Insidious Weakness

By Benjamin Schwarz




In Faubus, Roy Reed has written one of the best political biographies of recent years, yet in many ways his subject’s significance is quite limited. To be sure, Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas from 1955 to 1967, will forever be known for the crisis he fomented in 1957 with his active opposition to the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School. But unlike George Wallace, his fellow southern governor and also a foe of desegregation, Faubus did not parlay his stand at the schoolhouse door into a national, or even a regional, political role. Reed, a former reporter for the Arkansas Gazette and a former national and foreign correspondent for The New York Times, makes no exaggerated claims in this mature and measured biography for Faubus’s importance. Rather, his aim is to explore what he calls “the layers of context, nuance, and irony that lift a person’s life from the mundane to the extraordinary and make it interesting.” He has succeeded.

Reed carefully explicates the two-year series of events surrounding the desegregation of Central High which constituted Faubus’s figurative fifteen minutes of fame, but to a large extent this merely fleshes out a story that has already been told with subtlety and precision, albeit without Reed’s reportorial acuity, by the historians Numan V. Bartly, David E. Wallace, Irving J. Spitzberg Jr., and Anthony Freyer. Reed’s real contribution lies elsewhere. His book resembles two of the richest political biographies of the past twenty years, Ronald Steel’s Walter Lippmann and the American Century and Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, in that in each case the author set out to focus on the “historic” episodes in his subject’s life but found the less-renowned aspects of the story more fascinating. Steel discovered that Lippmann’s role in defining and criticizing America’s Cold War policies was less compelling than the world of New York upper-class German Jews that was Lippmann’s formative milieu. Caro will get to Johnson’s presidency only in the last of his projected four volumes, because he has lingered over such subjects as the transformation of agriculture in central Texas and the ways in which electrification changed the lives of the women of the Texas Hill Country. Similarly, readers ofFaubus will probably find Reed’s astute analysis of the Central High crisis less memorable than his evocation of Faubus’s Ozarks youth and of the political and ideological environment of rural socialism in which Faubus was steeped, yet which failed to make a lasting impression on him.

Faubus has been dead just four years, but Reed shows how the world into which he was born is unrecognizable today. “In every respect except the paradox of the calendar,” Reed maintains, Faubus’s “was entirely a nineteenth century boyhood.” The Ozarks had so few roads that towns were often connected only by mountainous paths. Cleaning the family’s clothes meant first washing the guts of freshly butchered hogs in a frigid mountain stream to make lye soap. Reed’s most striking example of the alien world of Faubus’s youth is both less clichéd and more obvious than these: “Death,” Reed observes, “was everywhere.” In his old age Faubus would lead visitors through his childhood community’s cemetery, pointing out the small grave depressions of infants and children that filled the yard. At least six of his cousins, including his two closest playmates, died in youth. Two children of a neighboring family died of the flux thirty minutes apart, helping to weave what Reed calls “the endless skein of death.” Faubus’s were a hard people, inured to events at once terrible and common.

In this respect Faubus’s family and neighbors weren’t atypical of rural Americans, and throughout his political career Faubus displayed a sense of identification with, and found his greatest number of supporters among, the rural people of his state. His was, Reed argues, “the last proud and pleading cry of the rural voice in his state before the urbanites took over.” Also far less unusual than most readers probably think was the political environment in which Faubus was raised. Some will be surprised to learn that Orval Eugene Faubus, whose name is now synonymous with racial demagoguery, was named for the socialist leader Eugene Debs. But in fact, from Shays’s Rebellion, in the late 1780s, through the Farmers’ Alliance and the Populists, in the 1890s, to the “Red farmers” of the 1910s, the rural United States in general and the rural South and Southwest in particular was the fount of homegrown American radicalism.

THOSE who look at the rural United States and see only a heritage of right-wing intolerance should remember that two centuries before Michael Lind discovered the “overclass,” rural Americans recognized that the American political economy was designed by and for an emerging national economic elite. A hundred years later, while northeastern liberals’ “reform” efforts centered on ways to ensure that capitalism would run more efficiently, white men from Alabama, Georgia, and Texas delivered a devastating critique of corporate capitalism and at the same time declared that “the accident of color can make no difference in the interest of farmers, croppers and laborers.” And American socialism found most of its adherents not in New York or Massachusetts but in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

NYC12997One of those socialists was Faubus’s father, Sam, who homesteaded his own farm in the Ozarks while also doing itinerant agricultural work from Kansas to Canada to make ends meet. Orval was raised by a man who fervently believed that capitalism was a fraud and that both poor whites and blacks were its victims. Not surprisingly, then, when at the height of the Depression the impoverished Orval Faubus sought a college to attend after teaching school for eleven years, he was drawn to the radically left-wing Commonwealth College, a self-help institution in western Arkansas, which charged a mere $10 for a semester’s tuition. But during his brief tenure at Commonwealth (just how brief was for his Red-baiting opponent the central issue in Faubus’s first gubernatorial campaign) it became clear that he differed fundamentally from his high-minded and idealistic father and fellow students in his lack of political commitment and the depth of his personal ambition. Whereas the other students “yearned to be part of a larger cause,” Reed writes, “Orval’s ambition was … to be somebody,’a big shot,’ as one [former student] put it.”

Given Faubus’s upbringing by a racially tolerant socialist, it would have seemed easy to predict what kind of governor he would be when, after a rapid political rise, he was first elected, in 1954. The South had produced two other governors — Earl Long, the younger brother of Huey Long, of Louisiana; and James “Big Jim” Folsom, of Alabama — who might have made appropriate political models for the son of Sam Faubus. Both were economic populists with rural electoral bases who fought against anti-union laws (Louisiana was the only state of the former Confederacy to exempt most of its workers from “right to work” coverage), significantly increased funding for welfare and public hospitals, and sponsored other progressive legislation. On racial issues both were well ahead of their time and place. Long was the more cautious of the two, but he nevertheless made no secret of his distaste for segregation, and integrated the New Orleans branch of Louisiana State University (the only truly integrated southern educational institution at the time). Folsom directly confronted white supremacy, derided the emblems of the Confederacy in a manner that no other southern governor would dare even today, vetoed a number of bills that sought to strengthen segregation, and, as one historian put it, “afforded black people greater public recognition than they were apt to receive anywhere else in the nation at the time.”

But the forces of reaction that were roused against the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision destroyed Long and Folsom’s brand of neopopulist southern liberalism. Long energetically fought efforts in the wake of Brown to purge black voters from the registration rolls, but during the bitter legislative battle over the issue he suffered a mental collapse that effectively ended his political influence. Folsom complained that he repeatedly tried to pass progressive legislation but every time “they bring up the race issue.” In the 1958 contest for governor all the major challengers soundly rejected “Folsomism,” and a strict segregationist, John Patterson, replaced Folsom. (George Wallace, who had run against Patterson for the Democratic nomination, famously and ominously explained that “John Patterson out-nigguhed me. And boys, I’m not goin’ to be out-nigguhed again.”)

FOR a man as ambitious as Faubus, then, racial liberalism hardly seemed a formula for electoral success in the South of the mid-1950s. Still, when first elected, the same year the Brown decision was announced, Faubus was closely identified with the progressive wing of Arkansas’s Democratic Party, having been a protégé of the liberal governor Sidney McMath (who was later to say, regretfully, “I brought Orval down out of the hills and every night ask forgiveness”). Faubus’s accomplishments as governor at first appeared to justify that identification. On the recommendation of his biracial state educational advisory board Faubus designed and pushed through a landmark spending program for the schools, which, among other things, guaranteed for the first time that all Arkansas schools would remain open for a nine-month academic year. His record on race seemed to place him if not in the Folsom-Long camp then at least squarely with such southern racial moderates as Governors Luther Hodges, of North Carolina, and LeRoy Collins, of Florida: he helped to open all Arkansas colleges and universities to black students; five school districts, in compliance with Brown, were quietly desegregated on his watch; he appointed blacks to various state commissions and to the Democratic Party’s state committee; and he even bestowed an award on Daisy Bates, the head of the state branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (she would soon be one of his nemeses). In 1955 he was castigated, along with Hodges and Collins, by James O. Eastland, Mississippi’s strict segregationist senator, for his moderate views on school desegregation.

Although wanting to remain a “big shot” may have meant that he was unwilling to attack white supremacy in the all-out, courageous — and futile — manner of Folsom, Orval, as the son of Sam Faubus, nevertheless seemed to have his heart in the right place. Were it not for the passions that Brown and the burgeoning civil-rights movement engendered among white Arkansas voters, Faubus would doubtless have remained a moderate on race. In the 1956 Democratic gubernatorial primary, however, it became clear that moderation was politically dangerous. Faubus’s chief opponent, Jim Johnson (who made the news not long ago by stirring up the Whitewater controversy), ran a vicious campaign centered on opposition to the Brown decision and to Faubus’s moderate stance. Although Faubus won the nomination by a two-to-one margin, it was the closest election in which he would run until 1964. With his unerring political instincts, Faubus discerned the road he would have to take to satisfy his ambition. As he confessed to Johnson years later, “You made me take positions that served me well politically.”

The most famous of these positions, of course, were his dispatch of the Arkansas National Guard to forestall the desegregation of Central HighS10609-lg and, a year later, his closing of all four of Little Rock’s high schools rather than allow them to submit to desegregation. (“Integration” would be a misnomer for the Little Rock school board’s federally approved token desegregation plans.) The middle third of Reed’s book deals specifically with this highly complex story, which it is impossible to encapsulate adequately here. In the end Reed’s judgment confirms that of previous chroniclers of the Little Rock crisis: for better or worse, Faubus was utterly unprincipled. As for the better, unlike Jim Johnson and his fellow racist rabble-rousers, Faubus at the time clearly did not act out of hatred; he was not a committed racist defending white supremacy. Rather, he simply believed that his actions were necessary to save his political career. Faubus was confronted with the prospect of angry whites converging on Little Rock from all over Arkansas to commit violent acts in protest over Central High’s desegregation. (Reed, again confirming earlier accounts, concludes that although Faubus exaggerated the dangers to justify his politically motivated actions, nonetheless his “concern about violence was legitimate.”) Had Faubus done nothing, he would have been blamed for failing to forestall any violence that did occur. Had he ordered the National Guard to protect the black students who were attempting to desegregate Central High, he would have been turned out of office. Even white moderates found desegregation by order of the federal government a bitter pill, and a governor who furthered it actively and with force of arms would have virtually no support among white voters. To Faubus, there was only one solution. Calling out the Guard allowed him to prevent violence while clearly displaying opposition to desegregation.

FAUBUS is an easy villain. But that this political coward had so little room to maneuver means that the indictment must be extended. Arkansas had a number of prominent moderates, including Senator J. William Fulbright, Congressmen Brooks Hays and Jim Trimble, and the editors of the Arkansas Gazette. These men, along with moderates in the political and business communities, could have declared that the Brown decision was now the law of the land and they would see it upheld, thus providing Faubus and countless local politicians and school officials who might have wished to abide by desegregation with influential allies and a powerful cover. Instead Fulbright, Hays, and Trimble, along with the rest of Arkansas’s congressional delegation, joined with most other southern representatives and senators in signing the 1956 “Southern Manifesto,” which essentially declared the Brown decision unconstitutional and legitimized “massive resistance” by “all lawful means” to it. (The Gazette, which was later courageously to condemn Faubus’s actions during the Little Rock crisis, failed to oppose the manifesto.) By supporting the manifesto for the sake of expedience, though they were opposed to it on principle, Arkansas’s moderates gave Faubus no choice.

But cowardice was hardly limited to Arkansas. It was an open secret that President Dwight Eisenhower — who was eventually forced by circumstances to federalize the Arkansas Guard and send Army units to restore order to Little Rock and to desegregate Central High School — disagreed with the Brown decision. (Reed asserts that Eisenhower was “almost certainly more of a segregationist than Orval Faubus.”) More important, Eisenhower’s national political calculations — Republican strategists hoped to expand their support among “Eisenhower Democrats” in the South — dictated that he go to great lengths not to appear to be forcing desegregation. So when, early in the crisis, Faubus, seeking a politically palatable exit from the quandary in which he found himself, asked the Eisenhower Administration to assume responsibility for the safe desegregation of Central High, he was told bluntly that the national government did not wish to become involved. Not unjustifiably, Faubus charged that the federal government, in “cramming integration down our throats” but refusing “to help keep order,” “intended for me to do their dirty work for them.” Numan Bartly, in The New South (1995), neatly summarized the situation, finding plenty of blame to go around.

The Faubus administration was willing to accept desegregation so long as the governor did not have to assume any responsibility for it. The Eisenhower administration was willing to accept desegregation so long as the president could remain aloof from it. Such a complete vacuum of leadership invited demagoguery and irresponsibility, and Faubus ultimately supplied it. Irresponsible stewardship was in evidence everywhere, but the irresolution of the federal government determined in large measure the extent and duration of the crisis.

bill-clinton-orval-faubus-1991What ultimately emerges from Reed’s portrait is the insidiousness of weakness. Having embraced the segregationist cause to save his political skin, Faubus soon found that it was the surest bet to maintain — and enhance — his power. In the 1956 primary he had been vulnerable on the right, but in 1958, in the wake of the Little Rock crisis, he easily won his party’s nomination for a third term as governor — and remained in that office longer than any other governor in Arkansas history. He was no longer acting entirely from cynical opportunism, however: while his rhetoric concerning race became uglier, he became more principled, because, as Reed shows, he seemed, at least for a time, to believe it. As Faubus turned to the right, he signed outrageous bills that the legislature had passed, including a notorious one requiring that blood donations in hospitals be labeled by race, and one making membership in the Communist Party a felony. He also used the state police to spy on his political enemies and NAACP officials. (Reed argues that with his spy network and, more important, his network of political patronage, Faubus probably wielded more influence statewide than any governor other than Huey Long.)

But Reed, while clearly appalled by all this, is too scrupulously fair to oversimplify Faubus’s story. He carefully assesses Faubus’s many progressive accomplishments in the years between the Little Rock crisis and 1967 — from economic development to unprecedented spending on education to improved hospitals to the building of a housing-and-training center for retarded children — and is forced to conclude that in many areas Faubus’s record was “generally commendable, sometimes excellent.”

THE twenty-seven years from the time he left office until his death were a period of almost uninterrupted decline for Faubus. His quick rise from obscurity had left him with no career to which to return; he drifted from job to job, including theme-park manager and bank teller. His personal life was a shambles. He divorced his wife of thirty-seven years to marry a woman twenty-nine years his junior; that stormy marriage also ended in divorce. His son committed suicide, and his second ex-wife was raped and murdered. During his third marriage (to a woman thirty-three years his junior) he and his wife both found they had cancer, from which they would eventually die.

Although Faubus briefly strutted on the national stage, in the end his life signified nothing because he stood for nothing. In the years after he left office, more and more Arkansans were eager to live him down, and despite periodic attempts to revive his political career, he was increasingly a forgotten man. As Sam Faubus’s son he had done some good things, but he had also acted horrendously in service of nothing more than petty ambition. Perhaps Brooks Hays defined Faubus most succinctly, when he declared during the Little Rock crisis, “I can probe him and probe him … and I’m not finding any core.”

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