Friday, August 20, 2010

The Arkansas Room, continued

(continued from previous post)

The other book, a biography of Orville Falbus,* looked like a v. good place to find out more about the most discreditable episode in my home state's history: when the governor (Faubus) used the national guard to keep black students out of the Little Rock schools, with the result that the president (Eisenhower) sent in the army to escort them to and from school, with the result that Gov. Faubus shut down the school system altogether for the year (better ignorant than integrated cd have been his motto). Surprisingly enough, although I grew up in Arkansas, took a required course in Arkansas History (7th grade) and a college course on History of the South (junior/senior year), and even lived in Little Rock for a year when I was a kid (second grade), I knew nothing about this episode until after I left the state and was living in Milwaukee, when I came across it quite by chance while at Marquette in the early/mid '80s.**

As it so happens, I've actually seen Gov. Faubus, when as ex-governor he was trying to stage a come-back in the early '70s. Having always been interested in politics, my mother and I went down to the courthouse to see him deliver an old-fashion stump speech,*** flanked by two other ex-governors: Gov. Ben Laney (a Magnolia local & v. nice man, whose shoes I used to shine; he was also grandfather of two of my friends) and Gov. of Louisiana Jimmie Davis (who sang his old hit "You Are My Sunshine").**** The event was even complete with a ringer in the crowd, a black man in a suit who was obviously not a local, who circulated around shouting things like "he's right!" and "hear, hear!" at the stage to try to make the listeners seem more enthused than they were.

While his name is now a hissing and a byword, and rightly so, Faubus was in his time an amazingly successful politician who dominated the state by serving SIX consecutive (two-year) terms as governor -- a record matched only I think by Clinton, who also served twelve years before resigning mid-way through his last term to serve as president (but with a two-year interruption between his first and second terms). My own parents, I found out, had voted for Faubus when he was first running, since he promised to put more money into education and raise teachers' salaries (a campaign pledge he apparently delivered on). But his grandstanding during the Little Rock crisis, which was largely a disaster of his own making, brought the state into disrepute we still haven't altogether lived down, although Central High is now a national landmark (my cousin's son just graduated from there this spring).

Reading over Reed's account of events, it's interesting to see how Faubus took a tricky situation and through his grandstanding and demagoguery turned it into a full-scale crisis. This was ground zero on integration, where Brown vs. The Board of Education was to be put into practice. Going into the crisis, Faubus had the reputation of a moderate -- at any rate, he was no Strom Thurmond or Senator Bilbo. Coming out of it, he inspired the next generation of empowered racists, like George Wallace. There was the famous meeting with Eisenhower in the early days of the stand-off, where each man came away convinced the other had agreed with his position (Faubus that Eisenhower wd leave him a free hand to deal with things, Eisenhower that Faubus wd tone down the rhetoric and wdn't embarrass him), only to discovery they were both dead wrong. It's staggering to think of federal troops (the 101st Airborne) descending upon a state capitol, to enforce federal law on the recalcitrant citizens. This is the only time I know of since the horrors of Reconstruction that we've come this close to martial law being imposed over a major American city when there was no natural disaster involved (e.g., Hurricane Katrina).
After it was all over, Faubus claimed he'd acted so as to head off violence, the sort of murders and lynchings and church bombings that struck in Alabama and Mississippi in the following years, but Reed makes a good case that (a) Faubus actually had one of his trusted aids present in the crowds outside Central High School stirring up trouble with carefully-staged scenes designed to inflame the crowd, and (b) Faubus's actions emboldened the racists: Wallace (one of the most repulsive figures in American politics) in particular he depicts as a protege of Faubus's.

The grimmest part of all this? How much Faubus and his supporters wd fit in smoothly with today's Tea Parties, particularly in Faubus's racism, support for States' Rights, disdain for the Supreme Court (what we wd call today 'activist judges'), and willingness to plunge ahead into what wd pay off electorially in the short term, howevermuch damage it might do in the long run.

One ray of light in all this? Faubus, and his ilk, lost. The schools were eventually integrated, even though in places this happened more than a decade later (in Magnolia, it happened the summer between when I was in fifth and sixth grades).***** And Faubus never lived down his role in all this: there's no native son Arkansans are more ashamed of -- and Reed's book suggests Faubus slowly became aware of that in his later years.

An added bonus is that I have a new hero to add to my private pantheon of Admired Persons: Adolphine Fletcher Terry, sister of the poet John Gould Fletcher. I'd read a little about her in the John Gould Fletcher biography (she supported her brother financially for most of his adult life), and what the Faubus biography adds is only to her credit. Turns out not only did an organization she helped found, the Association of Souther Women for the Prevention of Lynching, effectively put a stop to public lynchings in the South (cf. Reed, p. 253), but during the Little Rock crisis she and two friends organized The Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, which Reed depicts as the most effective group undercutting Faubus's local support and ultimately leading to the school's re-opening, integrated, a year later. She seems to have been a bit of a snob, but her heart and mind were clearly in the right place.


**Mind you, it did take place before I was born, but not by much. I think it was partly the awful tendency of our schools to not teach recent history and partly people not wanting to talk about events that made us all really look bad.

***just as, on another occasion, we went to the county airport for the chance to meet Gov. Clinton as he was passing through, and once got to see Gov. Rockefeller, a famously inept speaker, stumble his way through a speech (he kept forgetting he was in Magnolia, and referring to our town occasionally as Camden or El Dorado).

****it was on this occasion that my mother overheard a conversation between Davis and some fellow-Louisianans that still ranks in my mind as a classic. One woman told Davis she had friends in Homer, to which he asked if she meant Homer or Houma (both towns in La, Homer in the NW and Houma in the far south of the state), and she replied Homer. But what makes the story is that both cities are pronounced in such a way that a local can tell them apart but to an outsider they sound just the same (just like I can't hear the difference between pen and pin). So that to my mother, the conversation sounded something like

Woman: I have some friends who know you from Hom-ah [Homer]
Gov. Davis: Now, is that Hom-ah [Homer] or Hom-ah [Houma]?
Woman: Homah [Homer].
Gov. Davis: Oh, I know plenty of people from Homah [Homer] . . . [&c]

*****the exact same year, incidentally, that private all-white Xian schools got set up in my home town, obstensively to provide a quality education but really to protect the racists from the real world.

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

re Homer/Houma, this British government anecdote from WW2:

The classical example of confusion produced by unaspirated diction was Hugh Dalton's story of a meeting of a small group early in the war presided over by Ernest Bevin and also attended by Dalton, Nye Bevan and Dai Grenfell. Bevin at the end said, "That's settled then, 'Ugh [you] and I [Nye, Dai] will deal with it," which, as Dalton pointed out, left open every possible ambiguity within the four of them.

- Roy Jenkins, A Life at the Centre, 1991