A generation ago, when Orval Faubus sprang full-blown into the national consciousness as the symbolic leader of massive resistance against desegregation of the public schools, he was condemned as a racist by the mainstream media. Most of the obituaries inspired by his passing allowed the verdict to stand.
This was perhaps inevitable in light of the prevailing misconception of the cause and effect of the constitutional crisis Mr. Faubus precipitated, and his lifelong effort to revise the history in which he played a leading role. But the result is to obscure the most important fact about his spectacular career — that he was not a racist, and only in rhetoric, as opposed to practice, could he be rated a populist.
Unlike his segregationist contemporaries in the Deep South, Orval never embraced the doctrine of white supremacy. His steadfast denial that he was motivated by racial bigotry also denied him the absolution accorded those, like George Wallace of Alabama, who conceded that they had been on the wrong side of the central moral issue that precipitated the civil rights era.
Orval went to his grave insisting that he had been fully justified in the actions that subjected him to the political weight, and ultimately the armed might, of the central government. But, if he could plausibly deny that personal opposition to racial integration had any bearing on the course he followed, he accepted the rest of the bill of goods concocted by the segregationist Citizens Councils.
Council leaders in the Deep South had resurrected the “nullification” doctrine espoused by John C. Calhoun in defense of slavery, contending that the states had a sovereign right to reject any action by the federal government they deemed to constitute a threat to their domestic well-being.
The hollow reed the council strategists provided to support Mr. Faubus’ defiance of the federal courts was the purported right of a governor to “interpose” his police power to preserve law and order if federal intervention posed a threat of mob violence. But this clearly was not the case at Little Rock, where a voluntary desegregation plan had the support of all the responsible local authorities.
The only mob action that ever materialized consisted of the pushing and shoving of a few hundred white protesters at the school gates. In two years of recurrent confrontation between the governor and federal authorities no one, black or white, suffered injuries serious enough to require hospitalization.
Little Rock, then, was not, as generally perceived, the site of an incipient race riot, but of a political maneuver in which Mr. Faubus played all the cards in the Citizens Council deck, only to have them trumped by unanimous decisions by the Supreme Court that knocked down the legal ploys devised by council strategists.
When the governor closed Little Rock’s high schools and attempted to divert their resources to a segregated, purportedly private academy, the local establishment rallied against him. His candidates were defeated in School Board elections that produced a fusion of the country club set — the “Cadillace brigade,” Orval called it — with the increasing bloc of newly enfranchised black voters. The coalition spread to the lesser cities of the state and finally overwhelmed the rural populists after they had provided Mr. Faubus with eight more years in the governor’s office.
Despite the rhetorical alarums and excursions that made headlines around the world, desegregation per se was no longer a compelling issue in Arkansas, and Orval did not need an overt appeal to race prejudice to rally his followers. His wily hillbilly persona gave credence to his appeal to the reflexive resentment of “meddling outsiders” inherent in the legacy from the lost civil war.
The engaging raconteur from Greasy Creek portrayed himself as the victim of a conspiracy by Yankees in league with the powers in Washington. He had been the most liberal governor in the South, he acknowledged, but the left-wingers had turned on him when he “offended the great federal government by resisting the effort to cram integration down our throats.”
Resentment of the disadvantaged against those more fortunately situated is also basic to a populist appeal, pitting country folk against what they called in Arkansas the “high-collared” city crowd. Since opposition to Mr. Faubus was primarily urban, it was plausible for him to include among the conspirators the state’s business and financial leaders. Following the Citizens Council line, he identified these certified conservatives as fellow travelers with Marxist ideologues he charged with fomenting his outside opposition.
But if his rhetoric and confrontational style irritated proper Arkansans, it did nothing to inhibit his working relationship with the moneyed interests who dominated the state government. The influence of those who sought its patronage, or immunity from its regulatory processes, flourished during his 12 years in the statehouse.
Some of the obituarists treated seriously Orval’s insistence that he displayed redeeming progressive tendencies during his last three terms. But this was primarily the result of his going along with the orderly desegregation of public and private facilities that followed the election of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
The realignment of the Democratic Party that resulted from the accommodation of blacks made way for the procession of moderate Arkansas governors who followed Mr. Faubus, and successfully maneuvered with the interests to improve the lot of the disadvantaged of both races. Three of these are now leading figures in the Washington establishment condemned by a populist surge at the polls that adapted Mr. Faubus’ campaign technique for a new assault on the central government. Demonization of the political opposition is again the order of the day, with President Clinton the primary target.
But this time the attack comes from the right and is led by ideologues who have turned Faubus-style populism on its head. The scapegoats in this round are the poor and the dispossessed; the purported victims of big government are discomfited members of the middle class; and the intended beneficiaries are those who already enjoy most of the benefits of the market economy. We can only speculate on what old Orval, had he indulged in an unaccustomed outburst of candor, would have made of that.
Harry S. Ashmore was the executive editor of the old Arkansas Gazette and he and the newspaper won Pulitzer Prizes for their coverage of the crisis at Central High and opposition to Gov. Faubus. This article first appeared in the Washington Times.
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