Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
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 fame would be thrust upon me as the leader of the first Arkansas National Guard soldiers to escort those same students into Central. I soon learned that the Guard's U-turn was not a popular move.
Central High had become the major battleground over federally mandated school integration. The legal disputes between Faubus and the federal courts culminated on Friday, Sept. 20, when a federal judge enjoined the governor from further interference with court orders. Faubus withdrew the National Guard. The following Monday morning, Sept. 23, a mob of 1,000 gathered at Central to challenge the Little Rock police. The police slipped the Nine in through a side entrance but soon realized they would be unable to control the volcano of hate outside. Assistant Police Chief Gene Smith had the black students taken out through a delivery entrance in the rear of the school, placed in police cars, and driven to their homes.
President Eisenhower ordered the military into action. On Tuesday, 1,100 officers and soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division based at Fort Campbell, Ky., landed at Little Rock Air Force Base in eight giant cargo planes. By 7 p.m., they had deployed around Central. The president also federalized the Arkansas National Guard, wresting it from Faubus' control. Deployment of the 101st Airborne was meant to be a temporary measure until National Guard units could be assembled in Little Rock as replacements.
Eisenhower wanted Guardsmen from outside Little Rock to avoid cases of “brother against brother.” That was how my soldiers and I came to be at Central High School. I received a phone call that night from the company commander of our local National Guard unit at Walnut Ridge, summoning me to the armory. I quickly dressed in my Army fatigues while telling my wife that it was probably only a practice drill and I expected to be back in about an hour. It would be two weeks before I returned.
Our unit — Company K, 3rd Battalion, 153rd Infantry Regiment — had been ordered to move our rifle company to Camp Robinson, a National Guard facility near Little Rock, and report to our battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Ernest McDaniel. Not only was there no time for written orders, there was confusion about their source. We were not clear whether we were responding to commands from the governor or from federal authorities. Television news that evening had informed us that President Eisenhower had ordered a contingent of 101st Airborne troops to Central High School, but the role of our National Guard unit had yet to be defined.
As we loaded our vehicles that night at the Walnut Ridge armory, rumors began circulating. Some of our young men hoped we were going to Little Rock to confront the “Yankee invaders,” assert our “state's rights,” free Arkansas of “occupation by federal troops” and restore Central High School to its rightful owners.
As for me, I was satisfied that the argument between the federal government and Southern states had been settled a century before. Moreover, I had worn the screaming eagle insignia of the 101st while on active duty with the Army. My experience cautioned me that 10,000 Arkansas National Guard troops would be no match for the U.S. Army in a street fight.
Practically all of our soldiers were born and raised in northeast Arkansas, as had their parents and grandparents. Most of them lived either in Walnut Ridge or its twin northeast Arkansas town of Hoxie, about 130 miles from the state capital. Our roster included rice and cattle farmers, unskilled farm workers, truck drivers, construction workers, sawmill workers, auto mechanics and gas station attendants, with a few schoolteachers and insurance agents sprinkled into the mix. They grimaced at the thought of “federal interference” with their public schools.
We finished loading our equipment and supplies a little after midnight, then pulled out in full battle dress and headed for Little Rock. Whatever our mission, I knew it was serious because we were bringing live ammunition.
As our company vehicles rolled down Highway 67 (the old Southwest Trail from St. Louis to Texas) we gradually formed a larger convoy, merging with other companies in our battalion from northeast Arkansas. These additional units sparked more rumors. Some suspected that the mess in Little Rock was inspired by a communist plot. Others saw it as a conspiracy between the U.S. Supreme Court and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
I had supposed my own feelings about race were more liberal than most other members of our unit. Although I had grown up in a culture of racial discrimination in a small town in the Ozarks, I also grew up as a jock. I came to appreciate meritocracy by playing high school and college football and coaching an Army team of mostly black players.
The hot-headed element in our company who relished the idea of taking on the 101st Airborne already had their emotions rubbed raw through first-hand experience. The five-person Hoxie School Board had voted to integrate its 21 black children into the white school system. Opposition soon developed, led by a local farmer, and the court skirmishes began. Hoxie segregationists lost the battle.
We arrived at Camp Robinson early on the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 25. The incomplete and fuzzy orders received at our home station were clarified. We had been federalized and were now part of the U.S. Army. Our mission was simply stated, although much easier said than done: “To enforce the orders of the federal courts with respect to the attendance of the public schools in Little Rock of all those who are properly enrolled, and to maintain law and order while doing so.” Emphasis was given to avoiding physical contact with the civilian population, in general, and schoolchildren, in particular.
On Sept. 29, Company K moved to Central High School where we took up reserve positions behind the school at the football stadium. By this time, people in Little Rock had learned how to identify the turncoats and traitors in their midst. We wore a shoulder patch with a blue monogram, “D” (Delta Division), and the figure of a donkey decorated our helmets.
As long as the National Guard kept the Nine out of Central High School, we were heroes to those opposed to “race mixing.” However, the day we arrived in Little Rock as an instrument of school integration, our exalted status quickly evaporated. Although Arkansans resented the presence of federal troops in Little Rock, most people seemed willing to cut them a little slack. Not so with National Guard soldiers. We were seen as “pure-dee scum” who had betrayed our own friends and neighbors by taking black kids into a white school at gunpoint.
My newly acquired status as a traitor and a turncoat was made public on a beautiful Thursday morning, Oct. 3. As a young first lieutenant, I led a detachment of 20 Guardsmen onto Park Street in front of Central High School to wait for an Army station wagon. The vehicle carried the nine black students that my National Guard force would escort into the massive school building. At 7:45 a.m., the olive-drab vehicle, bracketed by armed 101st Airborne soldiers in two jeeps, barreled down Park Street with its unnecessary siren wailing.
Only minutes before, we had been trying to relax behind the school at the football stadium. The conversation had been light-hearted and sprinkled with dark humor. Everyone understood the need to stay loose.
“Now I know how Daniel felt just before he was thrown into the lion's den,” Danny Boy said. (This brought a chuckle or two.)
“I'll tell you what, Danny Boy,” Buster said, “If I had to live in Hoxie like you, I'd as soon be in a lion's den — might be cleaner.”
“Yeah, yeah,” echoed Skeeter, “Like I always said, if the streets are clean and the women are foxy, you can bet your ass you ain't in Hoxie.”
“Lordy, that's such an old one, Skeeter. Can't you come up with something new?” Diamond Jim said.
The banter continued until it was time to move out. The physical danger in taking the Nine into Central High was marginal. It was all mental at this point. Not many black people lived in our part of northeast Arkansas, so few of our soldiers knew, worked with, or associated with any black people. Despite the lack of interaction, most were conditioned by custom and harbored some degree of racial prejudice. I felt apprehensive. My soldiers gave the impression of a football team just before kickoff in a game they didn't really want to play.
Park Street had been blocked off, but the adult hecklers on the school's perimeter a half-block away conveyed their contempt with catcalls and boos. As the nine students, six girls and three boys, got out of the station wagon, we formed a “V” shaped configuration like a wedge. This riot formation allowed the students to walk double file inside the “V” and be protected from all sides. I was still uneasy. The outside troublemakers were the least of my worries. I was confident that my men had the physical capabilities to manage a much larger mob than we faced, but I just couldn't shake my concern about their mental and emotional readiness to take those nine black kids into the white-by-God school.
Dressed in olive-drab fatigues with combat boots and helmets, my troops carried M-1 rifles at port arms — both hands diagonally across one's chest and extended about 6 inches in front. I was armed with a .45 Colt automatic pistol. We did not intend to shoot anyone, so our weapons were not loaded with live ammunition — a fact we kept to ourselves. We were comfortable in our belief that the sheathed bayonets attached to the rifle barrels provided sufficient intimidation.
Sgt. Sharrer, a rugged 6-foot-4 (the type who takes no prisoners) was on point. Greenfield, a short, squatty fellow took the second position in the right line behind Sharrer. Greenfield's leathery face put you in mind of the ball side of a catcher's mitt — sort of concave with sunken lines and stitch marks around the edge, the effects of a fight with a carnival guy back during strawberry season. He looked scary.
In the left line behind Sharrer was Diamond Jim, with his fake jewel sparkling in the morning sun and Otis, with his gentle voice and unflappable manner. To Otis' right was Wilkins, known as “Ears” for obvious reasons. Beyond Wilkins was Morris, our most accurate M-1 expert. Across from Morris was Gillihan, the gambler, who could sweet-talk a pair of dice into any number; and next to him was Curtis, a handsome, baby-faced 17-year old who had lied about his age to join the Guard. Danny Boy and Skeeter, both husky and 18, were at the end of each line and focused on our rear to make sure there were no surprises coming from behind.
Despite whatever misgivings my troops may have harbored in their minds, when I gave the command to move out, the sudden, determined look in their eyes told me that I had worried unnecessarily. Honor had trumped humiliation.
Our chief adversaries of the day, a pack of angry, white male students sporting duck-tail haircuts, saddle oxfords, white socks and trademark jeans were digging in on the front steps of the school. Like us, they had put their big guys up front. The large front doors at the main entrance had become an important symbol of resistance. If blacks got into the school at all, it would not be through the front doors. The main entrance was for whites only. The previous two mornings, the white students had successfully blocked the black students' access through the main entrance. The Nine had entered through a side door.
This day, it would be different. As we set out across the campus, I took my place behind the nine students inside the formation to cover their backs, and better observe and control our movement. I was still in my 20s, but I was beginning to feel like an old man. We continued slowly and resolutely for about a hundred yards, passing a large fishpond before entering a leafy corridor of crepe myrtles standing on both sides of the walkway. No one said a word, neither our troops nor the students we were escorting. The macho pack on the steps stood equally quiet. Not a sound could be heard but the somber steps of our marching feet.
As we approached the front steps we slowed our pace for a closer look at our adversaries. With rifles still at port arms and sheathed bayonets attached, we stepped 54 paces up the steep, wide steps to the front entrance of the massive school. When we came face to face with the youthful mob, there was no doubt that, if the hatred in their eyes could have killed, we would have been instant casualties. These young white students never uttered a sound, and we had remained mute since moving in from the street.
We proceeded slowly past the 50 to 60 sullen white faces. In a test of wills, one by one, they grudgingly gave way to the formidable force that intended to plow right through them had they not made room. When we reached the front entrance at the top of the steps, the 101st troops inside the building opened the doors and assumed charge of internal security for the black students.
Our morning mission completed, my troops and I joined our reserve force of about 120 soldiers at the football stadium. I took my escort unit to the southeast corner of the end zone where they sat in a semi-circle to critique our performance. I told my guys, who were not much older than the students they escorted, I was proud of them. They functioned flawlessly under intense emotional stress. They never wavered. I commended them for the fact that no one was injured, especially the students, both black and white.
I would never attempt to diminish the true heroism and mental toughness of the nine black students as they coped with the terrible abuses heaped upon them at Central High. I am simply pointing out that, although certainly not at the level endured by the Nine, my National Guard kids also did not escape abuse from white segregationists when they stepped up to do their duty.
Dale Hanks, a native of Batesville, is semi-retired and living in Virginia, where he moved 43 years agos. He taught public administration at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, and served as director of the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services. This article was taken from a longer piece titled “In The Eye Of The Storm” that Hanks wrote for the September 2007 issue of History Today, a London publication.
Worry, never fear; the A.N.G. ever will be near
By Betty Parsons
This article appeared in the Sept. 19, 1957, edition of The Tiger student newspaper of Little Rock Central High School.
As we gaze thoughtfully out of our classroom windows, we notice the National Guardsmen who have been so kind as to come and visit us here at Central. Whatever they may be lacking is made up for in variety.
For instance, there is the one who, after taking one last look around, retires to his grassy world of dreams. He can be aroused only by the mention of food or drink.
Then there is the one who likes to be enlightened as to world affairs. So he sits on the ground poring over a newspaper. Newspapers also serve another purpose in the Campus Military World. On some sections of the campus they become very handy card tables for those who can't sleep in the daytime.
But there are a few NGs who are very conscientious. They march briskly along the sidewalk, head high, shoulders back, weapons akimbo. By the time the day is over, they are ready to be carried home on a stretcher.
Of course, there is the original G.I. Joe. His helmet is usually askew and his face is rough and haggard looking. He won't take any back-talk from ANYBODY!
I really don't know what we did for entertainment before these nice helmeted boys came to our campus.
OTHER HEADLINES OF THIS WEEK'S ISSUE OF THE TIGER: Central Night Watchman Recovering From Illness ... 2,000 Students Enroll at Central ... Brodie Named New Boys' State Leader ... LR Key Club Takes Convention Honors ... Seniors Are Advised to Watch Grades ... Senior Homerooms Elect Officers; Get Ready for Big Year.
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