Paul Greenberg

There were giants in the earth in those days, as the Book tells us, and thank goodness they keep reappearing when they are most needed. Like during the bad old days half a century ago here in Arkansas and throughout the South. It was a time when people were confronted with the clearest of political and moral choices, perhaps the clearest since the Civil War itself.

By 1957, the question had become unavoidable: What was it to be, the rule of law or defiance? State Sovereignty or the Union now and forever?

It was a time when every politician, every leader, every minister, every citizen was called on to choose sides, or hunker down and try to stay neutral between right and wrong.

It was a time made for an ambitious demagogue — even in a state then considered moderate in its racial views. That would change soon enough, for the crisis presented an opportunistic governor his chance to become a nigh-eternal incumbent. All he had to do was fan the flames. All he had to do was stir up the gathering hatred and exploit it. He could even shut down the schools if he wanted, and the mob would rage, the crowd cheer, and the voters go his way. Again and again. Which was the choice Orval Faubus made.

Most of the state’s politicians either went along or went passive, ducking for cover during what would become the Great Faubusfear.

Some just skedaddled. The state’s junior senator, always a great internationalist, at least in his own eyes, decided this would be just the right time to take an international tour. His actions in 1957, and the years before and after, would prove a portrait in something other than courage. Having already helped set the tinder by placing his indelible signature on the defiant Southern Manifesto the year before, J. William Fulbright didn’t hang around to watch the Crisis when it burst upon the state.

Instead, he chose to view it from a safe distance — merry old England, where he always did seem more at home. It became a pattern with him. Whenever freedom was being threatened by racial demagogues at home or communist aggression abroad, Sen. Fulbright could be counted on — to suggest appeasement.

Such were the unhappy times. But there were giants in the earth even then. They stood out, perhaps because there were so few of them. A whole slew of repressive laws was rammed through the Arkansas legislature in February of 1957 in anticipation of the Crisis to come.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.