Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision mandating the integration of public schools met with resistance by the populace and the government of Arkansas, ultimately requiring president Dwight D. Eisenhower to send federal troops to Little Rock to enforce the mandate, to maintain order, and to protect the African American children attending the formerly all-white Central High School.

Summary of Event

Dwight D. Eisenhower was president during one of the most critical events concerning school integration in the South. Eisenhower was not a strong advocate of civil rights and neither stressed it in his presidential campaign in 1952 nor emphasized it in his domestic policies as president of the United States. His predecessor, President Harry S. Truman, was responsible and best known in civil rights circles for integrating the armed forces by executive order during World War II. African Americans had fought for the United States in the past but had to do so in segregated units of the military. In addition, while African Americans were allowed to be first-class citizens on the battlefield, they were second-class citizens in segregated units and at home after they returned from the battlefield. In the South, they could not vote and were confronted with a host of segregation laws that denied them basic citizenship rights guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Segregation;public education Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Education;segregation Military force, domestic deployment of Little Rock, Arkansas African Americans;segregation [kw]Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas (Sept. 25, 1957) [kw]Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, Eisenhower Sends (Sept. 25, 1957) [kw]Little Rock, Arkansas, Eisenhower Sends Troops to (Sept. 25, 1957) [kw]Arkansas, Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, (Sept. 25, 1957) Segregation;public education Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Education;segregation Military force, domestic deployment of Little Rock, Arkansas African Americans;segregation [g]North America;Sept. 25, 1957: Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas[05590] [g]United States;Sept. 25, 1957: Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas[05590] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 25, 1957: Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas[05590] [c]Education;Sept. 25, 1957: Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas[05590] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 25, 1957: Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas[05590] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 25, 1957: Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas[05590] Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;civil rights Warren, Earl Faubus, Orval E. Brownell, Herbert, Jr. Mann, Woodrow Wilson

Federal troops stand guard in front of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

(Library of Congress)

In the 1952 presidential campaign, the civil rights platform of the Republicans was similar to that of the Democrats, which called for limited civil rights. Eisenhower, a Republican, was not a strong proponent of racial desegregation in schools. Several factors suggested the reasons that Eisenhower had this attitude toward racial desegregation. First, Eisenhower’s popularity as a general in the war carried over into the presidential campaign and election of 1952, in which he garnered 55 percent of the popular vote and 442 electoral votes, of which 57 were from the South. African Americans were not considered a critical constituency, since only 27 percent of them voted for Eisenhower. In 1956, Eisenhower received a larger percentage of the African American vote, although he remained fairly passive in the area of civil rights and racial equality.

Second, Eisenhower believed that southern states should voluntarily promote racial equality, and that federal intervention should be used only as a last resort. This explained, to some extent, his hesitancy to intervene in state matters. Eisenhower believed that the use of federal law and its imposition on southern states would set back the cause of improved race relations.

Third, Eisenhower believed that support for a civil rights bill emphasizing voting rights for African Americans was more important than one imposing racial desegregation on southern schools. The president took the position that if African Americans had the right to vote, the quality of life in other areas would eventually improve as well. Emphasizing suffrage also reinforced Eisenhower’s incremental philosophy on racial equality, rationalizing this facet as a precursor for civil rights. Consequently, it is somewhat easier to understand Eisenhower’s support for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 Civil Rights Act of 1957 , since this act contained strong voting-rights provisions. His support for this act had political motivations as well, in the light of the Republican Party’s inroads with the African American vote in the 1956 presidential election.

Notwithstanding these reservations in the area of civil rights generally and racial desegregation of public schools in particular, officials in the Eisenhower administration were put under increasing pressure to take action regarding racial equality as the result of two events. One was the 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. The Court, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren (ironically an Eisenhower Republican appointee), ruled that separate facilities for whites and African Americans were “inherently unequal” and ordered racial integration of public schools “with all deliberate speed.” This landmark case was a challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine that was legitimized in the 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. This case had rationalized racial segregation by reasoning that it was perfectly legal to have separate facilities for whites and for African Americans as long as the facilities were “equal.” This meant that African Americans had an inferior legal and social status in every facet of civil and human rights.

The second event that put additional pressure on Eisenhower to act was the crisis brewing in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the wake of the Brown decision on school integration. The school board of Little Rock was in the process of voluntarily complying with the Brown decision but met local political resistance and a court challenge. After a Federal District Court judge ordered integration plans of Central High School to proceed, resistance mounted and tension increased as a result of actions of white segregationists and threats of mob violence as the opening day of school on September 3, 1957, approached.

The mayor of Little Rock, Woodrow Wilson Mann, called the White House on one occasion and telegraphed a message on another, urging President Eisenhower to take immediate action by sending federal troops to quell the rising racial tensions surrounding the imminent integration of Central High School. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus contributed to this tension and helped appease segregationists by noting an increase in the number of gun sales in Little Rock, associating such sales with imminent violence. This reasoning was used by a Pulaski County court to issue a temporary injunction to halt the desegregation of the high school.

School officials, in conjunction with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;litigation (NAACP), urged the district court to issue an injunction against all parties attempting to interfere with the desegregation plan. A federal judge concurred and ordered desegregation plans to proceed. Not to be outflanked, the governor then mobilized segments of the Arkansas National Guard to block physically the entrance of African American children on school day. To avoid a violent confrontation between opposing forces, the school board rescinded its plans to integrate Little Rock schools, seeking further instruction from the district court judge.

Although he was sympathetic to the governor’s predicament, it was Eisenhower’s position in this continuing crisis that Faubus eventually would have to comply with the orders of the federal court. A meeting was set up between Faubus and Eisenhower, with Eisenhower requesting advance assurances that Faubus would comply with federal court orders.

Faubus gave assurances that he would not resist further attempts at desegregation but later betrayed the president. He publicly disavowed any statements attributed to him that he would comply with the president’s wishes regarding removal of the troops from the high school or changing their orders to allow African American children to enter and integrate the school. Faubus went even further on September 19, 1957, by requesting the removal of the federal judge who ordered the desegregation plan to proceed. This occurred a day before Faubus was to appear before the same judge for contempt in obstructing the court’s desegregation plans. The request for the judge’s removal was based, paradoxically, on the judge’s “prejudice” in the case.

It soon became clear that Faubus had no intention of complying with either President Eisenhower’s request or the order of the federal judge and district court. Faubus went on statewide television several days later and proclaimed that the troops would be removed from the high school but also stated his continued opposition to desegregation through the legal process. Further, he disavowed any responsibility for law and order in the city if there was violence as the result of further integration efforts. He abruptly left the state to go to the Southern Governors’ Conference.

Violence erupted on September 23, 1957, when an unruly white crowd received word that African American children had been admitted to the school through a side door. Mayor Mann urgently requested White House assistance. At this point, the president had no choice but to send federal troops to restore order. On September 25, 1957, these troops escorted nine African American children to school. Faubus further incited the situation by claiming that the federal government had shed the blood of patriotic Americans. This charge stemmed from an incident in which one of the troops’ bayonets had cut one of the protesters in a scuffle.


Eisenhower’s cautious approach to racial integration set a pattern that was to be repeated by future presidents. Eisenhower was patient and slow in pushing a full civil rights agenda, setting a pattern to be followed by southern governors such as George C. Wallace of Alabama and Ross Barnett of Mississippi. The use of an executive order Executive Order 10730 (10730) would be repeated by Johnson and John F. Kennedy in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the United States. Racial integration of public schools in Arkansas once again brought to the surface the tension in a federal structure of government in which power and authority is divided between a central government and states’ governments. In the end, it also suggested that Eisenhower was more concerned with the direct challenge to his presidential authority and the constitutional crisis created by a state than with civil rights.

The Little Rock crisis also demonstrated that, in the absence of any strong political or ideological philosophy in the appointment of judges, Eisenhower had selected a number of Republican judges who favored racial integration. This would be reflected in other court decisions involving civil rights in a number of southern states. Part of the legacy of the Eisenhower administration, however, was the persistence of racial segregation over a longer period of time because of Eisenhower’s concern for southern sensitivity over integration. This persistence moved Congress to pass two important bills that became law. The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were part of a determined effort of the federal government to secure civil and racial rights, for African Americans in particular.

The integration of Little Rock was also an important incentive to the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Armed with this victory, civil rights advocates continued their struggle in almost every southern state in the continuing challenge against racial segregation. Segregation;public education Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Education;segregation Military force, domestic deployment of Little Rock, Arkansas African Americans;segregation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amaker, Norman C. Civil Rights and the Reagan Administration. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute Press, 1988. Begins with a historical overview of the struggle for civil rights from the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. While the focus of this book is primarily on the Reagan administration and hostility toward civil rights, it provides an excellent analysis of the retreat from the dream of racial equality, including the area of education, in the 1980’s by the federal government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brownell, Herbert. “Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Program: A Personal Assessment.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 21 (Spring, 1991): 235-242. This article presents an insider’s view of civil rights during the Eisenhower administration. Brownell, the author, was the attorney general during the crisis in Little Rock. The article provides the reader with the philosophy and attitude of Eisenhower on civil rights and the various legal measures and maneuvering that were part of the process of implementing those rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burk, Robert Fredrick. The Eisenhower Administration and Black Civil Rights. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984. This work points out Eisenhower’s passive and reluctant approach to enforcing constitutional guarantees regarding civil and human rights with regard to African Americans. The president’s eye was on the political gauge with respect to every move that he made in this direction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawson, Steven F. Running for Freedom. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991. In this book, the author provides a detailed account of the struggle for civil rights and human dignity for African Americans since 1941. Of particular interest in the beginning of the book is a detailed description of how different presidents, beginning with Roosevelt, wrestled with attempts to ensure rights for African Americans as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meier, August. “Negro Protest Movements and Organizations.” In Conflict and Competition: Studies in the Recent Black Protest Movement, edited by John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1971. A number of civil rights organizations are discussed as part of the broader struggle of racial integration and equality in the south in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Tactics, strategies, and the effects of protest movements, which cut across class lines in the African American community, are cogently and succinctly summarized here by Meier.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walton, Hanes, Jr. When the Marching Stopped. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. Walton pursues the next logical step in the examination of civil rights in the United States after the marches of the 1960’s. Whereas most works have focused on various aspects of the struggle for civil and human rights in America, this analysis examines the various agencies that have been set up to enforce civil rights and the politics involved in such enforcement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webb, Clive, ed. Massive Resistance: Southern Opposition to the Second Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Includes two essays on the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957: One discusses the origins of the crisis, while the other charts race relations in Arkansas between 1954 and 1960. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilhoit, Francis M. The Politics of Massive Resistance. New York: George Braziller, 1973. This study examines white southern attitudes, beliefs, myths, values, and the manipulation of politics and governmental institutions to resist the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school integration. Wilhoit provides a critical discussion of the origins and ideology of white resistance to the black quest for full racial equality.

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