Popular Responses to the Crisis at Little Rock (by Angela Song)

By Angela Song

STANDARDS:

History-Social Science Content Standards

11.9.4 List the effects of foreign policy on domestic policies and vice versa (e.g., protests during the war in Vietnam, the “nuclear freeze” movement).

11.10.5 Discuss the diffusion of the civil rights movement of African Americans from the churches of the rural South and the urban North, including the resistance to racial desegregation in Little Rock and Birmingham, and how the advances influenced the agendas, strategies, and effectiveness of the quests of American Indians, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans for civil rights and equal opportunities.

Reading Standards for Literacy in History: Social Studies

2 – Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

6 – Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

9 – Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

OVERVIEW

The standoff in Little Rock, Arkansas captured international attention when Governor Orval Faubus refused to allow nine black students attendance to Central High School and further resisted attempts to integrate public education. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, frustrated with Faubus’ recalcitrance and determined to uphold the constitutional authority of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, sent federal troops to escort the black students and ensure their safety in the fraught environment. He justified his decision in a broadcasted speech on September 24, 1957, in which he cited the legal precedence for federal intervention, and furthermore chided rioting demagogues for sullying America’s reputation abroad.

The decision and speech earned the President’s office copious amounts of mail from American citizens supporting or decrying his actions. Segregationists were furious at the “dictatorial” use of federal power to overrule “states’ rights” and feared that integration would lead to miscegenation. Integrationists supported the decision and looked down on Southern racists for their ignorance. Some harbored a sense of ambivalence and were concerned about the situation potentially escalating beyond control. Despite these different perspectives, some common threads were prevalent. Among these, the maintenance of American prestige in a tense Cold War world, the consequences of racial integration, and the prerogative of the federal government to interfere in civil rights disputes stand out as the main issues of the crisis in Little Rock.

Students will examine a selection of these letters to the President to gain an understanding of common themes at play in the wide range of responses to Eisenhower’s decision. In doing so, they will practice reading, comparing, and contextualizing primary sources. They will summarize their analysis and synthesize it with others to reach a greater understanding of the context in which ordinary Americans operated during the civil rights movement.

ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDING

Students will compare a variety of primary sources to reach an understanding of federal intervention at the crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas and how ordinary Americans understood the issue and responded to it.

QUESTIONS

  • What prevailing concerns did Americans have regarding the federal government’s intervention in Little Rock, Arkansas?
    • What topics and concerns did Eisenhower address in his speech on September 24, 1957? How did he justify the decision to send in federal troops?
    • What were some similarities and differences in the responses of American citizens to the decision to use federal troops to force integration in Little Rock?

GLOSSARY/KEY TERMINOLOGY

Brown v. Board of Education was a 1954 landmark case in which the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the legal validity of “separate but equal” segregation in public schools. Chief Justice Earl Warren was instrumental to turning the court towards a unanimous decision and played a large role in later Supreme Court civil rights cases. Brown did not provide a plan for implementation, leaving it mostly up to state and local governments to figure out how they would approach the issue.1

A central focus of Black civil rights activism was the integration of American society. Under the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, racial segregation was legal, forcing all manners of humiliation on black Americans. Many civil rights activists wanted black people to be able to participate fully in public life on an equal basis with white Americans instead of being singled out as inferior.

In response to desegregation efforts, white Americans tried to generate massive resistance. This initiative took many forms. White people assembled White Citizens’ Councils to block and interfere with attempts to integrate society and took part in racial violence against black people, hoping to intimidate and exhaust them.

The Cold War was the period following the Second World War, characterized by the polarization of the world between the United States and the Soviet Union. These two superpowers competed for global dominance using competing ideologies, proxy wars, and comparative standards of living. Other countries were generally forced to choose one side over the other for military protection or economic aid. The United States represented itself as a stalwart defender of capitalism, democracy, and freedom to other countries, hoping to build a bulwark against communism. However, this international image contrasted greatly with its domestic issues with racial violence and inequality.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (R) was president from 1953 to 1961. Though he was the one to put Earl Warren on the Supreme Court, he himself was fairly conservative on the federal government’s role in managing race relations. The decision of the court on Brown v. Board was one of the many which would cause Eisenhower to regret nominating Warren.2 However, when Faubus challenged federal courts by preventing integration, he did find it necessary to intervene in order to reassert federal authority and to protect America’s image abroad.3 IMPORTANT CLARIFICATION: this was before the Southern Democrats fully split off from the Democrats into the Republican Party, so it wasn’t like today’s Republican Party where you can pretty much assume the members are racists.

Orval Faubus was the governor of Arkansas and a staunch segregationist. Early in the national process to desegregate public education, Faubus committed himself to defy the Brown decision.4 He used the specter of mob violence and miscegenation to justify his decision to use the National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High School.5

Miscegenation in the American context refers to the mixing of racial groups through marriage, cohabitation, sexual relations, and procreation, particularly that which is perceived as detrimental to the “purity” of the white race. The concept is intrinsically tied to gender and the masculinist desire to protect and control the sexual purity of white women. White supremacists did their best to prevent miscegenation through violence, law, and segregation.

The Little Rock Nine were nine black students selected to be the first wave of desegregation in Little Rock. They attended Central High School for a year under intense and unrelenting duress from racially motivated bullying. After the tumultuous 1957-1958 school year, Arkansas public schools were shut down altogether.

INTRODUCTION

In 1954, the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional and ordered the desegregation of public schools in the monumental case Brown v. Board of Education. However, it did not provide a true plan for how to desegregate, leaving the mechanics of it up to state and local administration. This allowed segregationists to engage in all sorts of tactics designed to prevent integration of schools, from instituting arbitrary delays up to and including violent harassment of black students and families.6

Meanwhile, the Cold War was in full swing. Though the conflict began as a nuclear arms race, it developed a non-military dimension, gaining the additional aspect of a competition to provide the best standard of living. The United States was billing itself as a protector of freedom, capitalism, and democracy against colonial regimes and against international Communism. However, this image was threatened by the continual recurrence of racial discrimination of violence inside the United States. Besides the potential loss of a moral high ground to European empires, domestic racial discrimination and violence were a strong argument that the United States and capitalism could not provide the freedom and democracy they promised.7

The standoff in Little Rock, Arkansas captured international attention when Governor Orval Faubus refused to allow nine black students attendance to Central High School and further resisted attempts to integrate public education. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, frustrated with Faubus’ recalcitrance and determined to uphold the constitutional authority of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, sent federal troops to escort the black students and ensure their safety in the fraught environment. He justified his decision in a broadcasted speech on September 24, 1957, in which he cited the legal precedence for federal intervention, and furthermore chided rioting demagogues for sullying America’s reputation abroad.

The decision and speech earned the President’s office copious amounts of mail from American citizens supporting or decrying his actions. Segregationists were furious at the “dictatorial” use of federal power to overrule “states’ rights” and feared that integration would lead to miscegenation. Integrationists supported the decision and looked down on Southern racists for their ignorance. Some harbored a sense of ambivalence and were concerned about the situation potentially escalating beyond control. Despite these different perspectives, some common threads were prevalent. Among these, the maintenance of American prestige in a tense Cold War world, the consequences of racial integration, and the prerogative of the federal government to interfere in civil rights disputes stand out as the main issues of the crisis in Little Rock.

MATERIALS

The following small selection of citizen letters to the President found in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library’s website.

A transcript of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speech about the decision to send in federal troops, from a selection of documents and communications regarding the Little Rock crisis also found on the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library’s website.

ACTIVITIES

Before Class:

In Class:

  • Warm up the class by discussing the Drunk History episode. Discussion should cover the following points:
    • What did you know about Little Rock before watching the clip?
    • Did anything about the clip surprise you?
    • Have you watched Drunk History before? [For students who are not familiar with the show, explain the following.]
      • From the video description provided on YouTube: “Based on the popular web series, Drunk History is the liquored-up narration of our nation’s history. Host Derek Waters, along with an ever-changing cast of actors and comedians, travels across the country to present the rich tales that every city in this land has to offer. Booze helps bring out the truth. It’s just that sometimes the truth is a little incoherent.”
      • Narrator, sometimes a comedian and sometimes a celebrity guest, gets drunk and gives a broad overview of a historical event
      • Actors lip-sync the dialogue
      • Show producers fact check overall narrative but not the specifics of the dialogue
    • What are some strengths and weaknesses of Drunk History?
    • What would make this Drunk History clip a more historical account?
  • After warming up the class, provide a short lecture on the chronology of the Little Rock crisis. Salient points to cover: 
    • Orval Faubus calls the National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering the school.
    • The parents of the Little Rock Nine and the NAACP advisor met with the local superintendent to plan how the students would enter the school. They agreed that a squad car from Little Rock City Police would protect the students and the escorting ministers as they attempted to enter the school.
    • September 4th – The students try to enter Little Rock and are blocked by the Guard. Daisy Bates, due to a miscommunication, attempts to enter alone and is subject to the harassment of a white mob.8
    • September 14th – Eisenhower meets with Governor Faubus hoping to de-escalate the situation. Though the meeting ends positively, Faubus still refuses to remove the National Guard.9
    • September 20th – A court hearing declares Faubus’ actions to be in contempt of orders from the federal court. Faubus removes the Guard.10
    • September 23rd – A white mob breaks the police line and causes the Little Rock Nine to be removed from the school.
    • September 24th – Eisenhower releases a statement indicating his intention to use his authority to protect the decisions of the federal court and sends in the 101st Airborne Division to allow the Little Rock Nine to attend Central High School.11

  • Split the class into even groups and assign each a document. If in-class time is short, assign the documents as reading ahead of the class. Each group should annotate their document and identify the following:
    • Origin – Who made the document?
    • Purpose – Why was this document made?
    • Argument – What does the document argue?
    • Value – What does this document reveal? Why is it important to us as historians?
    • Limitations – What doesn’t the document tell us? What further questions does it raise?
  • After students have had a chance to discuss their assigned document in a small-group setting, call the class to attention and have each group briefly present their findings to the class. Other students should follow along on their own copies. If possible, project the annotated version so that the whole class can see it during the presentation.
  • Open the discussion to the whole class. Try to guide the students towards identifying major themes which occur across the documents. Moderate the discussion with an eye for helping students clarify their arguments and contextualize their statements so that the whole class remains on the same page.
    • America’s international image during the Cold War
    • Fear of miscegenation or the lack thereof
    • Federal authority vs states’ rights
  • At the end of class, summarize the major points of the discussion for students.

1James T. Patterson, “The Court Decides,” in Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 67.

2James T. Patterson, “The Court Decides,” 60.

3 Frances Lisa Baer, Resistance to Public School Desegregation: Little Rock, Arkansas, and Beyond, Law and Society (New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2008): 171-172

4Karen Anderson, Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School, Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010), 51.

5 Ibid, 58.

6 Ibid, 36.

7 Cary Fraser. “Crossing the Color Line in Little Rock: The Eisenhower Administration and the Dilemma of Race for U.S. Foreign Policy.” Diplomatic History, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring 2000): 234-235.

8 Baer, Resistance to Public School Desegregation: Little Rock, Arkansas, and Beyond, 142-143.

9 Ibid, 151.

10 Ibid, 157.

11 Ibid, 160-161.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES

Anderson, Karen. Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School. Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010. http://search.ebscohost.com.ccl.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=305810&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Baer, Frances Lisa. Resistance to Public School Desegregation: Little Rock, Arkansas, and Beyond. Law and Society. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2008. http://search.ebscohost.com.ccl.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=244659&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Duram, James C. A Moderate among Extremists: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the School Desegregation Crisis. A Nelson-Hall Paperback, 788. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.

Jacoway, Elizabeth. Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation. New York: Free Press, 2007.

Lewis, Catherine M., and Lewis, J. Richard, eds. Race, Politics, and Memory: A Documentary History of the Little Rock School Crisis. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007. Accessed March 20, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Patterson, James T. “The Court Decides.” In Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy, 46-69. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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