Today marks the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. To mark the occasion, National Review Online Editor Kathryn Jean Lopez asked Kasey S. Pipes, author of Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality a few questions.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: If you had your way, how would history teachers, parents, and journalists be remembering the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock this week?
Kasey S. Pipes: Little Rock should be remembered as a seminal moment in the civil-rights struggle — perhaps the seminal moment. If integration had failed at Little Rock, it’s hard to imagine it succeeding anywhere. And it would be great if parents, teachers, and journalists would remember that the 101st Airborne soldiers did not arrive on their own orders. Dwight D. Eisenhower had something to do with that.
Lopez: How integral was Eisenhower to the civil-rights movement?
Pipes: Eisenhower’s career intersected with the civil rights movement at several key points. The first was the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. General Eisenhower, needing more troops, essentially went against war-department policy (drafted by George Marshall) and offered African-American troops the chance to fight at the front. After the war, troops who volunteered to go to the front of the line at the Bulge weren’t eager to go to the back of the bus in Birmingham. This helped build the momentum of the civil-rights movement in the postwar era. As President, Eisenhower found himself again confronted with civil-rights challenges including the two Brown rulings, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Emmett Till murder, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and, of course, Little Rock. The story of the civil-rights movement in the 1940s and 1950s can’t be told without telling the story of Eisenhower.
Lopez: What’s key to understanding Eisenhower and that day in Little Rock?
Pipes: As early as 1953, Eisenhower had written in his diary of the possibility that a “conflict of the police powers of the state and of the nation would set back the cause of progress in race relations for a long, long time.” Almost alone among political leaders of the time, Ike feared that a Little Rock-type eruption could happen. This premonition guided his every move. Thus, from the beginning of his presidency, he moved carefully and cautiously. He wanted to bring about change on civil rights, but he wanted to do so in a way that did not “inflame passions” as he often said. This explains why even after the Little Rock crisis began he moved deliberately. He wanted to exhaust every possible option before resorting to force. Still, when he did try everything else with no success, he didn’t hesitate to use military action to enforce the order of the federal court.
Lopez: What was conservative about his actions that day?
Pipes: Eisenhower favored gradual reform while many in the civil rights movement urged dramatic change. He often told his staff that “more than laws” had to be changed in order for America to truly be a just society. Indeed, no less a source than Dr. Martin Luther King believed Ike was sincere in wanting to help the cause of civil rights. But King faulted Ike’s “conservatism” which was “fixed and rigid” and prevented him from moving more quickly and more dramatically to enact civil rights. At Little Rock, the president did not hesitate to defend the order of the federal court. Even still, his preferred approach was to let the local and state authorities find a solution. When it became obvious that Governor Orval Faubus had no intention of solving the problem, Ike solved it for him.
Lopez: Why then did conservatives (including NR) disagree with him?
Pipes: Eisenhower was never a conservative. But he was conservative. Personally and temperamentally, he was a man who believed perfection would not come this side of Heaven. Thus, he favored evolution over revolution and accepted that there were limits to what the federal government could and should do. Indeed, in the 1960s, he wrote to a friend that the Great Society may have set back the cause by raising expectations that progress would come through the “magic” of the federal government. Still, as President, Eisenhower largely left the New Deal infrastructure in place and vigorously embraced and enforced the policy of containment. This did not please many, including some of the good folks at NR, who had wanted Robert A. Taft to win the nomination in 1952. Ironically, before he died of cancer, Taft and Ike worked together and became friends.
Lopez: Was it an important presidential-powers precedent?
Pipes: The Little Rock crisis was the gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War. Eisenhower’s actions were watched by many, including Senator John F. Kennedy. At the time, JFK was somewhat critical of Ike’s handling of the crisis. Five years later, in 1962, in a deliberate effort to avoid what he viewed as Ike’s overreaction at Little Rock, President Kennedy sent only U.S. Marshals into Ole Miss during the integration crisis there. When the mobs overwhelmed the Marshals, Kennedy relented and sent federal troops. He even instructed his aides to draw up the executive order based on the Eisenhower order at Little Rock.
Lopez: What was that morning in 1957 like for the Little Rock Nine? You tried to get to know them a bit for your book?
Pipes: I tried to recreate the scene in front of Central High. But it can’t really be recreated. It’s hard for Americans today to imagine a howling mob spitting and cussing and spewing racist venom at nine teenagers. As much as Eisenhower is the main character in this book, the Little Rock Nine steal the show. Not enough can be said about their heroism in facing down the mob, entering the school and changing history. In particular, Elizabeth Eckford, armed only with a notebook, went alone to the front of the school on the first day and confronted the Arkansas National Guard troops blocking the front door. Amazing.
Lopez: Is there a real constructive present-day lesson presidential candidates who are down there this week can take from it? Are there different lessons for Republicans and Democrats?
Pipes: Katrina comes to mind. Much was made of President Bush’s refusal to use troops in New Orleans. But no president relishes the thought of sending soldiers into an American city. Eisenhower agonized over it. The day after the 101st Airborne arrived in Little Rock, Ike told a friend it had been a painful decision, as difficult as ordering the D-Day invasion. Ike’s deliberation is a measure of his leadership, not a metaphor for his supposed ambivalence. Republicans and Democrats alike would do well to emulate Ike’s patience and resolve before using force.
Lopez: How should conservatives deal with the opposition of some prominent conservatives to the Civil Rights Act?
Pipes: Conservatives have always had a difficult relationship with the civil-rights movement. Part of it stems from the conflict between freedom and equality. Freedom means different people achieve different stations in life. For his part, Ike was much more concerned with creating a fair starting line, not worrying about where people end up at the finish line. In my opinion, he might have some concerns about the evolution of the civil rights lobby from its focus on opportunities to its emphasis on outcomes. Still, conservatives should remember that government policy created segregation in many places. Eisenhower was right to work to change this.
Lopez: Isn’t it fitting our first black president will be down there for the commemoration ceremonies?
Pipes: I assume you mean the 42nd president? When President Clinton spoke in Little Rock in 1997 at the 40th anniversary, he mentioned Ike a grand total of one time in a 2,600-word speech. This is part of a pattern. For years, historians have largely airbrushed Ike out of the scene at Little Rock. It doesn’t fit to have a Republican featured so prominently in such an important civil-rights image.
Lopez: What was the deal-sealer to make you write a book on Eisenhower?
Pipes: I’ve always thought this was the greatest story never told about Ike. Here is the greatest American hero of his time confronting the greatest American dilemma of all time. Great tension, great story. I hope I did it justice.