Next month brings the 50th anniversary of the showdown that desegregated at gunpoint Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The U.S. Supreme Court had unanimously struck down in 1954 the concept of "separate but equal" education, and three years later the school became desegregation's first major battlefield: Nine black students tried to enter the all-white institution on Sept. 3, 1957, but not until Sept. 25 were the students able to stay-with protection by the 101st Airborne Division that President Dwight Eisenhower ordered there.
Kasey S. Pipes brings that story to life in Ike's Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality (World Ahead, 2007). Pipes is a former student of mine at the University of Texas, but I've never taught writing to anyone who had less to learn. Pipes worked in the Bush White House, was chief author of the 2004 Republican Party National Platform, and now runs his own corporate communications consulting firm. He describes Eisenhower's tough decision regarding Little Rock as the culmination of a racial education that began during World War II.
WORLD: Peculiarly enough, the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 influenced Eisenhower's thoughts on integration . . .
PIPES: After the Germans pushed his line back in the Ardennes, Ike decided he needed more troops. But where to find them? He realized there were 300,000 African-American troops in the Supply Service-soldiers driving trucks and working in kitchens but not allowed by War Department policy to fight at the front. Ike offered them the chance to be trained and sent to the front. Thousands jumped at the chance. Though the Bulge ended before they were ready, they did fight in later battles. Ike was impressed with their courage. He never saw race the same way again.
WORLD: But Eisenhower was ambivalent on civil rights during his first term as president . . .
PIPES: On civil rights, Eisenhower wanted an evolution, not a revolution. In this, he was surprisingly conservative. He believed that "hearts and minds" had to be changed, not just laws. Early on, he also had a premonition that a Little Rock-type crisis just might erupt if he did not move cautiously. And so he moved first to desegregate the District of Columbia. Then he finished desegregating the military, which had begun under Truman. These were incremental steps he was comfortable with. But the Brown ruling challenged his approach. It was nothing if not a revolution. Eisenhower, and the country, had to adjust.
WORLD: What did he think about the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that school segregation is unconstitutional?
PIPES: Eisenhower's leadership model was to solicit different opinions from people on different sides of an issue. Leading up to Brown, Ike talked to Attorney General Herbert Brownell. He also spoke with South Carolina Governor Jimmy Byrnes. Brownell and Byrnes were polar opposites on school integration. In the end, Ike agreed with Brownell and filed a brief on behalf of the NAACP case. But he clearly had mixed feelings about Brown. After the ruling, Brownell never heard Ike say what he thought of it. Instead, Ike said it would be difficult to enforce it and yet he was determined to do just that.
WORLD: So Little Rock, Ark., became the center of civil-rights attention in 1957 . . .
PIPES: In the aftermath of the two Brown cases, local school districts were charged with developing integration plans. Little Rock was ready to send nine African-American students into Central High in September 1957. Governor Orval Faubus, largely trying to connect with his white voter base, helped orchestrate mob demonstrations that gave him the pretext to use troops to stop integration on law-and-order grounds. This was one of the first and most important tests of whether integration would go forward. And it was not at all clear if or what the federal government should do about it.
WORLD: How did Eisenhower initially react to the Little Rock impasse?
PIPES: He was outraged at the "hooligans" in Little Rock. He thought Faubus was ridiculous. And he never doubted that the court order would prevail. But he was determined to use every possible option short of sending troops. Here is the heart of the criticism against Ike's handing of Little Rock: Why didn't he send troops right away? He didn't because, as he said to his attorney general that September, he was "loath" to use troops. And that is as it should be. No president should resort to force against Americans with any less deliberation or patience than Ike demonstrated in 1957.
WORLD: What changed Eisenhower's view?
PIPES: In a word, Faubus. Eisenhower became increasingly exasperated with the Arkansas governor. On Sept. 14, the two men met at Newport, R.I., where Ike was vacationing. In very stern terms, Ike told the governor that he should go back to Arkansas and change the orders of the National Guard to protect the African-American kids and let them in the school. But when the governor returned home, he did nothing. When the federal court issued an injunction against Faubus, he simply withdrew the troops entirely. The kids were now at the mercy of the mob. And Ike had finally had enough.
WORLD: So Eisenhower dispatched U.S. Army troops to Little Rock. What happened?
PIPES: In short order, the battle was won. The 101st Airborne set up a very efficient military operation, complete with barriers and patrols. The crowds were no match. One month later, the 101st was able to return to Ft. Campbell, Ky. But the greatest impact was on the civil-rights movement itself. Little Rock proved that integration would be enforced by the federal government even at the point of a gun. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., though outraged by the mob violence, called Little Rock a "blessing in disguise."
WORLD: Then Eisenhower went on prime-time TV nationwide to speak to the nation about Little Rock: What effect did his talk have?
PIPES: He said in his televised address that he chose to speak to the nation from the Oval Office to demonstrate the sadness of the event as well as the firmness with which he intended to resolve the crisis. We should accept that explanation since he wrote most of the speech himself on the plane from Newport to Washington. The reaction to the speech was mixed. Most of the mail to the White House came from outraged Southerners. Curiously, a number of future civil-rights champions-including Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, and Jim Wright-were not happy with Ike's decision to use troops.
WORLD: Do you have a sense of Eisenhower's religious beliefs-and how did those affect his view of civil rights?
PIPES: Growing up, Eisenhower's family attended the River Brethren Church. Ike himself later confessed to Billy Graham that he still honored those teachings but had drifted from them. As president, he practiced civil religion in many ways. He often spoke of God in speeches. And he famously pushed for the inclusion of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. In some ways, he saw his journey on race as a journey of redemption. When a black aide confronted him about derogatory comments he had made years earlier about integrating the Army, Eisenhower spoke of "forgiveness" as the place "where I am now."
WORLD: What lasting effect did the results in Little Rock have?
PIPES: Little Rock guaranteed that integration would prevail. No one could doubt that the federal government had the power to enforce it. Little Rock also had a lasting effect on Ike's legacy. For a great man, this has been considered his worst issue. Part of the problem is that Ike didn't feel that sending troops into an American city was a triumph to brag about, it was a failure to forget. But his journey on civil rights deserves to be remembered. Ultimately, Ike's Final Battle was a battle within himself. And like so many others in his life, it was a battle he won.