OBITUARY: Orval Faubus
Saturday 17 December 1994
Until the advent of Bill Clinton, Orval Faubus was the most famous governor of Arkansas. Notorious, many would say, since what made Faubus front-page news around the world in September 1957 was his ordering the National Guard to stop nine African-American teenagers entering Little Rock Central High School. Ironically, Faubus was, by Southern standards, a moderate on the subject of school integration.
The background to this event which shaped his political career was the landmark US Supreme Court decision on 10 May 1954 in the Brown case. By 9-0 the court overturned nearly 60 years of legal precedent by ruling that separate but equal education systemsfor African-Americans and whites were inherently unequal and thus unconsitutional. Clearly, the whole system of racial segregation throughout the nation, and especially the South, was about to unravel.
A year later the court further ruled that segregation be dismantled ``with all deliberate speed'', a Delphic form of words which gave people like President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Faubus himself a pretext for thinking they could delay action.
Ironically Eisenhower, who had been born and raised in the South-west and spent his life in the Army when it was still segregated, was as resistant as Faubus. He unwittingly hurt black audiences by referring to them as ``You people'' and told his speechwriter Emett Hughes, ``I personally think the Brown decision was wrong.'' He accepted it, believed in obeying the law but thought it would take 40 years to implement.
Moreover, when Allan Shivers, Governor of Texas, used Texas Rangers to halt school integration in his state, in 1956, Eisenhower had done nothing. Faubus, by contrast, had seen Arkansas become the first state in the Deep South to start integrating highereducation without a court order, and had been hailed by the national press in 1956 for devising a seven-year voluntary desegregation plan for its public school system.
This was all the more remarkable because eight other Southern states had by 1957 still taken no steps towards integration, while in the South as a whole 130 laws had been passed reinforcing segregation. Early in September 1957 Eisenhower signed a Civil Rights Act, but said he could imagine no circumstances in which he would have to use troops to enforce the law. Time - and Gene Faubus - were soon to show how wrong he was. A district federal court ordered the immediate desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, the state capital. White supremacists threatened vigilante action.
Faubus, up for re-election the following year, knew where the votes were. But he had good reason to fear widespread disorder, He tried legal measures to delay the court order, but then mobilised the National Guard, not to protect nine black teenagers whowere simply exercising their constitutional rights, but to prevent them entering Central High.
On 14 September Faubus saw President Eisenhower. Eisenhower told the governor to change his orders so that the National Guard would protect the teenage blacks, and persuaded him to change his statement that "It is certainly my intention to comply with the order that has been issued by the district court" to read "It is my desire . . ."
But Faubus refused to give the National Guard new orders, and, returning to Little Rock, complained that the President had treated him "like an ignorant country boy". A handful of Federal marshals could not cope with thousands of angry whites picketing Central High. So Eisenhower was reluctantly forced to federalise the National Guard and order 1,000 airborne troops to Little Rock to escort the nine new pupils to school at bayonet point.
As Faubus and Eisenhower had feared, this aroused resistance to integration in Arkansas and the entire South like nothing else. The troops remained until May 1958. In order to resist further integration, Faubus closed the public school system rather thanintegrate it, a strategy adopted by other Southern states such as neighbouring Alabama and Georgia.
They remained closed until 1959 and the effects of this were serious. A generation of blacks moving North in search of the vote and less vicious racism had virtually no High School education and so joined the ranks of the jobless. The effects on Faubus were benign. He was re-elected five times, more than any governor in Arkansas history, leaving office in 1967 but running unsuccessfully in 1970, 1974 and 1984, when he was defeated by Bill Clinton.
But it would be incorrect to write Faubus off, as he felt Eisenhower had, as an ignorant country boy. He was a Southern populist. He came from a poor background, and shared the prejudices of white Southerners of his time.
But he was a teacher, youth worker and the governor who improved the financial and welfare policy of one of the poorest states in the Union, and appointed the Republican Winthrop Rockefeller, his successor as governor, to bring investment to Arkansas. Hewasdecorated for bravery at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and wrote six books, including an autobiography.
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