Why Eisenhower Sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock After Brown v. Board
When the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate schools for whites and blacks were unconstitutional and inherently unequal, the slow and often violent dismantling of segregation in educational institutions began across the country.
Knowing that there would be a challenge and resistance to the Brown v. school council decision, particularly in the south where Jim Crow prevailed, the Supreme Court refrained from setting a specific deadline for schools to begin the desegregation process.
But in 1955, in a later decision dealing with late progress by states, the court demanded that integration be “at any deliberate speed”. The Little Rock, Arkansas school board voted to desegregate their high schools starting in 1957, which led to a crisis that catapulted the state governor into a confrontation with the president of the United States, Dwight D Eisenhower.
By 1957, Arkansas had already integrated several state universities and smaller school districts. But when nine black students decided to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, which was breaking up a large urban area, threats of violence and protests followed.
Little Rock Nine Face Hostile Crowds
READ MORE: The story behind the Little Rock Nine ‘Scream Image’
A few days before the start of the school year, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, a segregationist, announced on September 2, 1957 that he would order the State National Guard to surround Central to prevent black students to enter, under the pretext of protecting them from the violence of the crowd. In response, federal judge Ronald Davies issued a decision the next day, requiring that the integrated courses be conducted in accordance with court orders.
But on September 4, when black students, historically known as Little Rock Nine, faced with a vicious crowd outside Central, was denied them by Arkansas National Guard armed troops. Images of African American students shouted, heckled and spat out, made national and international news.
The intense confrontation continued for several weeks as the National Guard continued to surround the school in defiance of Justice Davies’ decision. To discuss a solution, Governor Faubus visited President Eisenhower during his retirement in Newport, Rhode Island. Eisenhower was faced with a complicated situation: he believed in adherence to the Constitution, but he was not outwardly passionate about civil rights and did not speak in favor of the Brown decision.
“He was not so enthusiastic about the Supreme Court decision and procrastinated in public,” said John A. Kirk, professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and author of Beyond Little Rock: The Origins and Legacies of the Elevated Central Crisis. “There was not strong support.”
Eisenhower and Faubus agreed that the Arkansas National Guard would stay in school to maintain order, so that black students could attend.
When the governor returned to Arkansas, however, he withdrew National Guard troops from the center and left the local police safe. As the Little Rock Nine made another attempt to enter on September 23, they had to use a side entrance because a belligerent crowd of 1,000 people had formed outside. When a riot broke out, the police had to evacuate the black students for their safety. Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann called on the president to intervene.
Eisenhower felt that Little Rock was compromising the credibility of the United States in the midst of the Cold War
LISTEN: Eisenhower intervenes in the Little Rock crisis
The news exasperated Eisenhower. “He was a soldier and didn’t want his orders to be undermined,” said Kirk. “He felt that Faubus was insubordinate.” The president was also concerned that the riots had compromised the credibility of the United States as a leader of democracy and a nation of laws during the Cold War.
On September 23, President Eisenhower issued Order 10730, which placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal authority, and sent 1,000 U.S. Army soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, to maintain order while Central High School was desegregated.
“Our enemies are delighted with this incident and are using it everywhere to misrepresent our nation,” said Eisenhower, in a televised address to the White House the day after the execution of his decree. “The Mob rule cannot be allowed to override court decisions.”
“Eisenhower was stuck in a corner and reached a point where he had to show the power of the federal government and cut the continued insurgency of segregationists in the South,” said Dolores Barclay, adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School and executive director of Lipman Center for journalism and civil and human rights. “His decision was resolutely political – to maintain federal power – and to ensure that Brown has been applied. ”
Arkansas National Guard Resumes Patrol
On September 25, 1957, the Little Rock Nine attended Central High for their first full day of class, under the protection of the newly federated Arkansas Federal Guard and the 101 Airborne Division, who gradually withdrew as decreasing numbers of state soldiers were taking full control of security by December.
“It turned out to be a matter of contention,” said Kirk. “The NAACP felt like the children were abandoned and wanted to make sure the soldiers were present at the school and looked after the students and protected their safety.”
From December to the end of the school year in May 1958, Arkansas National Guard soldiers patrolled the school, while the Little Rock Nine were regularly victims of physical assault, threats and insults.
The next term, in September 1958, Governor Faubus closed the secondary schools in Little Rock for the year to prevent black students from enrolling. But in August 1959, Little Rock secondary schools reopened their integrated doors after a federal court overturned the governor’s law closing the schools.