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The crisis turned upside down

Central High, 1957, revisited.

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PEACEKEEPING: The National Guard was on duty when Elizabeth Eckford made her famous walk.
  • PEACEKEEPING: The National Guard was on duty when Elizabeth Eckford made her famous walk.

Fifty years after the fact, the true story of the Central High integration crisis, a story of courage and bigotry and political opportunism, has become reasonably clear. Still there are a few trying to rewrite it.

A new book on the crisis, “Turn Away Thy Son” by Elizabeth Jacoway, is mostly an apology for Gov. Orval Faubus, who incited the mobs in ’57 and made political hay, and a criticism of those who supported peaceful integration: the Arkansas Gazette and its executive editor, Harry Ashmore; former Gov. Sid McMath and his law partner, Henry Woods; U.S. Rep. Brooks Hays; the Eisenhower administration, and various others.

Jacoway’s book has been warmly praised by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is itself the chief revisionist of Central High history. (Now the state’s largest newspaper, the D-G is no relation to the Gazette of ’57.) Whenever the D-G writes of the crisis, it includes its own summary of events. A few years ago, the summary said “Central High became internationally known on Sept. 2, 1957, when Gov. Orval Faubus sent the Arkansas National Guard to maintain peace at the school during the start of school desegregation. This action, though, effectively prevented the entrance of nine black students.”

Court records show that Faubus sent the National Guard with specific orders to prevent the nine black children from entering Central High, not just to maintain peace. That black students were denied access to Central was not a by-product of the governor’s action, it was the purpose of the governor’s action. Faubus would always claim that he ordered the students stopped in order to preserve the peace, but he never really explained why the Guard couldn’t have preserved peace by assuring that the black students were admitted to Central, as the courts had ordered.

After journalists and others objected to the D-G’s language, the newspaper revised its revision. The new version, as it appeared on April 29, admits that Faubus “directed the Guard to prevent nine black students from entering the all-white school, notwithstanding a court-approved desegregation plan.” So far, so good. But the D-G goes on to say, “On Sept. 20, Faubus removed the guardsmen on the order of a federal judge. When the black students went to Central three days later on Sept. 23, a violent crowd gathered. The students were removed for their protection.”

The federal judge in question, Ronald N. Davies, did not order the removal of the guardsmen.

He ordered Faubus not to obstruct or prevent the black students from attending Central, by use of the National Guard or any other means. He said: “Provided that this Order shall not be deemed to prevent Orval E. Faubus, as Governor of the State of Arkansas, from taking any and all action he may deem necessary or desirable for the preservation of peace and order, by means of the Arkansas National Guard, or otherwise, which does not hinder or interfere with the right of eligible Negro students to attend the Little Rock Central High School.”

At any time during the crisis — before Judge Davies’ order, when Faubus claimed to have knowledge of impending violence, or after the order — Faubus could have used the National Guard to enforce the law and maintain the peace simultaneously. He didn’t.

Griffin Smith, the executive editor of the Democrat-Gazette, is the son of a lawyer who represented a member of the segregationist Mothers’ League in her attempt to prevent the integration of Central. In other words, Griffin Smith Sr. was an ally of Faubus, even if not officially designated as such, in trying to keep Central High segregated.

Griffin Smith Jr. attended Rice University in Houston. An article in a Rice alumni magazine around 1998 said of him:

“A fifth-generation Arkansan, Smith was shaped by the Little Rock school integration crisis, which took place during his high school years. He was there when federal troops came in. ‘I saw news media from all over the world come to Little Rock and go back and lie. I thought, “This is wrong, and I want to work for a newspaper and tell the truth.” ’ ”

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