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The Confederate Lawyer
August 5, 2010

Eisenhower and Faubus
by Charles G. Mills
fitzgerald griffin foundation

GLEN COVE, NY — Racial segregation of the schools was not always a part of Southern life. But as the Progressives and Populists took power early in the 20th century, it became pervasive for over 50 years.

In May 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation is unconstitutional in all cases. Immediately, Georgia Governor (later Senator) Herman Talmadge called for massive resistance to school desegregation. Although many Southerners agreed with Talmadge, opinion was far from unanimous. In 1955, Alabama Governor Jim Folsom, an advocate of civil rights, was elected to a second term. The prestigious Atlanta Constitution supported integration.

A precise determination of what part of the Southern population supported segregation in 1954 is impossible to determine. Some people wanted complete segregation. Some supported immediate desegregation. Some supported simply moving the best black students into the white schools but preserving two school systems. Some supported moving toward desegregation but slowly enough to minimize societal disruptions.

The strongest anti-black racism was not in the deep South but in places like the mountains of Tennessee and West Virginia down to small mountain areas in Georgia and Alabama and the Ohio Valley. Neither Strom Thurmond nor George Wallace ever hated blacks, but Robert Byrd did.

The most dramatic episode in the desegregation of the southern schools occurred in Little Rock in September 1957. On the first day of school, the nine black students scheduled to attend Little Rock’s Central High School were prevented from doing so by the Arkansas National Guard. Governor Orval Faubus, who had an anti-segregation reputation, ordered the National Guard to stop the desegregation. He may have learned that riots were probable and simply wanted to buy time to deal with the public safety issues. Tennessee had already met pro-segregation riots with force. Faubus did not say he was preventing integration, only delaying it.

It is also possible that he made a brilliant and cynical calculation. As a result of Eisenhower’s reaction to his decision, Faubus became politically invincible. He may have broken a promise to Eisenhower and known how the hot-tempered President would react.

Eisenhower could have used injunctions and federal marshals to ratchet up the pressure on Faubus until the school was desegregated. With a sense of urgency and persistence, he could have achieved desegregation without much drama. Instead, the President blew his top and sent paratroopers to Little Rock.

Eisenhower’s action — clearly illegal — was a disaster. For historical reasons, Southerners instinctively rally to defend a southern governor bullied by the federal government. From 1866 to 1876, the federal army stole the elections in the South. This situation ended with the compromise to give the disputed 1876 election to the Republicans in exchange for a withdrawal of federal troops from the South. In 1957, however, the federal troops went in with fixed bayonets just as they had during Reconstruction. Eisenhower’s action violated the 1876 compromise and infuriated the South.

The most important effect of the Eisenhower temper tantrum, however, was to teach Southern politicians that the one road to political invincibility was to defy the federal government on the issue of desegregation. For the next decade, local officials hampered every step in the desegregation movement by very public opposition rather than facilitated it by behind-the-scenes negotiations and cooperation. This is Eisenhower’s legacy.

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The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2010 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.

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