Bill Clinton was 10 years old when a famous governor was all that anyone knew about Arkansas, a place so obscure that many Americans could not have located it on the map of America.
That famous governor, whose defiance at Little Rock’s Central High School was the spark that set off the civil rights revolution 40 years ago, died Dec. 14 at 84.
Over months of harangue and tumult in an extraordinary time four decades ago, Orval E. Faubus and his state lived in the eye of a hurricane. Arkansas was at war with the United States. (The United States would win, Gov. Earl Long said in neighboring Louisiana because “the feds have got the A-bomb.”) Mr. Faubus became a hero in the South and a pariah nearly everywhere else, though he would eventually be named by Gallup to a list of the most admired men in the world, along with Billy Graham and the pope.
But in the loose and careless way the word is used today, the governor went to his grave condemned as a racist. Bill Clinton, who all but forced himself on Mr. Faubus as his protege when he first got into politics, could not bring himself to say something nice on the day he died. A kinder judgment rendered Mr. Faubus an opportunist, seizing on the racist sentiments of his constituents.
It’s difficult to describe that era, now fading into unreliable memory, to the generation of blacks and whites trying, often with difficulty, to put the evils of racism in the past. Indeed, by the contemporary definition of the word, nearly every white man in the South of a gneeration ago was weaned on racism, and the few whites who today remember themselves as innocent of racism nevertheless took considerable pains then not to rebuke the guilty.
But “Little Rock” was about class, not race. There would have been no crisis at Central High but for the breathtakingly selfish and arrogant behavior of Little Rock’s white establishment power brokers, the bankers, merchants and lawyers who set out to desegregate the high schools in a way that would insulate themselves (or so they thought) from the solution they attempted to impose on everyone else.
Central High was called Little Rock High, the only public high school in town, until shortly before its moment of infamy, and to this day its graduates take great pains to note the distinction. With desegregation pending after the Brown decision in 1954, the city built Hall High to serve the wealthy neighborhoods in the western reaches of Little Rock and designated Central to serve the remaining blue-collar, working-class neighborhoods. A new high school for blacks was built in the largest black neighborhood.
Hall High was to remain segregated in the expectation, or at least the hope, that desegregation fever would cool. When opposition to the desegregation of Central began to bubble in the summer of 1957, the school superintendent, on instructions from the school board, offered transfers to Hall for the children of parents leading the opposition to desegregation. “By the end of the year, we’ll be rid of the blacks,” the superintendent of schools told them. “Just be patient.”
For most of Little Rock, the old high school had an almost mystical place in the city’s affections. The buff-brick, three-story school was built in 1927 in a grove of pines along three blocks of Park Avenue, resembling a small college more than a high school. The school sent a disproportionate number of graduates to the great universities across the nation, where they did well, and its football team, playing an intersectional schedule, was rarely defeated. Central High parents suggested that Hall be desegregated first, as the model for everyone else.
This was unthinkable to the downtown establishment, whose children were to attend Hall High.
Mr. Faubus ringed Central High with his national Guardsmen to prevent the enrollment of nine black children in September 1957. To have done otherwise, he said then and insisted on the day he died, would have invited violence.
We’ll never know. President Eisenhower federalized the National Guard, removing them from state control, and dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to assure orderly desegregation.
The year was anything but orderly, though there were no riots and no violence beyond scuffling on the schoolyard and bumping in the cafeteria lines. When the last of the legal appeals failed, Little Rock voted overwhelmingly to close the high schools. They were reopened two years later.
The city’s troubles were only beginning, and the blacks became almost irrelevant as the white parents of Central, embittered by what they considered high-handed treatment at the hands of the establishment, mounted a campaign against “downtown.” The Arkansas Gazette, the state’s leading newspaper, supported the desegregation plan (as the best way to avoid wider mixing of the races) and won two Pulitzers, but a boycott cost the owners millions and was a factor in driving it out of business three decades later. Families were divided, church congregations split, businesses failed, and, in one spectacular display of rage, dynamite bombs rattled Little Rock on Labor Day 1959.
Targeted, among others, were the fire chief who had ordered hoses turned on white demonstrators and, in an early cry for tort reform, the offices of the city’s most prominent law firm, which represented much of the business establishment. No one was hurt—the targets and timing seemd to have been carefully chosen—and several white men served prison sentences for the deeds. The district attorney who prosecuted the bombers was later defeated in a race for governor by a prominent segregationist judge.
Central is mostly black now, as private schools have sprouted throughout the city, and the mellow neighborhood that once surrounded the school is decaying turf for drug dealers and cheap hookers. Last year, 89 of the 1,879 students were expelled for fighting, drug dealing, assault and stealing. But 19 others were National Merit Scholarship semifinalists. Central is the city’s No. 1 tourist attraction to this day, though Arkansans, who are extraordinarily sensitive about how they are perceived by outsiders, usually don’t want to talk about the early Faubus years. (For a while, Bill Clinton was thought to be the answer to the state’s “image problem.”)
Mr. Faubus, who never identified himself as a segregationist (and was often the target of segregationist ire) spent the rest of his life writing books and pamphlets explaining his view of what happened, often selling them at county fairs from the trunk of his battered old car. He never apologized, insisting that he had done his duty and there was nothing to apologize for. “The tiger was there,” he said, “and someone had to ride the tiger.”
Wesley Pruden, the editor in chief of The Washington Times, started his career at the Arkansas Gazette during the tenure of Harry S. Ashmore. He is a graduate of Little Rock High School. This article first appeared in The Washington Times.
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Some morning moments:
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A task force of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce pitched a proposal last week to repeal a 1957 Little Rock City Board resolution that cheered Gov. Orval Faubus for fighting to preserve segregation at Central High School. /more/
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Gov. Orval E. Faubus ordered 250 National Guardsmen to Little Rock’s all-white Central High School on Monday, Sept. 2, 1957, to “keep order” and prevent integration by nine black students scheduled to enter the next day. A month later, my 15 minutes of fa /more/
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