RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Fifty years ago today, President Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the nation from his desk in the Oval Office. A mob — backed by the Arkansas National Guard — had blocked nine black students from entering an all-white high school in Little Rock. Eisenhower decided he had to act.
President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: The president's responsibility is inescapable. In accordance with that responsibility, I have today issued an executive order directing the use of troops under federal authority to aid in the execution of federal law at Little Rock, Arkansas.
MONTAGNE: And so, some 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne Division deployed to Little Rock. The president said they would escort the teenagers to school.
Private First Class CHUCK CHRISMAN(ph) (101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army): I called home and I told my mother, I said, ma, something is going on. We're leaving - I don't know where. We had been doing a bunch of training for the possibility of going to Lebanon.
MONTAGNE: Chuck Chrisman was a 19-year-old private first class, then, in one of the Army's most elite divisions.
Just hours after Eisenhower's order, Private Chrisman boarded a transport plane at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, not sure where he was heading.
Pfc. CHRISMAN: We took off at night and we flew to the Little Rock tactical airbase, and then convoyed into Little Rock itself. We had Jeeps go in from our recon platoon. And they had machine guns mounted but no ammo. And then we got somewhere, I forget where it was because it was dark, and we're tired and we're hungry. And my thought at the time was, you know, God, don't let me make an ass of myself and embarrass my unit.
MONTAGNE: Chuck Chrisman says all of the officers who weren't white were told to step out of formation. They were taken to another base and would not take part in the civil rights mission.
Pfc. CHRISMAN: And my platoon or my squad, we went out right in front of the high school in the roadway, and we stood at parade rest with our weapons - with a bayonet on 'em. And I never saw a mob. They never materialized. And being from California, I was basically colorblind. I didn't understand, because I went to school with black students and played sports against 'em - you know, it was no big deal to me.
MONTAGNE: Chuck Chrisman was stationed in Little Rock, Arkansas, for 59 days. By the time his mission was complete, Central High School had been integrated.
NPR's Juan Williams has been researching this and he spoke with Steve Inskeep about the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And, Juan, the tape we were just listening to has so many things that are striking - this American soldier - but one I want to pick up on is when he says I didn't want to embarrass my unit. There must have been millions of Americans watching this and hoping that something embarrassing didn't happen or thinking something embarrassing was already happening.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Exactly right, Steve. And I think the part of the embarrassment was that you would act rashly, that you would be the provocateur and then get blamed for setting off a riot or impeding the president's order that the school would be integrated. So there's lots of opportunity for an easy misstep because it was such a charged situation.
In fact, something that I noticed in the tape, is he talks about the idea of a bayonet at the end of a gun. And you have to realize that Orval Faubus, who was the Arkansas governor at the time, will hold up pictures, subsequently, of soldiers like Mr. Chrisman, and say, look at these soldiers with their knives, their bayonets at the backs of schoolgirls. And isn't this evidence that we are occupied territory and the federal government has come in and countermanded our state's rights, where is the democracy? That was the argument coming from the segregation.
INSKEEP: Well, how popular was that point of view expressed by Orval Faubus and others at that time?
WILLIAMS: Well, it was pretty popular in the south. I mean, got to remember there was a massive resistance movement in place against the Brown decision of '54, and the Supreme Court was quite sensitive to the degree of opposition. Remember in '55, they come back with an all deliberate speed decision saying that integration of schools can take place gradually.
So they were trying to play down the confrontation. But even so, you have governors coming from other states into Arkansas to meet with white citizens councils and other segregationist groups - to say why is Arkansas have to be forced into this by the federal government and offering support to Faubus.
INSKEEP: At that time, in 1957, was Little Rock one of the more intensely segregated places in the country?
WILLIAMS: Actually, no. It was one of the more progressive places in the south. And guess what? Orval Faubus had won lots of black votes and was known as a progressive governor on the issue of race. But he feared, one: that some other politicians might out-seg him, as they said - you know, more segregationist than he was. And secondly, he thought that there was a chance of violence.
And so what you get is Faubus saying that he is going to hold a hard line and Faubus' moving ahead, even after the school board became one of the first school boards in all of the nation to say that they intended to comply with the Brown decision. And even as civil rights leaders were saying that Little Rock was pretty much a liberal southern city.
INSKEEP: So we have all kinds of level of government here. The Supreme Court says the schools must be integrated. The local school board says, okay, we'll integrate. The state governor says, no, you won't. This is not going to happen. And then the president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, overrules that by force. This is what he said.
Pres. EISENHOWER: If resistance to the federal court order ceases at once, the further presence of federal troops will be unnecessary and the City of Little Rock will return to its normal habits of peace and order and a blot upon the fair name and high honor of our nation in the world will be removed.
INSKEEP: So, was President Eisenhower, who sent in the troops, someone who is passionate about integration?
WILLIAMS: There was no evidence of it at the time. Remember, this is a man who was born in 1890, and he, of course, has led the U.S. military the time when it was segregated. But it's interesting, Steve, now, historians with new materials that come out, are offering a new view of Eisenhower. There are two books just out now, and one is called "Ike's Final Battle" by Kasey Pipes. The second, "A Matter of Justice" by David Nichols, and both are making the case that Eisenhower was not a man of words but a man of action.
And if you look at his action, of course, putting Earl Warren on the Supreme Court, who masterminded and maneuvered to put together that unanimous decision in Brown and how he handled Little Rock that leaves historians now to a different vision of Eisenhower's actions and his stand on racial issues.
INSKEEP: Let's close by talking about the students themselves. They were known as the Little Rock Nine.
WILLIAMS: All of them went on to have fairly successful lives, Steve. Ernie Green, who graduated that first year - he was the only senior in the group, graduates - and he goes on to not only work in the Clinton administration, of course, President Clinton is from Arkansas. Minnie Jean Brown, now, Trickey is her last name - was her married name, a writer. These are successful people who have made a difference in their time, and they're gathering in Little Rock tonight for a scholarship dinner to raise money. And tomorrow, there will be celebrations at the high school, including President Clinton and other dignitaries to commemorate 50 years after Little Rock. And there're statues of these people now in a museum actually attached to the school.
INSKEEP: NPR's Juan Williams. Good talking with you.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.
MONTAGNE: And you can find lots more about the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.