Little Rock: This Is No Tragedy

Little Rock: This Is No Tragedy

President Eisenhower sends federal troops to defend the Constitution in Little Rock.


President Eisenhower sends federal troops to defend the Constitution in Little Rock.

The President has acted firmly, wisely, and in fulfillment of his constitutional responsibilities in ordering federal troops into Little Rock to uphold the authority of the federal courts. Sooner or later the President would have had to face this direct challenge, if not in Arkansas then elsewhere. For the country now knows, if it did not know before, that a large section of the South has long been nurtured on the misconception that compliance with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments is a matter of local option. (The Jackson Daily News, in an editorial of September 25, comments, “To the President — Nuts!”). The President met the Little Rock crisis in the only way he could meet it; he said what needed to be said and did what needed to be done.

Over a year ago (July 7, 1956), in a special issue on the theme, “Time to Kill Jim Crow,” we said in these columns that there was ample precedent for the use of federal troops and that the President should use them, if necessary, to secure compliance with decrees issued pursuant to the Supreme Court’s ruling. In the same editorial, we pointed out that the repeated assurances, official and otherwise, that federal troops would not be used had the effect of encouraging Southern officials to resist the inevitable. In retrospect, it is amazing that so many responsible leaders should have acquiesced in the proposition that force should never be used under any circumstances whatever to obtain compliance with federal district court desegregation decrees. Even the President — and he was supported by Adlai Stevenson — encouraged the South to believe that force would not be used. But any President, Republican or Democrat, must use force, if necessary, to uphold the Constitution. The President should have made it clear, throughout the period subsequent to May 17, 1954, that he would use whatever force was necessary to secure compliance. But whatever the President’s sins of omission, the Senators who signed the Dixiecrat Manifesto were more grievously at fault; they encouraged a form of insurrection. What has been needed all along has been strong executive and legislative leadership in support of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Now that the President has acted, a new climate of opinion will form which should make it possible to proceed “with all deliberate speed” to enforce desegregation as a national policy.

Of course there will be “incidents” and “disturbances”; hoodlums will howl and hysterics will rant. Teenage girls will scream, “Oh, God, they let the niggers in!” Ignorant mobs will shout, “two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate.” Photographers will have their cameras smashed. Senator Byrd’s blood pressure will continue to rise. Talmadge II will rumble imprecations throughout Georgia. Klansmen will light fiery crosses in the dead of night. Spinsters will faint. And, here and there, troops may be needed, for short periods of time, to maintain order—but only in those communities where local “law and order” has connived at violence. The conservative South will not rush headlong into open rebellion; already these elements are preparing the way for a reluctant but gradual capitulation. Racial demagogues always use the threat of “bloodshed” and “violence” to intimidate the majority of law-abiding citizens who, of course, abhor physical violence of any kind. But it is folly ever to yield to such threats. If the liberty of an individual is to be suppressed because the granting of that liberty may incite others to violence, then the effect is to make the least educated and most intemperate citizens the arbiters of what shall or shall not be permitted. The precondition to the solution of the so-called “race problem” in the South has always been the equal enforcement of the law and of every right sanctioned by the Constitution.

As amazing as the blindness to this obvious truth has been, even more amazing is the somber tragic note which echoes in most of the editorial and other comment on Little Rock. “Tragedy in the Sunshine,” writes Stewart Alsop; “a national disaster,” intones Adlai Stevenson; “The Tragedy of Little Rock,” sighs the Wall Street Journal. One learns from a story in the New York Post that the career of Virgil T. Blossom, Little Rock’s Superintendent of Schools, has been “wrecked” by “the great, great tragedy” that has taken place. (Our impression, from this distance, is that Mr. Blossom’s career has not been blighted but that, overnight, he has acquired an enviable national reputation.) In some of this comment, the Supreme Court is accused of having “changed” the settled law of the land — query: when was the Fourteenth Amendment repealed? — and of having “legislated” a policy of desegregation. “The tragedy begins,” comments the Wall Street Journal, “with nine men who decided to remake the country”—that is, a unanimous court reversed a decision that nine out of ten law school deans would now agree misinterpreted and largely nullified the historic purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Then in what sense and in whose eyes is the use of federal troops in Little Rock a matter of tragic national concern? In a sense, of course, it is tragic when some of the citizens of a democracy exhibit an incapacity for self-government. No one likes to see American citizens, however few in number, held back, at the point of bayonets, from assaulting Negro children. And admittedly there is cause for some concern over the consequence that may arise once the troops are withdrawn. But we have managed to escape the tragedy that would have ensued if the President had not acted as he did; in fact, we narrowly averted a disaster, in terms of world opinion. Little Rock is surely no tragedy for the gallant Mrs. L. C. Bates who heads the NAACP in Arkansas, nor for the Negro children now enrolled and attending Central High. In fact, there is no cause for any of us to weep, as though a vast tragedy had engulfed the nation, over those front-page photographs of the Negro children walking up the front steps of Central High flanked by federal troops. The real tragedy, if tragedy we must find, is that Negroes were not admitted there long ago, without troops.

The “battle” of Little Rock is over. Casualties: three minor injuries, one accidental. The appearance of federal troops and bayonets, The New York Times correspondent notes, did not have an inflammatory effect; it had a sobering effect. In a city of 117,000 (20,000 of them Negroes), agitators could not draw more than 1,500 whites to the school area. “The vast majority of Little Rock citizens went about their normal business. Downtown was quiet.” So brush aside those crocodile tears, let’s weep no more for Jim Crow.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy