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The 1957 crisis: another look 

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Turn Away Thy Son — Little Rock, the Crisis that Shocked the Nation
By Elizabeth Jacoway, Free Press, hard cover, $30.

Lawyers recently made news with a federal court filing in Little Rock addressing “claims of misconduct … regarding desegregation obligations.” Thus, revisiting half-century-old questions regarding school desegregation is perhaps both timely and appropriate. In “Turn Away Thy Son — Little Rock, the Crisis that Shocked the Nation” Elizabeth Jacoway does just that.

Did Gov. Orval Faubus “manufacture” the Central High crisis? Did he arouse divisive factions so that he could take a stand that some would perceive as keeping the peace, others as preserving the Southern way of segregated life? Was an era of school-related violence and litigation spawned by political motives?

Jacoway takes on these and other issues in a well-written must-read for those who would understand the history of education in Arkansas. Using prose that is powerful, yet measured, Jacoway draws the reader into the events of which she writes.

“The Little Rock story,” Jacoway writes, “shows in microcosm the difficulty of extending justice to a historically powerless group in the absence of a majoritarian will to do so.” This polite bureaucratese signals that she has not portrayed the good guys of most histories necessarily as heroes in this saga. Even the bad guys are humanized more than popular lore often depicts them.

In Jacoway’s account, for instance, the Faubus of ’57 is frail, insecure, bumbling, though well-meaning. Bombarded with conflicting information from two factions, staunch segregationists and everyone else (the message of the latter not always being so different from that of the former), he wants to appear strong, prevent violence and avoid embarrassment.

This Faubus also overuses a certain word: He takes political cover, avoids political suicide and does what is politically beneficial to protect his political viability. This trait would later facilitate the notion that he was motivated by re-election throughout the events by which Little Rock and Arkansas are often defined by others around the country.

Jacoway’s take is that Faubus was manipulated, by segregationist Jim Johnson and others, into becoming the leader of a group that he’d tried not to be identified with. According to Forrest Rozzell of the Arkansas Education Association in 1957, Little Rock School District officials threw Faubus “a curveball” — telling him privately that admitting blacks to Central would result in violence, then testifying in court that no violence was expected. Thus, Faubus “reacted without calculation” when he chose to call out the National Guard at Central and ordered that the Little Rock Nine be denied admission, rather than escorted in. In so doing, Jacoway writes, Faubus “backed into the arms of the segregationists [and] to avoid looking like a fool, he stayed there.”

In those arms, the weak Faubus of ’57 — who watched the daily strife of the Nine, blaming the federal government every step of the way — became the “Faubus machine” of ’58. Calling a special session of the legislature, he demanded and received an arsenal of segregationist laws. With these he then dodged and ran from the Brown v. Board of Education mandate. His actions led to the closing of Little Rock’s public high schools for the 1958-59 year (although the football teams were permitted to compete). He also led a charade to reopen them as “private” and resisted the best efforts of local leaders to change his mind.

Mini-bios of the key figures provide a nice education for a generation of folk who did not know them. Among these are newspapermen Harry Ashmore, Hugh Patterson and John Wells; concerned citizens Daisy Gatson Bates, Vivion Lenon Brewer, Elizabeth Huckaby, Adolphine Terry, Everett Tucker and Grainger Williams; and, of course, lawyers Wiley Branton, Richard Butler, Archie House, Bill Smith, Gaston Williamson and many more.

Reader beware! Even the good guys back then were not strongly pulling for meaningful and significant desegregation: They mainly wanted to reopen the public schools. This they accomplished, in late August 1959, under court supervision and with only minimal integration. And then …

“Little Rock’s citizens awakened the morning after Labor Day, 1959, to the horrifying news that three dynamite bombs had shattered the evening stillness between 10:30 and 11:00 the night before. The bombers had targeted Fire Chief Gann Nalley, whose car exploded, Mayor Werner Knoop, whose office building sustained extensive damage …, and the administrative offices of the Little Rock School Board …

“…Governor Faubus called the violence ‘sickening and deplorable,’ but insisted that the real blame should be placed on the integration policy of the federal government.”

A battle had been won. But the war was far from over.

? By Vic Fleming

 

Vic Fleming is a district judge for the city of Little Rock. He also teaches law and literature at UALR’s William H. Bowen School of Law.

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