Leadership: Eisenhower and Little Rock

59 Years Ago This Week

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court held in a unanimous decision, Brown v Topeka Board of Education, that segregated public schooling was unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the landmark opinion.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower invited the Chief Justice to dinner at the White House and said to him, “These [southern whites] are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.”

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Eisenhower’s comment was a rehash of the age old stereotype of the “big buck” out to deflower innocent southern belles, effectively sexualizing the argument for equal rights.

It not only failed with Warren, Eisenhower’s Justice Department also sided with those pressing for integration.

Three years later, in September 1957, the United States was staggered and the world looked on in shock when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus moved to stop nine black students from enrolling at Little Rock Central High School.

Eisenhower met with Faubus and reinforced his view that the governor had an “inescapable responsibility…to preserve law and order.”

Defying the President, Faubus subsequently deployed the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school in order to block the kids from entering.

He may have felt he was on safe ground with the conservative Eisenhower who had expressed concern over the issue of school desegregation.

Faubus would not be the first or the last southern politician to “play chicken” with a U.S. President over the issue of civil rights by pretending to agree to abide by Federal Court rulings only to renege on such promises in short order.

An acknowledged aspect of the Brown decision and the civil rights push was the damage done to the reputation of the United States abroad by the relentless negative press associated with segregation.

“The Attorney General  noted that the existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.”

“Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that the United States is under constant attack in the foreign press, over the foreign radio, and in such international bodies as the United Nations because of various practices of discrimination in this country.

Whether or not President Eisenhower was swayed by such concerns, when faced with a defiant Faubus, and perhaps contrary to his own personal beliefs, he acted decisively to uphold the rule of law.

On September 24th, 1957, Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock to both ensure the safety of the students and that the court rulings would be enforced.

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Deploying Federal troops against U.S. citizens is an action of last resort and the President felt compelled to use that option.

Eisenhower was roundly criticized from all sides for both acting to aggressively and not aggressively enough.

He clearly demonstrated in word and deed that whatever his personal views may be, he would act decisively to enforce the Constitution, a crucial prerequisite for any President.

 

 

 

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