The Little Rock School Desegregation Crisis: Moderation and Social Conflict

Article excerpt

ON SEPTEMBER 4, 1957, ARKANSAS GOVERNOR ORVAL E. FAUBUS placed Arkansas National Guard troops around Central High School in Little Rock in order to prevent the entry of African American students to the all-white school. At that moment Little Rock became a national and international symbol of violent resistance to federal authority and to racial change. The governor's decision initiated a round of legal and political maneuvering that ended with a federal court decision enjoining Faubus, the Arkansas National Guard, and specific others from interfering further with the admission of black students to Central High School. After Faubus removed the state troops, Little Rock police attempted unsuccessfully to maintain order when the African American students entered the school on September 23. Confronted by a menacing segregationist mob that the officers did not believe they could control, local police removed the black students at midday. In order to enforce federal authority, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to Little Rock. With the assistance of the troops, the nine African American students entered again on September 25, eight of them for the duration of the academic year. (1)

When Ernest Green in May 1958 became the first black student to receive a diploma from Central High School, the crisis remained unresolved. Discipline in the school had deteriorated badly as a group of white students tried to use harassment and intimidation to drive the African American students from Central High. School officials confronted frequent bomb threats and spent inordinate amounts of time dealing with the disciplinary and political problems that arose in the wake of massive resistance. In the fall of 1958 Little Rock's public high schools were closed following a referendum in which the city's citizens refused to vote for integration in order to keep their schools open. The future of public education was clearly at risk. (2)

In addition, the national notoriety that resulted from Little Rock's turmoil threatened its nascent economic development program. Since World War II the business leaders of Little Rock, in alliance with the state government, had worked to attract new businesses and jobs from outside the South. The national business elite was unwilling to invest in a community experiencing the social instability, violence, and threats to the public schools that accompanied massive resistance. By endangering Little Rock's economic and educational base, the crisis had placed the future of the city's middle class in jeopardy. (3)

The unsettling events also placed local leaders in a dilemma. As in other American cities, effective political power in Little Rock rested with a small number of businessmen who took for granted their right to decide the city's fate. This group of business leaders generally tried to exercise power from behind the scenes, thus distancing itself from public visibility and accountability as a political actor. In this way businessmen could deny the connections between their economic and political roles and minimize the risks to their businesses that public activism entailed. These men were socially conservative and sought to avoid public association with controversial issues. Not surprisingly, the school desegregation crisis made it virtually impossible for them to act effectively while remaining behind the scenes. (4)

The business leaders in Little Rock were divided over the importance of segregation and over how to safeguard their economic and political interests; their uncertainty left them virtually paralyzed during the first two years of the crisis. Most supported segregation but were unhappy about the high cost of retaining it. When violence erupted in 1957, they were willing to condemn it but were not willing to engage in public discussion of the issue that had occasioned the unrest. Unable to act, they faced various challenges to their local monopoly on power, ranging from segregationists in the Capital Citizens' Council and the Mothers' League of Central High to the middle-class white women who organized the moderate Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC) in September 1958. …