The Little Rock Nine Caused a ‘Crack in Time'
Executive Editor Glen Ford
"A segregationist president was compelled against every
political instinct to bring the full powers of the federal government,
including military force, to bear on the side of Blacks."
This article is based on a speech by Ford to the 62nd
Annual Convention of the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, in Little
For much of the past month, African Americans commemorated
the Little Rock Nine's integration of Central High School, September 25, 1957.
For the most part, celebrations highlighted the teenagers' courage in the face
of state-instigated mob violence, and the steadfastness of their parents and
NAACP organizers. This is an heroic story, glorious on its face, and true. Yet
the real significance of the events of 50 years ago extends far beyond issues
of school desegregation - a problematic legacy in light of what has since
transpired. Rather, the Little Rock Nine and their adult mentors - without
knowing it, and some possibly still unaware of the full impact of their actions
- set in motion a chain of events that would fundamentally alter the political
relationship between Blacks and the white power structure in the United States.
"The Little Rock Nine focused national and world
attention on the real nature of white mob violence in the United States, for
the first time through the young medium of television."
Where it not for the Little Rock Nine, the whirlwind
advances of the Sixties, resulting in the death of legal Jim Crow in historical
lightning speed, might have been a much longer, drawn out battle. Their victory
in a token effort to integrate a high school in the capitol city of Arkansas
did not lead to a national continuum of ever-expanding classroom desegregation
- or even to completion of an integrated high school experience for all of the
Instead, the Little Rock Nine focused national and world attention on the real
nature of white mob violence in the United States, for the first time through
the young medium of television. A segregationist president was compelled
against every political instinct to bring the full powers of the federal
government, including military force, to bear on the side of Blacks for the
first time since the death of Reconstruction. And the stage was set for an era
in which the two political parties would actively vie for the Black vote, one
of which would closely collaborate with Black leadership in an attempt to
A Shock to the Senses
The broad outlines of the September, 1957, chronology are well-known.
A local school board-sanctioned plan to trickle nine Blacks into the
2000-student body of Central High School prompted an enraged Gov. Orval Faubus
to deploy Arkansas National Guardsmen to bar the schoolhouse door to the Black
students, on September 4. A federal judge ordered the Guard removed, and that
integration move forward under local police protection, September 20.
Meanwhile, racists from throughout the region had worked themselves into a
frenzy. On September 23, a 1,000-strong mob threatened to storm the school
building, forcing police to evacuate the Little Rock Nine. The city's mayor
asks Washington to send in federal troops to restore order. A profoundly
reluctant President Dwight Eisenhower takes the Arkansas National Guard away
from Governor Faubus, by federalizing it, and on September 25 sends in 1,000
paratroopers to escort the nine Black students into Central High, while a huge
gathering of the white racist citizenry behave like obscenity screaming savages
for all the world to see and hear.
A first-class civil rights drama, to be sure - but the fallout
was history-bending. Never before had Americans viewed from their living rooms
the raw face of white racist mob bloodlust. Although many had read about
lynchings, few knew that these macabre events were often attended by thousands,
with whole families assembling in a picnic atmosphere. Besides, that was all in
the past, and most Americans - and foreigners - had imbibed a diet of Gone with
the Wind and Cabin in the Sky movie fictions of benign southern racial
relationships. The gruesome 1955 murder of Black teenager Emmett Till, in
Mississippi, had received national and world attention, as did the Montgomery,
Alabama bus boycott, the same year. However, the Till lynching was the work of
furtive night killers, and the boycott of Montgomery busses was not accompanied
by a mass white mob response. White southern politicians regularly warned of an
apocalypse should Blacks continue to press for enforcement of the 1954 Brown
school desegregation decision, but thanks to the executive and judicial
branches' insistence on giving whites all the time in the world to comply, Armageddon had not occurred.
"The 1957 Little
Rock display of mass white southern inhumanity changed the image of the United
Suddenly, there it was: the coiled white mob, including
large numbers of women and children, their faces contorted in hate, spitting
and blaspheming, grotesque and murderous animals bent on tearing apart
children. This was truly the Ugly American, caught on video in his and her
native habitat. ("The niggers got in! They tricked us! The niggers got
in!" "Come on, let's go in the school and drag them out!")
before television would record Birmingham's police dogs and fire hoses - a
horror of state violence, rather than white mob depredations - the 1957 Little
Rock display of mass white southern inhumanity changed the image of the United
A rapidly decolonizing world was watching, the Soviets were
pointing and chuckling, and the former general-of-all-generals in the White
House had been waylaid by a new history in the making, one that he could not
Dwight Eisenhower is called "a man of his times" by his
apologists - meaning, he was a segregationist. As Supreme Commander in World
War Two Eisenhower opposed integration of the Armed Forces, on the grounds that
it would damage white troop morale and "harm the Negro" by forcing him to
compete with whites - arguments near-identical to those put forward by polite
segregationists in civilian life. Ike put it this way:
"In general, the Negro is less well educated ... and if you
make a complete amalgamation, what you are going to have is in every company
the Negro is going to be relegated to the minor jobs, and he is never going to
get his promotion to such grades as technical sergeant, master sergeant, and so
on, because the competition is too tough. If, on the other hand, he is in
smaller units of his own, he can go up to that rate, and I believe he is
entitled to the chance to show his own wares....
"I believe that the human race may finally grow up to the
point where it [race relations] will not be a problem. It [the race problem]
will disappear through education, through mutual respect, and so on. But I do
believe that if we attempt merely by passing a lot of laws to force someone to
like someone else, we are just going to get into trouble. On the other hand, I
do not by any means hold out for this extreme segregation as I said when I
first joined the Army 38 years ago."
"Ike believed in ‘state's rights,' just like the
Eisenhower got help in his victorious bid for the
presidency, in 1952, from Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who was sick
and tired of the Dixie Democrats that dominated the Party at the congressional
level. Possibly due to Powell's influence, Eisenhower stated, in a March, 1953
"I will say this - I repeat it, I have said it again and
again: whenever Federal funds are expended for anything, I do not see how any
American can justify - legally, or logically, or morally - a discrimination in
the expenditure of those funds as among our citizens. All are taxed to provide
these funds. If there is any benefit to be derived from them, I think they must
all share, regardless of such inconsequential factors as race and religion."
Note, however, that this bland statement says nothing about
federal intervention to enforce his personal opinion, and is totally compatible
with the "separate but equal" doctrine. As Morris J. MacGregor Jr. wrote in his
of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965, Eisenhower contended "it was not in the
scope of the President's authority "to intervene in matters which are of
local or state-wide concern and within the jurisdiction of local legislation
In other words, Ike believed in "state's rights," just like
The tenacity of the Little Rock Nine, their parents, and the
NAACP forced Eisenhower's hand. More accurately, the whites that Eisenhower had
always feared upsetting compelled him to react, in the name of law and order,
the powers of the presidency, and the global image of the United States. He
sent in the troops, and nothing would ever be the same again.
Democrats Slow to Catch Up
The racist rantings of Dixiecrats, who had bolted the
Democratic Party in 1948 in reaction to mild integrationist language in the
Party platform, plus Adam Clayton Powell's sympathy for Eisenhower's
presidency, garnered Ike 39 percent of the Black vote in 1956 - higher than any
Republican presidential candidate since Franklin Roosevelt sewed up the Black
vote in 1936. The Democrats were busy trying to patch up relations with their
Dixiecrat brethren, in the early and mid-Fifties, further alienating Black
Eisenhower's decisive action in 1957 Little Rock made him a
hero in Black America. Not in most people's living memory had federal troops
been deployed on the "right" side of the race divide - but Ike did it. If he
could build for Republicans on his 1956 Black 39 percent share, the Democrats
would be in crisis in 1960. Little Rock created a huge bump in Ike's Black
popularity, but the Democrats were slow to understand the implications.
Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (TX) declared, "There
should be no troops from either side patrolling our school campuses anywhere."
Adlai Stevenson, the 1952 and 1956 losing Democratic
presidential candidate, speaking at the beginning of the Little Rock crisis,
but before Eisenhower sent in the troops, said, "I don't suppose the president has
much that he can do" - that is, Stevenson could not contemplate enforcing the
law with federal forces.
John Kennedy, a clear candidate for the next election cycle,
said that "though there may be disagreement over the president's leadership on
this issue, there is no denying that he alone had the ultimate responsibility
for deciding what steps are necessary to see that the law is faithfully
executed" - faint praise, indeed.
"Little Rock created a huge bump in Ike's Black
As the next election drew nearer - and as polls showed
Eisenhower's soaring approval ratings among African Americans - it finally
dawned on Democrats that Vice-President Richard Nixon might inherit Ike's Black
support. Late in the game, in the midst of the 1960 campaign, Kennedy trumped
the Republicans with a call to Coretta Scott King, expressing sympathy for her
husband's having been imprisoned in Reidsville, Georgia. Brother Bobby was
dispatched to urge Georgia authorities to release Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
on bail. "I'm sure that the senator did it because of his real concern and his
humanitarian bent," said King - and a new white political hero was born.
All three of the Nixon-Kennedy televised debates dealt with
questions of civil rights, as they jockeyed for Black support. The process of
disentanglement from the Dixiecrats had begun - an unlikely occurrence had
Eisenhower not been forced to become a reluctant Black savior by the sheer
courage of the Little Rock Nine, thus endangering the Democrats' lock on Black voters.
Nixon lost the election by a hair. "If the Negro voters of
America hadn't shifted last Tuesday to John Kennedy, Vice-President Nixon would
now be holding press conferences as President-elect," said The New Republic.
"Kennedy's victory with the Negroes was nothing short of triumphant," wrote
Time magazine. Eisenhower blamed Nixon's defeat on his failure to attract
enough Black votes.
The Black-Democratic love affair was rekindled, but at a
price for white Democrats. Because of Eisenhower's actions in Little Rock, and
Kennedy's efforts to one-up him by embracing Dr. King (no matter how
cynically), African Americans grew to realize their centrality in national
elections, as did their white suitors. For Kennedy, and later Johnson, there was
no going back; the Dixiecrat ties were doomed.
Soon the "Big Four" of civil rights - the Southern Christian
Leadership Council's Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney
Young of the Urban League, and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality
- and other Black luminaries would feel confident in demanding meetings at the
White House, a venue every previous generation of African Americans were made
to feel privileged and lucky to set foot in. They arrived with agendas, rather
than an "I'm so glad to be here" attitude. They competed with each other to
present coherent programs that would finally be considered as potential public
policy. They, and the movements they represented, shaped a Second
Reconstruction, albeit brief and inadequate.
If the Little Rock Nine had faltered, history would have
unfolded quite differently. Their greatest legacy is having boxed in a
segregationist president, forcing him to do the right thing, and provoked, by
their heroism, white mobs to show their asses to the candid cameras of
television, thus teaching the planet the real character of U.S. white society
in 1957, a spectacle that previously indifferent whites would seek to live down
for many years. From that moment on, the Black American world changed.
Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected].