"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
A white woman drove down a Little Rock street one day in 1957 with a black man beside her. Unknown to her, she was seen and reported to the Arkansas State Police.
A husband and wife held a conversation about racial integration in a public place. They were overheard. Their names were sent to the state police.
The nine black kids who broke the racial barrier at Central High that fall went to school scared every day, and their parents and mentors went to bed scared every night. They weren't the only ones who needed to be afraid. That same fall, and for years afterward, something else was happening in Arkansas. Hundreds of citizens who dared oppose the orthodox bigotry came under the scrutiny of the state government. Although only a relatively few knew about it, what we had for five or six years was a chilling little do-it-yourself police state.
Several Southern states experienced the same thing during the South's massive resistance to racial integration. Mississippi, of course, was the worst.
I had occasion some years ago to examine law enforcement and the legal system when I was researching a book on Orval E. Faubus, the governor who used the National Guard to block the desegregation of Central High. Much of the sordid story is in the unpublished state police files archived in Special Collections at the University of Arkansas library at Fayetteville. Another part of it, outrageously enough, was always out in the open.
Our state legislature passed a loyalty oath in 1958 requiring teachers and public employees to list the organizations they belonged to — the NAACP was the main target — and swear allegiance to the state and nation or be fired. The state Supreme Court declared this mandate unconstitutional by the narrowest possible vote in 1960.
Attorney General Bruce Bennett, the state's chief legal officer, who coveted Faubus' job, tried to position himself to the governor's right by conducting televised hearings in the late 1950s to root out the Communists he was sure were running the integration scheme behind the scenes. He thoroughly smeared a number of moderates and liberals, including Harry Ashmore, the executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette, but failed to nail any bona fide Reds.
He relied mainly on the testimony of imported experts, including a couple of old lapsed Communists. He could have stepped down the hall and asked the governor to come up and explain the nuances of socialism and communism if he had thought to look for a home-grown expert. Faubus' father had been a principal organizer for the Socialist Party in Arkansas, and the son was knowledgeable about left-wing politics. Bennett might not have known that. The governor was modest about it.
Faubus, having moved beyond his progressive youth, now pretended to see the threat from Moscow reaching as far as Fort Smith and Watson Chapel. He signed a bill making membership in the Communist Party a felony punishable by six years in prison. He put the state Department of Education to work to comply with a legislative directive to find and remove all subversive and un-American philosophies from the state's textbooks.
In 1959, the Faubus administration fired several state employees suspected of being closet integrationists. According to the police files, life also was unsettling for the faculty and staff of the University of Arkansas. The police kept a list of university people who had spoken out against the governor's actions on desegregation, relying on local informers. Several teachers left for jobs where they didn't have to look over their shoulders.