KSP Op-ed on Little Rock Anniversary
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Eisenhower was key desegregation figure
|Next week in Little Rock, Ark., former President Bill Clinton and several presidential candidates will commemorate perhaps Americaâ€™s most important civil rights battle â€” the desegregation of Central High School.Fifty years ago, Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus defied the federal government, tried to stop school integration and created the gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War.Thankfully, he lost. In the first and most important test of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, federal law trumped state politics. Had integration failed at Little Rock, itâ€™s hard to imagine it succeeding anywhere.Sadly, if the past is prologue, those who convene next week at Central High will say the least about the man who did the most to defeat Faubus: President Dwight D. Eisenhower.In 1997, Clinton stood at Central High and waxed poetic about the eventâ€™s significance in the civil rights struggle and in his own life. â€œIt was Little Rock that made racial equality a driving obsession in my life,â€ he said. But in a 2,600-word elegy, Clinton mentioned Eisenhower only one time.Clinton was not alone. For years, historians, like photo editors, have airbrushed the Little Rock scene so that Eisenhower hardly appears. Look closely: His vague image might still be seen at the pictureâ€™s edge. But if so, he is painted in shades of gray to note his supposed ambivalence.Yet 50 years ago, Ikeâ€™s actions were not hard to see. They were bright, bold and bewildering to many leading Democrats. The political ancestors of todayâ€™s Democrats did not share the view that Ike didnâ€™t do enough at Little Rock; they believed he had done too much.
Democrats on the 101st Airborne
As the 101st Airborne soldiers executed Eisenhowerâ€™s orders and escorted the Little Rock Nine into Central High in September 1957, many in the Democratic establishment convulsed with rage.
Democratic Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama, who had run against Ike in 1952 as Adlai Stevensonâ€™s vice presidential nominee, complained that â€œoccupying Little Rock has brought about further deterioration of relations and further embitterment between our Negro and white citizens.â€
Even deadlier venom was spewed by Democratic Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia. In a letter to the White House, he explicitly compared the 101st Airborne troops to Hitlerâ€™s storm troopers.
Meanwhile, Russellâ€™s protÃ©gÃ©, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, sought a middle ground in the soil of moral equivalence by saying, â€œThere should be no troops from either side patrolling our school campuses anywhere.â€
In a letter to former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, he sneered that the president â€œmay find that getting the troops out is a much more difficult proposition than getting them in.â€
Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts even more skillfully navigated the Little Rock minefield. â€œThe Supreme Courtâ€™s ruling on desegregation of schools is the law of the land,â€ he told a reporter, â€œand though there may be disagreement over the presidentâ€™s leadership on this issue, there is no denying that he alone had the ultimate responsibility for deciding what steps are necessary to see that the law is faithfully executed.â€
In one sentence, Kennedy vaguely reassured Northern liberals that he backed the Brown decision while hinting to Southern Democrats that he did not wholly support the presidentâ€™s actions.
Democrats from the other chamber of Congress also commented.
Future House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas urged the president to visit Little Rock and experience the many â€œpeople of goodwill.â€ Perhaps this visit would clarify matters for the president. â€œI have every confidence that you are as fully anxious as anyone to find a basis on which the troops may be withdrawn and order restored at an early date.â€ Wright cheerfully warned that pursuing this course would look like a â€œsurrender.â€
Still, he urged a great American war hero to accept his own Appomattox.
And Ikeâ€™s opponent from his two presidential campaigns demonstrated his rhetorical flexibility. When the Little Rock crisis first erupted, Stevenson told the press, â€œI donâ€™t suppose the president has much that he can do.â€
And he had refused to advocate military force to uphold the court order. But when Ike did send in troops, Stevenson expressed mild support. The president â€œhad no choice,â€ he said, but he called it a â€œtemporary solution.â€ Stevenson soon found his famous lyrical voice and encouraged Ike to â€œmobilize the nationâ€™s conscience as he has mobilized its arms.â€ But given the chance to help rally this moral cause himself, Stevenson refused to serve on the new Civil Rights Commission when asked by the president.
Historyâ€™s faded memory
Like the recollections of the aging, historical memory not only fades but also sometimes changes. Why does Ike receive so little credit today?
Part of the answer can be traced to GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwaterâ€™s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After that, the Republican Party largely retreated from the field and allowed Democrats to occupy the civil rights terrain.
Also, Eisenhower, like the nation he served, was sometimes conflicted about the pace of social change. He sought to manage a reform, not lead a revolution. And he believed that the iron bonds of federal law would not solve racial problems like the velvet cords of personal persuasion. These conservative beliefs translate poorly in history because many of the historians writing it view federal law as the most potent antidote to societyâ€™s ills.
And even at Little Rock, where he unambiguously confronted the segregationists, Ikeâ€™s methodical approach did not impress scholars. He wanted to do the right thing, but he also wanted to do the thing right. His deliberative hand has been misinterpreted as a divided mind.
So Eisenhowerâ€™s actions at Little Rock have been largely diminished, discounted and dismissed. In todayâ€™s light, his deeds seem modest, unmemorable and hard to see. Fifty years ago, they were anything but.
Kasey S. Pipes wrote speeches for President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is the author of â€œIkeâ€™s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equalityâ€ (World Ahead Publishing, 2007).
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