Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Little Rock Crisis

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the crisis that occurs when Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, is integrated.


African American children breaking the color bar often suffered horrendous verbal and physical abuse from white students, as was the case of the nine students sent to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who had earned a reputation as a racial moderate, faced a tough re-election battle and decided to exploit the racial tensions sparked by a court order to desegregate the Little Rock campus. On Sept. 2, 1957, the night before the school term began, Faubus appeared on Arkansas television and announced that it would “not be possible to restore or maintain order if forcible integration is carried out tomorrow.” Faubus dispatched the Arkansas National Guard to Central High to bar the entrance of the African American students who volunteered to integrate the high school. The black students did not attempt to enter the campus the next day, but a federal judge ordered integration to proceed. As the black students approached the next day, a large white mob gathered around Central High and yelled, “Niggers! Niggers! They’re coming. Here they come!” National Guardsmen again turned back the Little Rock Nine, as the black students came to be called.

Dwight Eisenhower then occupied the White House and he had no appetite for getting involved in the Little Rock crisis. The Republican president, who in 1952 had won four Southern states against the liberal Democrat Adlai Stevenson, believed that the GOP had a chance of making electoral headway in the South, and he didn’t want to alienate segregationist voters. Eisenhower himself sympathized somewhat with white Southern racial attitudes. After the Brown decision, he told Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, "These [white Southerners] are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in schools alongside some big black bucks." At a press conference the week the Little Rock Nine tried to enroll at the high school, Eisenhower said, “You cannot change people’s hearts merely by laws.” Events in Arkansas forced the president’s hand. Ordered a second time on September 20 to implement desegregation, Gov. Faubus withdrew the National Guard and predicted bloodshed as he left the state to avoid responsibility.

Meanwhile, the governor’s aides organized another ugly white mob that included hotheads from all across the South. A large, unruly crowd gathered at Central High School by Monday, September 23. The mob chanted, “Two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate!” and “Niggers, keep away from our school – go back to the jungle.” This time the Little Rock mayor ordered the black students withdrawn.

Aware of the Cold War consequences as the news from Arkansas gained a worldwide audience, Eisenhower appeared on television to condemn the “disgraceful occurrence.” A bigger mob showed up at the school on September 24. Aware of rising national and international criticism of his inaction, Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and dispatched a thousand troops of the 101st Airborne Division to Central High to escort the Little Rock Nine safely to the campus. Armed soldiers would accompany the African American students for the rest of the school year.

The coming months proved hellish for the small black contingent. One student, Melba Pattillo, suffered racial slurs and was pushed, hit and tripped by white students. One white student squirted acid into her eyes, almost causing permanent blindness. “If someone called me names or spat on me, or kicked me in the shin, or walked on my heel, I thought I couldn't make it one more moment,” said Pattillo, who nevertheless persisted to the end of the school year.

Terrorists fired bullets into her home and the school district threatened her mother, a teacher at a black school, that her job would be eliminated. A National Guardsmen felt compassion for Pattillo and advised her not to reveal her emotional pain to her tormentors. “Warriors don’t cry,” he told her. Later, Pattillo recalled that the presence of reporters probably saved the lives of her family. “ . . . [T]he media followed us,” she said. “When houses were attacked, reporters would spend the night. The press offered us some protection. How are you going to kill someone . . . if their names are in the paper?”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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