Tale of Little Rock school integration crisis is too soft on those who defied the law

Review History

February 04, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

Turn Away thy Son: Little Rock, The Crisis that Shocked the Nation.

Elizabeth Jacoway

Free Press / 352 pages / $30

On Sept. 3, 1957, hundreds of people assembled across the street from Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. One sang "Dixie" and waved a Confederate flag. Another circulated petitions calling for the dismissal of Superintendent Virgil Blossom, the architect of the plan to comply with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education by bringing nine black students to the heretofore all-white high school. That same day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned reporters that "you cannot change people's hearts merely by laws." Integration aroused strong emotions, the president added, including fears of "mongrelization of the race."

At a news conference of his own, Gov. Orval E. Faubus announced that he had called on the National Guard to "maintain peace and order." After a federal court prohibited Faubus from interfering with the Blossom Plan, riots broke out and on Sept. 24 a reluctant president sent 1,000 paratroopers to Little Rock and federalized the National Guard. The black students entered Central High School the next day, but the crisis lasted more than two years.

In Turn Away Thy Son, Elizabeth Jacoway, a native of Little Rock and the niece of Virgil Blossom, draws on in-depth interviews with the principal players in the crisis in a new account of this pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Jacoway is at her best when she follows the fits and starts of the white moderates of Little Rock. The school board, she demonstrates, pursued "minimum compliance," leaving segregation intact in elementary school and junior high and keeping blacks out of Hall High, the school attended by the children of Little Rock's elites. But then again, board members continued to press for implementation of the plan at considerable risk to their reputations.

Jacoway also sheds new light on the role in women in the crisis. Led by some of the first ladies of Little Rock, the Women's Emergency Committee argued that an occupied, polarized city, with a reputation for violence, was bad for business. The WEC rallied the Chamber of Commerce, recruited moderate candidates for the school board, managed the election and helped move public opinion toward gradual - some said "token" - integration.

Unfortunately, Jacoway's judgments are not always this sound. Most historians portray the crisis as a standoff between die-hard, demagogic Arkansas politicians and feckless federal officials. It didn't start out that way, Jacoway suggests. Her Orval Faubus is a dignified man, "armed with a complex mix of idealism and calculation." The governor "hardened and succumbed to opportunism" only after he was betrayed by the moderates on the school board, "given no alternative to abject surrender" by the federal government, and pushed to the right by racists challenging his re-election bid.

Jacoway relies heavily on Faubus' self-serving account of his role. She find credible Faubus' assertion that Eisenhower agreed to a cooling-off period until Attorney General Herbert Brownell told him he had no legal basis for doing so. And she deems the segregationists "largely correct" in challenging the president's authority to send federal troops to Little Rock. Eisenhower, she writes, called on the Army to subdue a mob already brought under control by local authorities.

Jacoway also endorses Faubus' assertion that the threat of imminent violence justified his orders to the Arkansas National Guard. She may be right to dismiss as a "travesty of justice" an FBI report which could not document any actual act or threat of violence before the Guard was mobilized. But it doesn't matter much. Eisenhower did not castigate Faubus for ordering Guardsmen to take up positions, but for using violence to annul integration. As Judge Marion Matthes wrote for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals: "We say that the time has not yet come in the United States when an order of a federal court must be whittled away, watered down or shamefully withdrawn in the face of violent or unlawful acts of individual citizens."

The "most important layer" of the Little Rock crisis, Jacoway concludes, was a fear of black sexual aggression and miscegenation. Convinced that the real issue was law and order, advocates of integration "could not seem to fathom that most Little Rock people responded to racial issues with more deeply rooted beliefs" than "newfound understandings of the brotherhood of man."

But, as Eisenhower's reference to "mongrelization" indicates, moderates and liberals were well aware of the power of prejudice. They recognized, as Jacoway does, "the difficulty of extending justice to a historically powerless group in the absence of a majoritarian will to do so." But, fortunately, they did not agree with her that segregation "could not be changed by force, no matter how worthy or urgent the compelling motives." Prodded by blacks, whites have accommodated over the last half-century, gradually, grudgingly, and partially, thanks, in no small measure, to federal law and the will to enforce it.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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