration crisis that is, at times, downright contrary.
Jacoway has put a massive amount of research into this book, and her work is often impressive when she sticks to writing a straightforward account of the crisis, but when she tries to rewrite some of that history, she impeaches some of her good work.
She goes astray, in my view, when she tries to absolve Governor Orval Faubus of his role in making Little Rock a derogatory word around the world. Sometimes, in fact, it is hard to tell if she is trying to glorify Faubus or whitewash him, or both.
This effort is not helped by the animosity she shows toward some of the people who either criticized Faubus, opposed him in his efforts to delay integration, worked in favor of limited integration of Little Rock Central, or just made life difficult for him. Usually she is able to find ulterior motives for most of these people.
Jacoway comes down hard on school superintendent Virgil Blossom (her uncle), congressman Brooks Hays, former governor Sid McMath, and Arkansas Gazette editor Harry Ashmore, as well as most of the federal officials involved, from the judges to officials in attorney general Herbert Brownell's office and President Eisenhower.
Ashmore is her real bete noire in this story. She says Ashmore almost single-handedly was responsible for propagating the theory that Faubus, for political reasons, called out the National Guard to prevent integration at Central and thus set up a showdown with the federal government.
“With his immense powers of persuasion,” she writes, “his carefully nurtured prestige within his profession, his strategic placement as an expert at the heart of the action, and his preconceived theories about the sources of resistance to desegregation, Harry Ashmore fashioned over the next few months an interpretation of events in the unfolding ‘Little Rock Crisis' that traveled around the globe, and that stood, practically untouched, for the next fifty years.”
There were a lot of qualified people around Little Rock at the time that came up with that same interpretation and did not need Ashmore's arguments to reach that conclusion.
However, even if we concede that Ashmore played a major role in fostering that view of Faubus, the real question is, was he correct? Did Faubus really help explode the crisis for political reasons? A lot of people who had been fairly close to Faubus or to the events in Little Rock held that opinion
Winthrop Rockefeller, the future governor who had been appointed by Faubus as chairman of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, thought so. So did former governor McMath, who brought Faubus into politics. So did Ashmore, who helped Faubus win the governorship to begin with. So did Henry Woods, a future federal judge who helped engineer the speech that Ashmore wrote for Faubus that helped him beat Governor Francis Cherry. So did Jim Johnson, the firebrand segregationist who earlier ran against Faubus for governor but praised him for calling out the Guard. So did Amis Guthridge, an attorney and leader for the segregationist Capital Citizens' Council. So did John Robert Starr, who was working then for the Associated Press and who later became somewhat of a confidant of Faubus. So did Adolphine Terry, the matriarch who helped form the Women's Emergency Committee to Save our Schools, and did help save the schools. So did Ray Moseley, who was frequently the lead reporter for the Gazette on the story and later worked for the Chicago Tribune and United Press International and was a bureau manager in Cairo, Rome, Moscow and Brussels. So did Roy Reed, a reporter for the Gazette at the time (and a friend of mine), who later was a reporter for the New York Times and a university professor who wrote a brilliant biography of Faubus and conducted 77 formal interviews of Faubus in the 1980s and 1990s. For that matter, so did I.
What upset a lot of Faubus' critics is that Little Rock had developed a reputation for being one of the most progressive cities in the South on racial issues, and they felt Little Rock schools might have desegregated fairly peacefully and enhanced its reputation if Faubus had acted differently. Little Rock had already desegregated its buses and its public library as well as the public parks and zoo and it had hired black policemen.
When the U.S. Supreme Court issued the ruling in 1955 that schools must be desegregated “with all deliberate speed,” I was a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat covering the state Capitol, Orval Faubus and the state education department. I wrote a number of stories about the prospects for desegregation in Arkansas. I interviewed every college president in the state and many school superintendents. Most of them said they did not foresee any major trouble in desegregating the schools. Some forecast a slow, steady compliance. Some thought, and hoped, that some blacks would not push for integration if their schools were truly equal, but soon saw that hope fade in many cases.
Organized resistance to even limited integration did begin to blossom that year. Yet many people still felt that Little Rock, even though many citizens opposed integration, would still comply with court mandates fairly peaceably, particularly if Governor Faubus, thought to be a moderate on race relations, would simply say he would not tolerate violence. That's what Governor Luther Hodges did in North Carolina. Without taking a stand for or against integration, he made it plain he did not want violence. Thus, the schools in Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem were integrated fairly peacefully on the same day that the black students were turned away by the Guard in Little Rock. The Little Rock school board had been pushing Faubus to take a similar stance, but he never gave them a real response until the last minute.
Not only did Faubus not issue such a statement, but he testified in a court hearing that he thought integration in Little Rock should be delayed because he had evidence there would be serious violence. When the court refused to delay integration, Faubus then called out the National Guard and gave it instructions to bar the blacks from entering Central. In a televised speech, Faubus again cited the threats of violence. Many people thought that was an invitation to violence.
Although he kept saying he would, Faubus, in a long lifetime, never did produce that evidence of impending violence. Jacoway maintains that the FBI found threats of violence, but never revealed it.
Even if Faubus did truly fear violence (and at one point Jacoway says he later conceded that he might have been misled), there was another alternative. He could have called out the Guard to protect the crowd and the black students as they entered Central, which would have complied with the federal court orders to integrate the school. So why didn't he do that?
Jacoway seems to take Faubus at his word that he had not made up his mind to run for a third term and was acting merely to prevent violence, but in so doing she ignores a lot of other words. In fairness, she does report a number of contrary statements.
For example, the Little Rock School Board and its attorneys met with Faubus on the Friday night before he called out the Guard on Monday, and R.A. (Brick) Lile, a board member who was alleged to be a segregationist, asked Faubus to make a statement that he would not tolerate violence. Lile's recollection was that Faubus replied “he couldn't do it. It wouldn't be good politics.”
She cites the Reverend Dale Cowling, a friend of Faubus and pastor of the Second Baptist Church, who went to see the governor the day after he called out the Guard and asked him why he did it, because he knew Faubus was not a segregationist. Cowling said he replied, “Dale, you'll never understand unless you are in politics, but I promised the farmers of east Arkansas I would take care of them on the segregation issue if it ever came to that….”
Jacoway paints sympathetic portraits of the Little Rock Nine and their bravery in the face of hostility and harassment and of the Women's Emergency Committee, which put to shame most of the white male leaders of the community, or should have.
She also shows Faubus a lot of mercy, but she has no mercy on some of those who opposed him or wound up on the other side.
She carves up Virgil Blossom, who developed Little Rock's plan for limited integration, reporting that he wanted to be a hero and governor.
Jacoway says of Brooks Hays: “A sweet, gentle, Christian soul, the mild-mannered public servant embarked on his mission with a lack of clarity that ultimately damaged Orval Faubus and the state of Arkansas, President Eisenhower and the United States government, and the Little Rock Nine and the cause of civil rights.”
I find nothing in her own accounts that justify such a severe condemnation of Hays, who tried to mediate the crisis. She claims Hays' actions in part may have been influenced by the fact that he wanted to be appointed a federal judge. She says that Hays was eventually urging Faubus to surrender. I hope so.
In explaining McMath's statements that Faubus staged the Little Rock High School incident, she says, “An old political foe with an axe to grind, McMath enhanced his liberal credentials and burnished his tarnished reputation with his ever-quotable, increasingly fashionable assessments.” That's a cheap shot that ignores whether McMath really believed what he said, and might have had a valid reason to do so.
She saves the bulk of her cheap shots though for Ashmore, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorials about Faubus and the Little Rock Central crisis. She derides Ashmore as a would be prophet, and says in effect that he didn't know what he was talking about, that he was “as flawed in predicting the future as he was in divining the past.”
I don't think the written record supports that contention. In fact, Ashmore was widely regarded as the most knowledgeable editor in the country on Southern schools.
There is another new book that has a different take on Ashmore. It is The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. It was written by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, both Southerners, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for history this year. Roberts covered the struggles in the South for several years and later was the executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer for 18 years, during which time the paper won an astounding 17 Pulitzers. He later was named managing editor of the New York Times. Klibanoff is the managing editor for news of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
You could say that Ashmore is the hero, or one of the heroes, of that book. Roberts and Klibanoff report that in 1953 the Fund for the Advancement of Education asked Ashmore to take charge of a massive study of the schools. The Fund's board wanted to know, once and for all, if the segregated system of educating children in the South was working.
Ashmore and a staff of 42 researchers then produced a definitive book called The Negro and the Schools that was published the day before the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954 issued its Brown v. Board of Education ruling striking down segregation in the schools.
Anticipating that there might be such a ruling, Ashmore had worried where Southern editors would get the real facts on what was happening to the schools. Backed again by the Fund for the Advancement of Education, he then persuaded a number of editors to create the Southern Education Reporting Service (SERS), which would publish the Southern School News, a monthly, region-wide newspaper designed to provide information on the ways the South was responding to desegregation orders. Ashmore knew that for it to be effective the paper would have to be free of bias, and so he picked a board that included segregationists, such as Tom Waring, editor of the Charleston, SC News and Observer, a rather virulent racist.
Here is Jacoway's take on that. She reports that John Wells, the editor and publisher of the Arkansas Recorder, charged that SERS was designed to be a “Southwide propaganda mill” and he thought the Supreme Court would simply wait for the propaganda to take hold before it rendered its final decisions in the segregation cases.
“Far from being an isolated crackpot, Well's views mirror those of many concerned citizens across the South,” Jacoway wrote.
If that was the case, Wells was then an un-isolated crackpot. One who agreed with him was Roy Harris, whom Jacoway describes as the firebrand director of the States' Rights Council of Georgia who said it was a pro-integrationist paper with ties to people affiliated with Communist-front groups. Even Waring told Harris to cool it, that he was off-base.
Jacoway places an immense emphasis on the whites' fear of miscegenation as a source of their resistance to integration, but her point in doing so isn't always clear. Perhaps she merely means to use it to explain the strength and force of their resistance, but at times it seems she means more by it. In fact, I suspect she didn't think the South was ready for integration at that time, and that it should have been delayed, and she perhaps thinks that the Supreme Court and the federal government should not have tried to enforce it. I don't mean to imply that she is opposed to it now, but that she perhaps thinks that the South should have been given time to adjust its thinking. That might explain why she seemed to have some sympathy for Faubus's efforts to block integration.
That might also explain why at times Jacoway seemed to have more sympathy for the segregationists than the integrationists. She sometimes talks about the powerful statements issued by some segregationist group, and labels as weak and in one case “almost whiny” the statements issued by the school board, ministers and other moderates.
The segregationists, some of them flat-out demagogues, were trying to enflame opinion to build more opposition to integration. The other groups were trying to calm the city down. That might explain the difference in tone.
Let me quote Jacoway: “The sources of white hatred and rage toward African-Americans were as old as relationships between the two races on the American continent. White racism stemmed primarily from the fear in white minds of pollution, of race-mixing, of miscegenation, of “mongrelization.' It stemmed from a fear of the loss of racial purity, the loss of control of white women, the loss of potency, both social and physical. It stemmed from a fear of black sexual exuberance and capacity.
“The Little Rock story shows in microcosm the difficulty of extending justice to a historically powerless group in the absence of a majoritarian will to do so….The failure to persuade white citizens in Little Rock of the necessity and morality of integration doomed the effort from the outset….Despite Supreme Court insistence and Cold War imperatives, the nation could not expect change until that orthodoxy changed. Segregationist thinking was “deeply written on the heart of (the) culture and it could not be changed by force, no matter how worthy or urgent the compelling motives.”
I suspect she has skipped something here, one of the main motives behind the fear of miscegenation, which was the belief that Negroes were inferior beings. That was a convenient excuse for slavery, and it explains why whites used to contend that even if a person were one-eighth or one-sixteenth black they were still black, and thus defiled with black blood.
Jacoway seems to be arguing that before we integrate we must first prove the necessity and morality of integration, that we must change the Southern orthodoxy and we must somehow erase the irrational fear of miscegenation. How long would that take? A lot longer than blacks were willing to wait, or should have to wait, for equal rights. She is begging a lot of questions here. If whites believe Negroes are inferior, how do we persuade them they are not? A few scientists were still trying in the 1950s to prove that blacks were inferior.
The truth is that very few white Southerners were willing to speak out at that time in favor of integration, partly because they were intimidated by the racists and partly because of what Ashmore called the “smothering Southern mores” that developed as a backlash to Reconstruction and a frontlash to Jim Crow.
There were a few, a very few brave few, who spoke out after the Supreme Court ruling; a few ministers, an isolated educator here and there and a few redoubtable newspaper reporters and editors, many of them women. Even the WEC leaders, whom I admire greatly, found it prudent to deny that they were integrationists.
In short, there weren't enough people to teach that class in morality, and those who needed to hear it wouldn't have been willing to listen. In fact, the only workable alternative was to put them in school together and let the whites learn that blacks were human beings like everyone else.
And for that matter, how long, I wonder, would it have taken the South to develop a majoritarian will to abolish slavery?
Jacoway seems to think that Ashmore and others just didn't understand the source for resistance to integration.
Noting that Ashmore had maintained that the “real” issue in Little Rock was one of law and order, Jacoway said, “What he did not anticipate and could never accept was the irrational nature of the South's impassioned response, and he routinely attempted to trivialize rather than answer seriously the arguments of the segregationists.”
In his book An Epitaph for Dixie, finished in 1957, Ashmore cited C. Vann Woodward's book that said Jim Crow had pushed the forms of segregation beyond anything that had been known or contemplated in the darkest hours of Reconstruction.
“Why?” Ashmore asked. “I doubt there is a single answer, but there is a clue in the bombastic Southern literature of the period. It reflects a growing obsession with the sanctity of Southern womanhood, and, by implication, a fear of ‘mongrelization.' Miscegenation, it is true, was already underway on a grand scale in the region and proceeding at such a pace that a really black skin would soon be a rarity. Moreover, it was obvious that this wholesale cross-breeding was the direct result of the degradation that accompanied the extremes of segregation; whatever their desires might be in the matter, black women were available for the white man's taking. It was, however, a one-way traffic; the highest crime of all—beyond murder or treason—was the taking of a white woman by a Negro, and it made little difference whether it was by force or consent.
“And here, I think, we come to the formless fear that lies at the heart of the Southern mystique—not much discussed these days except in the rude halls where the demagogues harangue the Citizens Councils, but active and festering still. Irene C. Edmonds, the Negro poet, has called it the Black Shadow—“the fear of Negro blood as a source of defilement.”
Yes, I think Ashmore and the rest of us were aware of that as a source of resistance, but what were we supposed to do about it? Punt? Ask the blacks to wait 50 more years for their rights? I don't think so.