GLEN COVE, NY — Racial segregation of the schools
was not always a part of Southern life. But as the Progressives and
Populists took power early in the 20th century, it became pervasive
for over 50 years.
In May 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation is unconstitutional
in all cases. Immediately, Georgia Governor (later Senator) Herman
Talmadge called for massive resistance to school desegregation. Although
many Southerners agreed with Talmadge, opinion was far from unanimous.
In 1955, Alabama Governor Jim Folsom, an advocate of civil rights,
was elected to a second term. The prestigious Atlanta
Constitution supported integration.
A precise determination of what part of the Southern population supported
segregation in 1954 is impossible to determine. Some people wanted
complete segregation. Some supported immediate desegregation. Some
supported simply moving the best black students into the white schools
but preserving two school systems. Some supported moving toward desegregation
but slowly enough to minimize societal disruptions.
The strongest anti-black racism was not in the deep South but in places like
the mountains of Tennessee and West Virginia down to small mountain areas in
Georgia and Alabama and the Ohio Valley. Neither Strom Thurmond nor George Wallace
ever hated blacks, but Robert Byrd did.
The most dramatic episode in the desegregation of the
southern schools occurred in Little Rock in September 1957. On the
first day of school, the nine black students scheduled to attend Little
High School were prevented from doing so by the Arkansas National Guard.
Governor Orval Faubus, who had an anti-segregation reputation, ordered
the National Guard to stop the desegregation. He may have learned that
riots were probable and simply wanted to buy time to deal with the
public safety issues. Tennessee had already met pro-segregation riots
with force. Faubus did not say he was preventing integration, only
It is also possible that he made a brilliant and cynical
calculation. As a result of Eisenhower’s reaction to his decision,
Faubus became politically invincible. He may have broken a promise
to Eisenhower and known how the hot-tempered President would react.
Eisenhower could have used injunctions and federal marshals to ratchet up the
pressure on Faubus until the school was desegregated. With a sense of urgency
and persistence, he could have achieved desegregation without much drama. Instead,
the President blew his top and sent paratroopers to Little Rock.
Eisenhower’s action — clearly illegal — was a
disaster. For historical reasons, Southerners instinctively rally to
defend a southern governor bullied by the federal government. From
1866 to 1876, the federal army stole the elections in the South. This
situation ended with the compromise to give the disputed 1876 election
to the Republicans in exchange for a withdrawal of federal troops from
the South. In 1957, however, the federal troops went in with fixed
bayonets just as they had during Reconstruction. Eisenhower’s
action violated the 1876 compromise and infuriated the South.
The most important effect of the Eisenhower temper tantrum,
however, was to teach Southern politicians that the one road to political
invincibility was to defy the federal government on the issue of desegregation.
For the next decade, local officials hampered every step in the desegregation
movement by very public opposition rather than facilitated it by behind-the-scenes
negotiations and cooperation. This is Eisenhower’s legacy.
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2010
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.
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