Civil Rights Movement

September 15, 1957 – Mike Wallace Interviews Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus

Governor Orval Faubus

On September 15, 1957, the Mike Wallace Interview show on ABC aired a conversation between host Mike Wallace and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, current Commander-in-Chief of the Arkansas National Guard on duty in front of Little Rock Central High School.  Gov. Faubus had just met with Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, at the President’s request, to clarify his reasons for defying a federal court order to integrate Little Rock High.  Faubus stated that he intended to respect the decisions of the court and fully cooperate and carry out his responsibilities for integrating Arkansas schools.  The Guard, he maintained, had been called out to “keep the peace and order of the community” which was “paramount to all other issues”.

Gov. Faubus told Wallace that at this time “it would not be possible to integrate without disorder and violence” and “the troops will still be on duty in the morning”.  They would be taken off duty only “under a condition of tranquility and general acceptance by the people”, the presence of which it would be his responsibility to determine “on the basis of facts and information that are available to me”.  “Eighty-two percent of the people agreed that disorder and violence would have occurred, had not I taken the action which I did,” Faubus claimed.

Wallace pressed Faubus for documentation of his claims regarding incipient violence, but Faubus refused to reveal the material he said he had turned over to the FBI, pending possible court litigation.

Wallace then asked Gov. Faubus why he had not ordered the Arkansas Guard to protect the African-American children and enable them to enter the schools, rather than prevent their entry.  Faubus replied that “the best way to prevent the violence was to remove the cause”.  Faubus pointed out that other school districts in Arkansas, the state colleges, and local transportation systems had all integrated without interference on his part because they were able to do so peacefully.  Not so Little Rock.

Faubus stated, “malice, envy, hate is deplorable, in any place or in any circumstances, but as President Eisenhower has said himself, you can’t change the hearts of people by law . . . all I’ve ever asked for, is some time for the situation to change for it to become acceptable, so that there would not be disorder and violence.  If [integration] is right, it will come about.  So, why should we be so impatient as to want to force it, because force begets force, hate begets hate, malice begets malice.”

Faubus also proclaimed his belief that “some of the finest citizens we have in Arkansas are Negro citizens and many of them have most responsible positions and they carry them out with credit to themselves and the State and the Nation and the citizenry as a whole.  I believe that each person should be judged upon his individual merits and that it should not apply to races, or classes or groups.”

Image Credit: Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

September 9, 1957 – Civil Rights Triumph and Tragedy

Crowd in the street after Hattie Cotton School bombing, September, 1957.

On September 9, 1957, two earth-shaking events occurred in the history of American civil rights.

In Washington, DC, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, an important milestone on the road to equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or religion.

In Nashville, Tennessee, following the first day of school in which 13 six-year-old African-American children entered first grade, a bomb exploded and completely destroyed a wing of Hattie Cotton Elementary School.

The Nashville school system was slowly, grudgingly complying with Brown vs. Board of Education, a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1954 which declared racial segregation in public schools a violation of the United States Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.  Nashville’s plan called for a “stairstep” road to integration, allowing admission of 13 African-American first-graders into previously all-white schools.  Gradually, each year, another grade would be integrated so that at the end of 12 years, African-American students would receive high school diplomas along with privileged whites.  In 1954, there were four separate school systems in Nashville, two overlapping districts in the central city, and two in the suburbs.  One of each pair was tacitly designated for whites, the other for African-Americans.  These districts were by no stretch of the imagination equal; facilities were grossly unequal by almost every measure.

Three tortuous years later, parents of white students were boycotting the first day of school in protest of even the barest beginnings of desegregation.  Angry, vicious words were spoken by visitor John Kasper of New Jersey, who was jailed and charged with incitement to riot.  Mayor Ben West and school officials stood by their decision to admit the new students.  Following the explosion and destruction at Hattie Cotton, one school official told Time Magazine, “This is no longer a matter of segregation or desegregation.  This is a matter of sheer lawlessness.  We’re up against thugs.”

Repairs were made to Hattie Cotton Elementary School and it reopened in January, 1958.  It remains open to this day.

Image Credit: Nashville Public Library and Emory University Libraries

September 4, 1957 – The Crisis in Little Rock

The Little Rock Nine, with Daisy Bates, Arkansas State Press and Arkansas State Conference of NAACP, back row second from left.

 

On September 4, 1957, nine high school students got up, got dressed, ate breakfast, and headed off to their first day at a new high school.  Men in uniform, holding guns, were waiting for them.  Hostile crowds yelled, threatened, and spat on them.  Unable to enter the building, they turned around and headed home.

But the nation was watching.  The Little Rock Nine, as they came to be called, became a galvanizing image in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.  Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Beals were only fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds, but their courage earned them an enduring place in the history of our country and the history of freedom.

The United States Supreme Court, in Brown vs. Board of Education, declared in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional and ordered all schools to develop desegregation plans.  The school board of Little Rock, Arkansas decided to comply with the ruling and created a plan to gradually integrate the district schools, beginning in the fall of 1957.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been spearheading the drive to register African-American students across the South, enrolled the Little Rock Nine in previously all-white Little Rock Central High School.  With classes scheduled to start on September 4th, and segregationist councils agitating, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard on September 3rd to block access to the school for any non-white students.  They carried out their job.

On September 5th, Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann called on President Eisenhower for help.  Eisenhower responded and on September 24th the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army was posted to Little Rock, the President federalized and took control of the Arkansas National Guard, and Ernest, Elizabeth, Jefferson, Terrence, Carlotta, Minnijean, Gloria, Thelma, and Melba started classes on September 25, 1957.

Their troubles and difficulties were far from over.  They were subjected to verbal and physical abuse in which school authorities were less than willing to intervene.  Integration of the school continued, and more African-American students were enrolled at Central High.

The heroic Little Rock Nine were unanimous in their declaration of who the real heroes were that September, and that school year.  They credited their parents, “who supported them and kept the faith that the process was right and that what they endured would give them opportunities they deserved”.  Each of the nine students has gone on to live extraordinary lives and leave a legacy of courage for others to follow.

The Little Rock Nine at the dedication of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site’s new visitor center, 2007, with National Park Service Director Mary Bomar, US Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, and US Representative John Lewis.

Image Credits: Library of Congress; Tami Heilemann/National Park Service