On a frosty evening in early December 1964, Gov. Orval E. Faubus threw a party at the Governor's Mansion for reporters who had covered the recent election, in which he had defeated Winthrop Rockefeller to win his sixth and final term.
Although he had his favorites among reporters, notably at the Arkansas Democrat and the Associated Press, Faubus never catered much to the media, and this strange little fete for perhaps a dozen newsmen was puzzling to all of us. We scarfed up snacks prepared by Liza Ashley, sipped Baptist beverages, watched a tiresome slide show on the election by a Pine Bluff Commercial reporter and listened to Faubus reminisce about the election and his life.
Defeating Rockefeller, it was clear, meant to Faubus something quite different from the common perception. Rockefeller was a liberal who was impelled into politics by his rage at Faubus' vain effort to thwart school desegregation, and the old rabble-rouser who had sent the soldiers to keep nine black children out of classes at Central High School trounced him.
For Faubus, though, the election was not a vindication of his racial politics but of almost the opposite. An honest Ozark plowboy had bested the playboy scion of the Standard Oil Trust, which had fixed the exorbitant price of a dime a gallon for the kerosene that poor families like the Faubuses had used to light their humble cabins at Greasy Creek. It was the most satisfying election of his life and no one seemed to appreciate what he had done. He had repaid the malefactors of great wealth if only symbolically.
That also was the way that Faubus would rationalize all his misdeeds and justify the havoc he had wrought on his state.
As the scruffy newsmen were dispersing on this evening, Faubus asked the two Arkansas Gazette reporters, Roy Reed and I, to hang back and sit awhile in the living room. He assumed that we were simpatico with the liberal bent of the paper's editorial page and he launched into a lecture on 20th century progressivism. Faubus had taken of late to identifying with Lyndon Johnson's early Great Society reforms. He ventured that the most influential men of the century were the Socialist candidates for president, Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs. It was as tribute to the latter that his leftist daddy, Sam, had bestowed on him his middle name, Eugene. Debs, he said, had fathered all the ideas that became the New Deal: Social Security, workers compensation and the like.
Faubus recounted his own reforms in a benighted state, including public employee pensions, school aid, mental health reform, liberalized welfare and his early efforts to bring blacks into the political process. He boasted that he was more liberal than the so-called New South governors like Leroy Collins of Florida and Terry Sanford of North Carolina whom the media loved to extol.
“But governor,” Roy interjected, “how do you square that with. ...”
“Ah, 1957,” Faubus said. “I knew you were going to say that.”
“In politics,” he said, “you trim your sails to the winds.” You cannot achieve things for the people unless you hold office. In September 1957, he said, he had only one way to be re-elected in 1958 and keep progress going and that was to try to stop integration at Little Rock even if he knew it would fail. If he had not, he said, he would have been beaten in 1958 by Attorney General Bruce Bennett, the silver-haired Claghorn from El Dorado. Bennett would make a lame race for governor in 1960, making a big issue of a photographed Faubus handshake with Daisy Bates, and again in 1968.
“Who,” he asked, “would you rather have been governor the last six years, me or Bruce Bennett?”
I recall that we chorused that it would be he, naturally.
It was not an argument that he could make publicly. Publicly, he had maintained that he called out the Guardsmen not for political cover but to preserve peace and safety, a ruse that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette continues to protect today. But the story he told us may have given him private succor from the torment of his life, the inescapable judgment of history.
Many years later he told me that he thought history should accord him a better place in the civil rights struggle. He had forced a timid President Eisenhower to shoulder the federal government's responsibility to enforce the Constitution and the orders of the federal court and thus set the course for compliance with the law throughout the South.
To claim the mantle of civil rights hero when you have stirred the coals of racial bigotry like no one in the state's history seems like rank hypocrisy. But that leap is never hard to make.
Even today, much of the city's leadership along with the surviving daily paper, which employs the most visceral rhetoric ever seen in school politics, decries the first black majority on the School Board, which it describes with the racially loaded word “gang.” The schools can be saved, the paper said last week, only if the white candidate for one of the black seats wins and “keeps hope alive.”
The paper accuses the African-American board members of racism! The mind of Orval Faubus did not perish with him.