ALEX COHEN, host:

Fifty years ago today, Little Rock, Arkansas began to desegregate its public schools. Nine black students attended Central High School. When the school opened right after Labor Day, white segregationists gathered in a mob. The governor defied a federal judge and called the National Guard to keep the black students out.

My colleague Alex Chadwick picks up the story.

ALEX CHADWICK: The mob won the first day; the mob, and the Governor Orval Faubus, sensing the mobs power and passion. The NAACP, leading the integration fight, kept the nine students home for three weeks. School was not safe. Then another court order: the governor had to withdraw the Guard, and he did.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man: We just got a report here on this end that the students are in.

(Soundbite of crowds)

CHADWICK: On September 23rd, the Little Rock Nine spent several hours inside the school while outside local police tried to control at least 1,000 angry segregationist. When they threatened to storm the school, the police got the children out a back door. The mob beat several black journalists, one a World War II combat veteran; the pictures were on TV. And that night the president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, took control of a conflict over a city school.

President DWIGHT EISENHOWER: An extreme situation has been created in Little Rock. This challenge must be met and with such measures as will preserve to the people as a whole their lawfully protected rights.

CHADWICK: He ordered units from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. They were there by dawn on this morning, 50 years ago. The next day, soldiers escorted the nine students through the front door and into their classrooms. There was no real trouble on that day, but more was coming.

Governor ORVAL FAUBUS (Arkansas): My fellow citizens, we are now an occupied territory.

CHADWICK: That's the response from the Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, appealing to generations-old fears.

Gov. FAUBUS: In the name of God whom we all revere, in the name of liberty we hold so dear, in the name of decency which we all cherish, what is happening in America?

(Soundbite of crowds)

Dr. BETSY JACOWAY (Author, "Turn Away Thy Son"): It's a very strong strain in Southern thought, to be independent and act independently and not to be forced, especially not by the Yankee enforcer.

CHADWICK: That is Betsy Jacoway, an independent scholar and author of a recent book about the crisis. It's called "Turn Away Thy Son." She was a child in Little Rock then, not yet in high school. Her uncle was the school superintendent, a man with a go-very-slowly integration plan.

President Eisenhower's decision to send troops actually worked for Governor Faubus, according to the historian. It pushed the issue beyond race and revived painful old memories of the war with the Yankees. Many whites, she says, thought like this.

Dr. JACOWAY: We hadn't had troops in the streets here since 1865. And that was so horrifying to us that we thought, well, Faubus is the only leader we have right now, so we maybe should follow him.

CHADWICK: Where was Orval Faubus going? Why did he prevent the black students from attending Central High? He died more than a dozen years ago, but to the end the governor denied charges of political opportunism. He had ordered the National Guard around Central High for one reason: to keep the peace. Here he is in an old interview.

Gov. FAUBUS: I do not mean and have had no intention of challenging the federal union. But the maintenance of the peace and order of a community is paramount to other considerations. And I found it necessary, in order to preserve the peace and order of the community and to protect the lives even of the Negro students and the Negro people, to take the action which I did.

Mr. JIM JOHNSON (Politician): Faubus wanted to be governor for life. Bless his heart.

CHADWICK: Jim Johnson ran for governor as an ardent segregationist in 1956 and lost to the far more moderate Orval Faubus. But, he says, Governor Faubus soon began to see civil rights stirring an ever angrier white reaction and a kind of an opportunity.

In an interview last month in Arkansas, Jim Johnson told us the mob at the school was there after the governor called and asked him to make trouble.

Mr. JOHNSON: It was an orchestrated show. He got the word out to all of us to get our friends to come out.

CHADWICK: So you're saying you, at the behest of Governor Faubus, got the crowd out there?

Mr. JOHNSON: I got some of the crowd out. If the people were assembled, he didn't have any doubt that he could get a rah-rah going that would appear to be a mob to that point that it could cause damage.

CHADWICK: In the turmoil that followed, Orval Faubus would lead white resistance to integration in Arkansas and the South. It made him governor three more times. And he rewarded his main segregationist ally, Jim Johnson, by helping him to a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Now retired from the court, Justice Jim Johnson has changed his views very little, if at all, in 50 years. For integration, he still prefers the term forced race mixing. It conjures up undertones.

Mr. JOHNSON: That is emotional when you're talking about the forced race mixing. The emotion of, as an old friend of mine used to say, the integration of the bedroom, gets the attention of people quicker than you talking about the ABC's being taught in school.

CHADWICK: And that finally explains so much of what happened according to the historian Betsy Jacoway. Whites feared exactly that desegregation would lead to race mixing.

Dr. JACOWAY: And it's so fascinating because when I talk to Southerners about this, they say, duh.

COHEN: Basically, Betsy Jacoway says, it's about sex.

Dr. JACOWAY: And when I not talk to anybody else about this, they say, you've got to be kidding. Really? Is that this - but yes. Southern concerns - and I think not just Southern, I think largely American concerns, about integration stemmed from sexual fears - fears of black male aggressiveness and potency.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: With the help of the army, the nine black students did start classes that fall. For a while, things seemed to settle down a little, and this story fell off newspaper front pages across the country. But in Little Rock, anger and fear lingered and so did the crisis - personally and painfully for those who were there.

Ms. MINNIJEAN BROWN TRICKEY (Little Rock Nine): Oh, anything you can think of. You're being hit and kicked. So our legs were always bruised.

CHADWICK: Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the nine black students.

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: Stepping on heels is particularly horrible because it's something that only you know is happening. And spit I didn't like at all. It makes me nauseous thinking about it.

CHADWICK: In the coming months, DAY TO DAY will return to this story and hear about what happened, for the students known as the Little Rock Nine and for others at the school too, because this crisis was growing. Governor Faubus wasn't done with history and he knew it. Here he is answering a question years later - what if you had just stood aside and let those kids into the school?

Gov. FAUBUS: I might have survived to the end of my term, but that would have been the last you would have heard of me.

CHADWICK: For DAY TO DAY, this is Alex Chadwick.

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