Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has written an op-ed in today’s New York Times calling for an “overwhelming show of force” to “restore order to our streets.” He is calling for the military to be deployed in U.S. cities to quell unrest in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other unarmed African Americans at the hands of police. In his editorial, Cotton references the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis of 1957, when President Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne to Arkansas. Cotton offers this as proof that there is historical precedent for the kind of action he is calling for, noting that Eisenhower said at the time that a failure to send the 101st to Little Rock “would be tantamount to acquiescence in anarchy.”
There is a widespread assumption about the Little Rock Central crisis, one that Cotton is leaning into here, that the “anarchy” that Eisenhower was refusing to aquiesce to was civil unrest in the streets of Little Rock. The way Cotton has presented his argument, you might easily assume that the troops had to roll in to Arkansas to restore order to the streets and protect citizens, black and white alike, from racial violence. But that’s not true, and Cotton conveniently omits the most important part of the story - the 101st Airborne was sent to Arkansas not to take control of rioters in the streets, but to take control of the Arkansas National Guard.
For months leading up to the 1957-1958 school year, Governor Orval Faubus and the Little Rock school board went back and forth about how to respond to the federal government’s order that the school desegregate. The school board was made up of segregationists for the large part, but they saw no option but to comply. The year before, however, a school district in Texas had refused to integrate and the governor used Texas Rangers to enforce the state’s order to NOT comply with the federal government. Ardent segregationists in Arkansas, of which there were many, wanted Faubus to do something similar. They believed he should stand up to the U.S. government and refuse. Faubus was conflicted, but it was clear that a third term for him would ride on how tough he was on this issue. Already he had been characterized by his biggest political rival, the racist state senator Jim Johnson, as a secret integrationist. He had caught fire for adding more black members to the state’s Democratic Party Committee. Johnson had run against Faubus in 1956 from Faubus’s right, and Faubus was worried Johnson would run again. And as the civil rights movement grew, it appeared that white southern fear and hatred would grow into the prevailing political force Johnson would need to beat Faubus if he ran again.
Faubus knew that he would need to placate the racist Arkansans that saw school integration as a betrayal of their way of life and an attack on their state’s independence. His initial plan, however, was to keep the order to integrate the school tied up in court for as long as possible. One of the cases he hoped would delay action was filed in Chancery Court in Pulaski County, where the chancery was one of his appointees. The suit asked for a temporary injunction against complying with the integration order on the basis that doing so would result in violence and bloodshed.
According to Elizabeth Jacoway’s book Turn Away Thy Son, which takes an overly-sympathetic view towards Faubus and his motivations during the crisis, this lawsuit was filed at Faubus’s urging and Faubus even met with the school board to tell them about his plan beforehand, letting them know that he had a judge who would “fix it up.” Archie House, the lawyer who represented the school district, told Faubus that what he was proposing was “conspiracy to violate federal law” and that they would have no part in it. A day before the hearing was set to begin, Faubus met with Arthur Caldwell, a member of the U.S. Justice Department who was orginially from Arkansas and was dispatched to help negotiate with the governor. Faubus revealed his plan to Caldwell, too. Faubus was steadfast that he believed an injunction would not only be politically useful to him, but that the threat of violence was very real and he had a moral obligation to defend the people of Arkansas. Caldwell asked Faubus what evidence he had that violence was forthcoming and why law enforcement wasn’t aware of it, and Faubus replied that the evidence was “much too vague and indefinite” to be any use to law enforcement. Caldwell was unmoved by Faubus’s story and told him that he had met with both the Little Rock police and the FBI and they all concluded that there would likely be no violence or bloodshed when school began.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Mary Thomason, a leader in the Mother’s League, a group of Central High parents who opposed integration of the school. (Another of the group’s leaders was the sister of Faubus’s aide Claude Carpenter, which would fuel much conspiracy talk later on when the Mothers League was working to drum up an angry mob) In her testimony during the hearing, Thomason offered as evidence of the threat of violence and bloodshed “rumors from a filling station operator whose name she would not divulge” that there was a possiblity of shootings and gang fights “if the colored children entered.”
Virgil Blossom, the superintendent of schools, testified that the chief of police had assured him that there would be no violence, and that he himself had never even given it a thought. Governor Faubus, however, took the stand and testified that there would be riots and bloodshed, that there had been guns discovered on students who were preparing for such an occasion, and that he had been told that if there were riots the federal government would not intervene. The country orator pleaded with the court to issue the injunction for the good and safety of black and white alike. He finished his testimony to applause in the courtroom. He even took a bow. The court granted the injunction.
Later, when interviewed by the FBI, Blossom stated that the first time he had ever heard any threat of violence, it was from Faubus himself. As the injunction headed to federal court for an appeal, Faubus’s stories grew wilder. He warned of caravans of outside agitators headed into the city and state from parts unknown, armed to the teeth and ready to stir up trouble. "There wasn't any caravan," Jim Johnson later told Faubus biographer Roy Reed. "But we made Orval believe it. We said. 'They're lining up. They're coming in droves.' ... The only weapon we had was to leave the impression that the sky was going to fall.” (Even later in Johnson’s life he claimed Faubus was aware of the made up stories all along, and had even requested that Johnson organize an actual mob himself.)
Eventually a federal judge ordered that the school district ignore the injunction from the Chancery Court, arguing the court had no jurisdiction, and the school district should move forward with its federally approved integration plans without any further intereference from the state. According to Jacoway’s book, Faubus had said to aides “I am not going to enforce the Court’s orders. In fact, I’m going to see to it that the Feds have to enforce it.”
When school began on September 2, 1957, there were 250 Arkansas National Guardsmen surrounding the building armed with clubs, bayonets, guns, and tear gas shells. They put up barriers in the streets covering all approaches to the school. There was no violence that day, but the nine black students who had enrolled to attend Little Rock Central High that year chose not to try to enter the school after being asked by the school board to hold off while they attempted to resolve the situation in the courts. The National Guardsmen did, however, get to put in some work. They refused to allow black janitors and cafeteria workers to enter the school for work.
The next day the black students arrived to try to enter the school, escorted by a phalanx of black and white clergy. They were met by Lt Col Marion Johnson who told them they were not permitted to enter the school on orders of Governor Faubus. As the students and clergy left, they were accosted by screaming, spitting mobs of racists, but there was no riot. That night, the mayor of Little Rock, Woodrow Mann, was angry when talking to reporters. He said that after a week of “sensational developments,” the Little Rock police had not seen a single case of interracial violence. He called it “clear evidence that the Governor’s excuse for calling out the Guard is simply a hoax,” and if any violence did develop, “the blame rests squarely on the doorstep of the Governor’s mansion.”
For his part, Faubus issued insane statements insinuating that the phone lines of the Governor’s mansion had been tapped by federal agents and that he knew of plans by Federal authorities to take him into custody. Harry Ashmore, editor of the Arkansas Gazette, opened his Pulitzer-winning editorial in this way: “Little Rock arose yesterday to gaze upon the incredible spectacle of an empty high school surrounded by National Guard troops called out by Governor Faubus to protect life and property against a mob that never materialized. Mr. Faubus says he based this extraordinary action on reports of impending violence. Dozens of local reporters and national correspondents worked through the day yesterday without verifying the few facts the governor offered to explain why his appraisal was so different from that of local officials — who have asked for no such action.”
This situation persisted for more than two weeks, while a Federal injunction made its way through court and President Eisenhower tried to appeal personally to Faubus to back down. On September 20th Federal District Judge Ron Davies finally ruled against Faubus, saying that there was no evidence that Faubus had used the National Guard to prevent violence, only to keep the students from entering the school. Davies ordered that Faubus and the National Guard no longer obstruct any students from attending school.
If Orval Faubus had truly called in the troops to protect public safety, then the injunction should not have mattered. The students should have been permitted to attend school and the National Guard could have kept the peace if any trouble were to arise. But Faubus responded to the injunction by telling the National Guard troops to not interfere in any way, even to protect the students from harm. "I wouldn't think the parents of the Negro children would want their children in school with the situation that prevails now,” Faubus said to the press. Over the weekend after the ruling, the Mothers League and racist Citizens Council, as well as a host of racist church leaders from around the state and surrounding areas, were working the phones to drum up a crowd for Monday morning to meet the students and try to stop them from entering the school.
On Monday morning over 1,000 people had shown up to try to stop the students. The students were protected by over 100 Little Rock police officers. The students made it inside without incident, but the crowd took out their frustrations on any black people they could find outside the school, including beating up a number of out of state journalists there to cover the fracas. Mayor Mann telegrammed the White House that he believed the mob was "no spontaneous assembly" and that it was "agitated, aroused, assembled by a concerted plan of action."
This was the context in which President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne into Little Rock. Their job was to take command of the Arkansas National Guard, Federalize the troops, and utilize them to control the situation. The assumption that extended from the Mayor of Little Rock all the way to the President of the United States was that Governor Faubus was using the National Guard AND the protesters as pawns in a scheme to create the chaos necessary to stop the integration plan from moving forward; to get Jim Johnson’s proverbial sky to fall.
Twenty members of the 101st Airborne escorted the students into the school on September 25th. Major General Edwin Walker addressed the student body and told them nobody would interfere with anybody in their comings or goings. According to Tony Frazier, a member of the Arkansas National Guard from Hot Springs who I interviewed for The Vapors, “Faubus sent us in there to keep ‘em out, then the next day we was Federalized and told to keep ‘em in.” He said that was fine by the troops, and seemed noncontroversial to most other folks he saw in Little Rock as well. “All the problem was out on the street. It wasn’t in there where these kids were. All these other kids welcomed them with open arms.” This wasn’t entirely true, as there were a number of instances of harassment towards the Little Rock Nine from their classmates throughout the year. But the point was still valid - the crowd outside was far more agitated about the integration of the school than the students or than the Little Rock community at large. And according to Tony, that crowd was “mostly rednecks, you know.”
By October 1st the 101st Airborne ceded control back to Arkansas National Guard commanders, and the school administrators asked the troops to keep a low profile and try to stay in the background as much as possible. By October 24th the black students were able to enter the school without any escort.
Throughout all of this, and even afterwards, there were very real instances of violence in Little Rock. There were bomb threats, and even unexploded dynamite that was found in a locker. There wer fist fights, crosses burned, rocks thrown through windows, all kinds of racist terror spread throughout the community in reaction to the integration of Little Rock Central High. My point is not that there was no real danger that was present when Eisenhower “sent in the troops.” My point here is that from the beginning there was likely no need for any troops, Arkansan or otherwise. My point is that the community desperately wanted to try to integrate the school on their own terms, and that Orval Faubus had a vested political interest in stoking violence and chaos, which is exactly what he did. And his first move in that operation was to put troops on the streets around Central High. A move that the Police Chief, the Mayor, the former Governor Sid McMath, the school board, the newspaper, and all manner of other decent community leaders begged him not to do. They all understood that using troops in that fashion would ratchet up fear and hysteria, rather than allow the community to handle the situation in dialogue with one another, as they preferred. And they were right.
What Tom Cotton is calling for in his op-ed today isn’t the same as what Eisenhower did in Arkansas in 1957. Eisenhower sent in troops to take command of troops already on the ground - troops who were essentially being used as political pawns by the Governor. Troops who were passive participants in Orval Faubus’s orchestrated race riot. Instead Tom Cotton is carrying forward Orval Faubus’s legacy by calling for soldiers to intimidate a growing civil rights protest. While the current situation clearly calls for community dialogue, accountability by local authorities to their citizens, and a rebuilding of trust, Tom Cotton wants to instead surround cities with hundreds of soldiers - accountable to no one - as symbols of power and might.
We don’t have to guess at what the use of soldiers in our cities in this moment in this context will look like. We’ve seen it before. In a very real sense, we are already seeing it now. Police departments all over America are more militarized now than even the actual military was in 1957. Local police departments now have access to military weapons, vehicles, and other technology. And we’ve seen them utilizing this equipment in response to protests already. It seems clear to me that nonviolent protests are quickly turned into riots when police use things like teargas and flashbangs on protesters - weapons that only serve to make people run in a different direction, only now more pissed off than before.
If Tom Cotton has his way, this kind of instigation and heightening of tension and conflict will be put on steroids. Even if it “works,” all it will do at best is move protesters out of the streets and out of public view. At worst it will result in people getting hurt and even killed. Either way nothing will have changed for the better. There will still be no justice. Therefore there will still be no peace.
Black lives still matter,