Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Orval Faubus, June 14, 1974. Interview A-0031. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

In-depth description of 1957 desegregation crisis in Arkansas

Faubus reflects on his 1957 stand against desegregation. He thinks that President Eisenhower was misinformed about the situation, in part because of an overreliance on his staff. Faubus endured a lecture from Eisenhower then gave one of his own, citing his record on civil rights. He hoped to delay the desegregation process, convinced that violence would erupt, but Eisenhower's attorney general nixed the idea.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Orval Faubus, June 14, 1974. Interview A-0031. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK BASS:
Governor, you said that Huey Long had to do things, in effect, do things that he perhaps didn't want to do, but in order to do everything that he wanted to get done. And you compared that with your experience in the desegregation crisis. I'm sure you've discussed this many times in interviews, but did you feel that you were misled by President Eisenhower in that situation?
ORVAL FAUBUS:
No. I felt very strongly that Eisenhower was a fair minded man of good will. And that if there were any opportunity for a settlement it would have to be between the president and myself on that basis. Therefore I did not take an attorney. Now I was misled in this respect. When I got there they had the Attorney General of the United States there and I was not informed of that nor led to believe that there would be any such. The only person that I had with me was my executive secretary, Arnold Sykes, who was not a well informed person on matters of that kind at all, and Brooks Hayes, who hadn't practiced law for years. Just been a member of Congress. I think he is a licensed attorney, not sure of that. Because I didn't think it could be settled by arguing over technical points or legal points. I felt it had to be some kind of understanding, a meeting of the minds, on the basis of good will, and that we both preferred harmony and peaceful methods rather than any other. And in that I do not believe I was mistaken about President Eisenhower. But Eisenhower was not a man of his own. He had to rely, as he always had in the military, on staff. Second nature to him. And I'm not sure that he had the independence to rely completely upon himself. He was the most misinformed man about the situation in Arkansas and Little Rock than any man I've ever talked to about any subject with which he had to deal in the manner with which Eisenhower had to deal with this problem. In fact on the outside, Hagerty, visiting with Arnold Sykes, asked Arnold if school had begun yet in Little Rock! Heaven sake, that's what the controversy was all about! [Laughter.] They had told Eisenhower nothing about the situation. I thought about it in this respect. That if I, as a state executive, had had a controversy with the authorities in a certain county, before I had a meeting with those county authorities or leaders to try to settle an issue like that, I would want all the information there was available about that situation. The personalities and attitudes of the leaders. What was the situation? What had they accomplished before? How near had they come to complying with what was required on the part of the state? Or in the case of the federal government, required on the part of the federal government of the state. He didn't have any of it. And at first he lectured me like a colonel, you know, talking to a second lieutenant. And I sat and listened until he got through. Then I said "Mr President, I have a lot of information about the situation which you may not be aware. And with your permission, I'd like to make it known to you." Then I began to tell him. For example, I was the first governor in all the South to put black men on the state Democratic central committee. Did that in 1954 before I was inaugurated. We desegregated all the institutions of higher learning without any fanfare, without any difficulty. This was accomplished by a meeting with the college presidents where they followed my advice. We had more integrated public schools in Arkansas alone than 11 other states combined that had a comparable problem. We had black people serving as school board members. Aldermen, in some cities like Hot Springs. We had Negroes on boards and commissions. More in my administration than any other, although McMath had made some progress in this field. And then I went even farther, and we had black people in positions of administration and law enforcement. Like we had some black people in, I'll call it beverage control. Enforcement agents. Never held positions like that before. We had already desegregated all our transportation in Arkansas, and we had a bus system in Little Rock at the time, without any particular difficulty. And most businesses and eating establishments. There were a few that held out. Well, the president was amazed at this information. As most people in the nation could be right now. Because the press never took the trouble to tell anyone. In fact my son was attending an integrated college at the time, unknown. So when we went back out then, to join Brooks Hayes and Sherman Adams. We had four people in the conference. The president confirmed all of this from Brooks Hayes. So then he called in Brownell. I never shall forget talking to him. Oh yeah, we had black people also in the state committee of the Republican party as well as the Democratic party. Not in the Democratic party until, by my wishes, in 1954 after I was nominated. And I never shall forget the president talking to Attorney General Brownell. Called him Herb. And he began to tell him "Now the governor tells me" thus and so and he cited a number of these things. And Congressman Hayes here confirms it. "Why," he said, "they've even got Negroes on . . ." and he was trying to think of the party machinery central committee and he couldn't think of it. And he said "Oh, you know, the set up." Meaning the political set up. So then he said to him, said "Why can't you go down to Arkansas, or send one of your men and ask the court to postpone the implementation of this order for a certain amount of time and give things a chance to cool off and see if this won't work out peacably." And I had told the president that in my opinion this was the only thing that might help to bring it about peacably, as it had in Charleston, Ft Smith, Bentonville, Fayetteville and the other schools across the state where integration had already been implemented. And the state supported institutions of higher learning as well. And Brownell—he was a cold faced individual, in my opinion, ruthless, unfair if he had to be to gain his ends, and motivated almost completely by politics. Maybe philosophically also, I don't know the man well enough to judge that. And he told the president, he said "it isn't legally possible. We just can't do it, Mr President. It's not possible at all." Well, it was a complete falsehood. An outright lie. Now the attorney general lied to the president in my presence either intentionally or through ignorance. And either one to me is inexcusable in the attorney general of the United States advising the president on a question that had become so widely known and disputed. So the president just yielded. Wasn't any more that could be done. I started to speak up and to argue, but I'm not an attorney. I didn't think I could dispute effectively from a legal standpoint with the attorney general of the United States. But just as soon as we got away I told Brooks Hayes, I said "Brooks, the attorney general is wrong. I have read the court order. And the Justice Department is invited in by the court to make any recommendations or suggestions that it sees fit." That was in the court order itself. But we didn't have one with us. Because I hadn't gone to argue the legalities of it. I'd gone to try to work out something with the president, in which I was very successful in laying the groundwork for it. And had him in the attitude of trying to help. Now I didn't tell him it would solve the problem, but I told him that was the only opportunity. Said "I can't assure you, Mr President, that this if you will write the bill to authorize the governor to call an election in the district and let the people vote on what they want to do, then I'll sign it. And then if the occasion arises, I will use the authority which is given me." So that's the way the measure was passed and then when it came up in 1958 I didn't have the authority to close the schools. I had only the authority to call an election, which under the laws, an administerial function of the governor, he can be mandamused to do so, if he declined. So I called the election and the people voted, almost three to one to close the schools themselves rather than have them integrated under a federal court order.
JACK BASS:
How about the decision in '57 to refuse admittance to black students?
ORVAL FAUBUS:
It was the only way to keep some black people from being killed. As one black leader said to me in this campaign, he said "Well, Gov Faubus, you probably saved more black lives than you did white lives."
WALTER DE VRIES:
The assertion though is that you based that decision on the evidence from the school principal and him alone.
ORVAL FAUBUS:
Oh no. I had much evidence. But my first information came from the school principal, or superintendent rather.
WALTER DE VRIES:
You were convinced that that evidence was hard and real?
ORVAL FAUBUS:
Yes. Wasn't any question about it. I confirmed it from too many sources. And I was trained in intelligence during the war and part of my duties, all during combat, was what you call military intelligence. So you learn something about how to evaluate. And then I spent a lot of time in the court system in the war. I was investigating officer for hundreds and hundreds of cases. I was a special court judge to hear cases. I was defense counsel for many many months and then I was trial judge advocate. Then I sat on a special court and then I sat on general court. And then I was clerk of the courts here in my county for four years. And as clerk of the courts you sit there. . . . They had many trials and you hear the evidence presented by one side or the other and the arguments of counsel. So from all that experience, I know something about evaluating. You know, how to discount, and how to check something if you're not sure. Sometimes you get a piece of information that sounds fantastic and you think this can't be true and you check it out and find it is. Sometimes you get a piece of information sounds just as logical and reasonable and you just nearly conclude immediately that this is correct. But you check it out and find it isn't. I've done that many times in my experience in the military and as governor. So there's not any question in my mind, none whatsoever. They've been asking for police reports. I found a whole bunch of them the other day back there in the files that I had been unable to find.