Ike Championed the Modern Civil Rights Era

In May, our nation marked the 66th anniversary of the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. This did not end segregation immediately. Three years later, in September 1957, as a result of that ruling, nine African-American students, since known as the Little Rock Nine, enrolled at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The ensuing struggle between segregationists and integrationists, the State of Arkansas and the federal government, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, has become known in modern American history as the “Little Rock Crisis.”

The crisis gained world-wide attention. Governor Faubus ordered Arkansas National Guard troops to defy federal law and stop the African-American students from attending Central High School, the first major resistance test to integration. When mob riots ensued, President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock to ensure the safety of the Little Rock Nine and that the rulings of the Supreme Court were upheld. President Eisenhower faced a difficult choice. Sending U.S. troops to enforce a Supreme Court ruling was an extreme step, but the alternative was to allow the state of Arkansas to ignore the law.

The President addressed the nation on September 24, 1957, vowing to uphold Federal Law as was his duty, saying, “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.”

While the Little Rock Nine continued to face some harassment, the Airborne troops were removed after two months. The federalized Arkansas National Guard, under Eisenhower’s orders, would continue to guard the school and escort the Little Rock Nine for the remainder of the school year.

Perhaps some of you readers were at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in June 1990, during the Eisenhower Centennial, when a panel discussion brought together again many of the participants of the Little Rock crisis: four of the Little Rock Nine students, Ike’s Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr.; and the antagonist in 1957, Gov. Orval Faubus. While Faubus touted how far society had come in 30 years, the students recalled tomatoes launched at them from the angry mob outside Central High School; the welcome sight of the 101st Airborne troops who would protect them while they exercised their right to attend that school; being escorted by soldiers armed with bayonets; and a graduation ceremony attended by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. 

President Eisenhower led his administration to play an instrumental role in the modern civil rights movement. Within his first two years, Ike successfully desegregated the District of Columbia and ended segregation in military combat units. In 1955, Frederick Morrow became the first African-American to hold an executive position at the White House. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the first piece of civil rights legislation passed by Congress since the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. The act would lay the ground work for future Civil Rights Acts. Its own legacy lives on through the Civil Rights Commission and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, both of which still exist today.

The Eisenhower Foundation has been working toward preserving and promoting dialogue on this important topic for many years.  Thanks to your support, the IKEducation program Desegregating Little Rock teaches today’s students about this turbulent time in America’s history. Anyone may access this lesson by clicking here. To find other lessons on our website, select IKEducation / Teachers on the top menu. Click on the row of books beneath "Lesson Plans," and find topics divided into appropriate grade levels.