As a native of Arkansas, I attended last week’s talk at Pepperdine by civil rights icon Dr. Terrence Roberts with a great deal of interest. Roberts was a member of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine black students who integrated Little Rock’s all-white Central High School in 1957.
The Little Rock Crisis, as the ordeal came to be known in history, was as many know a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement. The first major test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared segregation of public schools unconstitutional, it pitted a recalcitrant southern governor, Orval Faubus, against the might of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s federal government. Faubus, intent on saving his political career by holding the southern line on segregation, called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the integration of Central High; Eisenhower, in order to insure the supremacy of federal power, finally sent in the army to escort the students into the school.
All of this is true, yet this traditional historical narrative fails to capture so many of the nuances that made the Little Rock Crisis both a fascinating episode in American history and, frankly, a tragic one in Arkansas history.
For instance, many may not remember the school year that followed, and the lonely cold war the nine were subjected to in the hallways of the vast building—Central was the largest high school in the United States until the late 1940s—by a dedicated band of toughs who abused them physically and verbally every day as armed guards, teachers and administrators looked on and did little or nothing. Or that in the following school year, 1958, Faubus closed all the public schools in Little Rock. No school, no integration, he reasoned. Students who couldn’t afford to go to private schools spent the 1958 school year in their living rooms watching their teachers give lessons on local television.
Locally the crisis sewed discord that remains today. Lawsuits over desegregation in Little Rock have persisted for 55 years. According to a 2006 report, the total cost of those court battles was $786 million, with few improvements in racial balance and educational quality.
One of the ironies of the crisis is that Faubus, forever synonymous with racial demagoguery, had for much of his life been a moderate. His opposition to integration was cold political calculation—he had made promises against allowing integration in the 1956 governor’s race, and he wanted to keep his job (this he did, winning re-election four more times).
Several years ago I had the occasion to interview the person who made him keep that promise. In search of story ideas, I discovered that an aging relic of the Civil Rights era—a man you might call an arch-segregationist—was still alive, and living on the very outskirts of my hometown. His name was “Justice” Jim Johnson, the title courtesy of an eight-year stint on the Arkansas Supreme Court from 1958-66.
Johnson believed fervently in the separation of white and black. A born speaker, Johnson was a master of the kind of conspiratorial rhetoric that reached fever pitch in the South in that time, warning of a civilization and way of life teetering on the brink.
He opposed Faubus in the 1956 Democratic gubernatorial primary, accusing him of secretly working to enact integration in Arkansas. He printed pamphlets with photos of Faubus with black men, implying to voters what would happen if the incumbent governor was re-elected. Faubus won the primary, but not before he found himself promising that Arkansas schools would never be integrated on his watch.
I interviewed Johnson on a summer day in 2009 as waves lapped peacefully on the lake shore by his prim white house, which he had for years called “White Haven.” Despite the infamy Faubus enjoys, it was clear that Johnson would have rather it been his. Naturally flamboyant, the intervening five decades had not dulled the spark in Johnson’s eyes as he made a remark he often repeated about the 1956 campaign: “Orval Faubus took Jim Johnson’s nickel and hit the jackpot!”
For those interested in reading more about the Little Rock Crisis, I would suggest Elizabeth Jacoway’s excellent account, “Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation.”