Faubus: No ordinary segregationist

WE CALLED ALL of them "segs" back then, of course, Orval Faubus and all the rest of them, because in the South in the 1950s and '60s things were a bit more black or white, a bit more urgent. It wasn't until later that we started separating the bad actors in the civil rights drama into degrees of segregationists -- becoming discriminating about the discriminators, you might say.

Orval Faubus, who died last Wednesday at the age of 84, had his moment of fame in 1957, when, as governor of Arkansas, he forced the use of federal troops to desegregate Little Rock Arkansas' Central High School. Faubus always maintained afterward that he wasn't a real segregationist. He also was quoted as saying, of his confrontation with troops sent by President Dwight Eisenhower, "I didn't know whether it would make me a hero or a goat." The answer, of course, is both.


Faubus didn't wear a white robe, burn crosses or shout racial obscenities, so he wasn't that sort of segregationist. I think now, and I thought back then, that his racism was of a far more despicable sort: that of a Southern white politician who knew better. He knew that segregation was evil and it was dead, but he exploited the emotions and the often sputtering, unarticulated anger of others who didn't feel that way.

His fellow hypocrites were such governors as John Patterson of Alabama, the Talmadges of Georgia, and -- the one who brought the cynical art to perfection -- George Wallace of Alabama. Pols such as Ross Barnett and James Coleman of Mississippi were either too deeply corrupted with racism themselves or simply fearful of the white rabble -- the "angry white men" of that time -- to fall into the Faubus category.


It's important to remember what was going on in 1957. School desegregation had been the law of the land for three-and-a-half years. There was some reason to believe that a good part of the white South would grudgingly but graciously accept the Supreme Court's ruling and get on with its life. (We all knew there would be centers of great resistance, and we didn't guess how great the resistance would be in the North then. Certainly the border states, of which Arkansas was one, would go along.)

There were plenty of racists around my home state of North Carolina; a university professor was ranting about Negro genetic inferiority (sound familiar?) and a local racist named Jesse Helms was spouting bigotry on a radio station (sound familiar?) -- but they were widely regarded as lunatics.

Then a series of events helped push the civil rights movement along. In 1955, Emmett Till, a young black boy from Chicago, was murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman; late that year, black folk in Montgomery, Ala., mounted a successful bus boycott; some desperate old white politicians who fancied themselves "great constitutional lawyers" issued a Southern Manifesto, declaring states rights outweighed federal rights. But the Interstate Commerce Commission overruled segregation in interstate travel in 1955, and Congress actually passed a civil rights act in August of 1957, giving blacks stronger voting rights.

Then, in September, Orval Faubus threw a wrench into the Little Rock school board's plans to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. He sent the National Guard down to the school, nominally to "preserve order" but really to prevent nine brave children from going to class and to get himself re-elected. Eventually President Eisenhower, who was fairly ambivalent about blacks' rights (even whether the federal government should support their right to vote and whether they should serve in the military), was forced to federalize the Guard and send in the Airborne.

The message that went out was clear and exciting to Faubus' fellow exploiters: Violence works. You can whip the feds, and thumb your nose at the Supreme Court, if you (1) warn that there'll be blood in the streets if desegregation takes place, (2) create a cozy atmosphere (through incendiary statements and restraints on your police forces and the local judiciary) for violent, ignorant, resentful white people to actually put blood in those streets.

It was amazing how gutless and stupid the federal government was about confronting or even figuring out this sort of segregationist tactics. Because of Faubus' message, racism and hatred got additional footholds in the South. The struggle that some thought would soon come to a peaceful conclusion went, instead, on and on -- and, indeed, goes on today.

People such as Faubus, so despised by Southerners like me for doing bad while knowing better, became heroes to thousands of others. Faubus and his fellows perfected the technique of exploiting white fears for their own shoddy political gain (sound familiar?).

Fred Powledge covered the civil rights movement in the 1960s for the Atlanta Journal and, later, the New York Times. He is author of "Free At Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It." Mr. Powledge writes from Southern Maryland.