Turn Away Thy Son – Little Rock, the Crisis that Shocked the Nation.
By Elizabeth Jacoway, Free Press, hard cover, $30.
By Garrick Feldman
The cover of Elizabeth Jacoway’s book on the Central High School desegregation crisis reproduces one of the most famous photos of the civil rights era. Taken by Arkansas Democrat photographer Will Counts (who should have won the Pulitzer Prize, along with the Gazette’s Pulitzers that were awarded for public service and editorial writing), it shows Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, surrounded by angry whites outside the school, including a white teen-ager named Hazel Bryan screaming at the black student as if she’d been caught trespassing at a private club rather than a publicly funded high school.
“Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation” has a striking cover, with red and gold on the bottom and the black-and-white photo on top, but the awkwardly titled book is not what it seems. “Turn Away Thy Son” — the title is taken from a passage in Deuteronomy warning against intermarriage (miscegenation is one of the author’s themes) — appears at first to be a sympathetic account of the Little Rock Nine, which it is in parts. But the book takes a strange turn when it paints two of the heroes of those terrible times — President Eisenhower and Gazette editor Harry Ashmore — as no better than Gov. Faubus (whose opportunism looks even worse 50 years later) or the rabble-rouser Jim Johnson or cretinous racists like Wesley Pruden and Amis Guthridge.
When an historian goes after two 20th century giants — Eisenhower, a great military leader and a near-great president whom she criticizes for “reverting to a military mentality” when he sent the troops into Little Rock, and Ashmore, a brilliant editor whose courageous editorials did much to restore Arkansas’s reputation around the country and the world, but whom she dismisses as an elitist — then she’d better have the facts on her side if she hopes to persuade readers that she has uncovered new information that would change history’s judgment about the crisis and these men.
Although she has dug into Justice Department and other official archives and interviewed many of the participants, her attempts at revisionist history leave you shaking your head: Why try to paint a more balanced picture of Faubus, when there’s overwhelming evidence that he was an opportunist and a demagogue?
Eisenhower and Ashmore had him figured out quickly — Ashmore as soon as his former friend jumped over to the segregationist side as the crisis unfolded, Eisenhower after his meeting with Faubus at Newport, R.I., and Faubus retreated from his promise to obey the court orders and let Central integrate.
Jacoway thinks Ashmore conspired with Faubus’ left-leaning opponents — his publisher Hugh Patterson, Henry Woods, Sid McMath and other liberal suspects — and blamed the crisis on the governor when there was plenty of blame to go around. Well, sure, the usual bad guys make their entrance — racist preachers, spineless legislators, hysterical parents, frightened businessmen —and then the Women’s Emergency Committee to Save Our Schools was formed and helped reopen the schools.
But until reason prevailed, Ashmore and the Gazette stood up for the rule of law and decency. His editorials have stood the test of time, even if Jacoway doesn’t think much of them. “The Crisis Mr. Faubus Made” is probably the best editorial published in an Arkansas newspaper: “Thus the issue is no longer segregation and integration. The question has now become the supremacy of the government of the United States in all matters of law.”
The Arkansas Democrat, the Gazette’s rival, was segregationist and taunted the Gazette for its stand (not integrationist in the beginning). The Democrat did not think it was news when the Gazette won its two Pulitzers.
Jacoway thinks law-enforcement agencies had information about groups planning violence if the Little Rock Nine entered Central, but every responsible person watching the crisis knew that was just an excuse for Faubus to close the school. No serious historian can accept Faubus’ discredited version of the crisis, and Jacoway’s sympathies cloud the entire book.
Arkansas was not like Mississippi and others in the Deep South, where blacks were killed. Daisy Bates’ windows were broken and death threats were made. Thugs had descended on Little Rock and a couple of crude bombs went off that hurt no one, but Faubus played up the risk of violence, which Jacoway thinks was real.
If that’s the case, then why weren’t the plotters arrested and demonstrators kept away from the school? If Faubus was big on law and order, why didn’t he beef up the National Guard in and around Central instead of sending the black students home?
Why? Because this backwoods socialist had turned into a segregationist, as Jacoway admits, and yet she still buys into the myth of potential violence. During the two years he fomented the crisis, Faubus and his cohorts gave a dozen reasons why the Little Rock Nine shouldn’t attend Central, and Jacoway buys into at least some of them: Besides trying to preserve the peace, he said, among other things, that the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision wasn’t the law of the land, the district and appeals courts had overreached, the court orders weren’t clear enough, and if there was to be integration why wasn’t the Justice Department providing more assistance in enforcing the law?
Faubus got his wish after he met with Eisenhower at Newport. “Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality” by Kasey S. Pipes (World Ahead Publishing, $25.95) is a brief but more authoritative account of Eisenhower’s role in resolving the crisis.
Faubus underestimated Eisenhower, as does Jacoway. During World War II, upsetting commanders around him, he used black soldiers on the front, paving the way for Harry Truman to integrate the armed forces, Pipes points out. Some of those black soldiers liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp, where my father was held captive. The soldiers wept and Eisenhower later visited the camp.
Eisenhower pushed for modest civil rights legislation, integrating public places and treating black citizens as equals. He knew he had to take a stand in Little Rock, much to Faubus’ surprise.
Eisenhower wanted to trust Faubus, but their meeting confirmed that the Arkansas governor was not a serious negotiator, even though he signed a statement that court orders would be obeyed. But when he left the meeting with the president, Faubus said he didn’t mean it. Ike felt double-crossed, and he was right. Jacoway, who relies on Faubus’ self-serving memoir for his account of the meeting, agrees with Faubus that it was the governor who was double-crossed.
He fooled Eisenhower once and no more. Ike sent federal troops to Little Rock — the 101st Airborne Division landed at Little Rock Air Force Base — and the general who defeated the Nazis easily took care of Faubus and his followers, who purged the schools of suspect teachers, tried to ban memberships in voluntary organizations and sent spies to people’s homes where subversion was suspected.
Although Faubus and his supporters managed to close the schools in 1958-59, the crisis ended the following fall, thanks to moderate forces who took back their schools and restored sanity to the community.
The story doesn’t end there, of course: White flight took off almost immediately as people voted with their feet and settled in the suburbs around Little Rock. School integration didn’t solve all of the nation’s problems, but it was a forward step guaranteeing equal justice for all Americans.
Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Ashmore and all decent people understood that 50 years ago, while others still can’t grasp that truth.
Garrick Feldman is editor and publisher the The Leader newspaper in Jacksonville. He offers a different view from an earlier review of the book in January.