Comment: When leaders ignore rule of law, troops are sent in

Sending the National Guard into cities is a last resort, necessary when mob rule is encouraged.

By Robert Fleegler / Special To The Washington Post

The Senate is hearing arguments in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Thanks in part to Trump’s rhetoric after his election defeat, his followers overran the Capitol on Jan. 6. The nation then watched warily as Washington became an armed encampment to ensure a safe inauguration for President Biden, and now a safe impeachment trial.

While virtually unprecedented for an American president, this was not the first time that an American elected official fomented such a crisis. In fact, Trump’s behavior was eerily reminiscent of the actions of Southern segregationists at the height of the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. During this time, governors such as Orval Faubus, D-Ark., and Ross Barnett, D-Miss., defied federal court orders and inflamed their constituents, with dire consequences similar to those the nation witnessed in D.C. Their disregard for the rule of law even forced two American presidents to send troops into their states.

After the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 declaring an end to “separate but equal” public schools, the South rapidly mobilized to prevent integration. Starting in Indianola, Miss., a few weeks later, local business executives formed Citizens’ Councils across the region, groups that directed economic retaliation against civil rights advocates in their communities. The court’s cautious mandate to carry out integration “with all deliberate speed” in its Brown II decision in 1955 and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s lukewarm rhetorical support for the decision gave succor to the resistance.

The first major test of Brown in the South came in Little Rock in 1957. Traditionally a moderate state with regard to race relations, Arkansas had already integrated its state universities. Furthermore, the school board in Little Rock had worked out an arrangement for nine Black students to attend Central High School to fulfill the mandate of Brown. The federal district court backed this arrangement.

Enter Faubus. Fearful of losing the support of segregationists, the governor — himself a racial moderate to that point — ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block the students from entering the school in September 1957. “What he did was very simple,” wrote the veteran journalist David Halberstam. “He announced that he was unable to maintain the peace (thereby encouraging a mob to go into the streets).” As one of the nine students — Elizabeth Eckford — approached the school, the racist mob infamously harangued her.

Three weeks later, after Eisenhower got the impression Faubus would change course during a one-on-one meeting, the “Little Rock Nine” attempted to integrate the school again. This time Faubus removed the National Guard but allowed violence to flourish in its absence. As the students entered, a mob gathered outside the school, assaulting some of the Black reporters covering the event. Fearing for the students’ safety, the police evacuated them.

With the mob preventing the implementation of a court order and international coverage of the events damaging America’s global image at the height of the Cold War, Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce the rule of law. “Under the leadership of demagogic extremists, disorderly mobs have deliberately prevented the carrying out of proper orders from a federal court,” declared the president. “Local authorities have not eliminated that violent opposition and, under the law, I yesterday issued a Proclamation calling upon the mob to disperse.” He added, “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts.”

The military intervention enabled the students to attend Central High for a year under the protection of the now-federalized Arkansas National Guard; until Faubus closed down the Little Rock schools for the following school year to prevent integrated schooling.

Five years later, in 1962, an even more violent confrontation occurred in Oxford, Miss., as James Meredith, a 29-year-old Air Force veteran, sought to become the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi. The Magnolia State had always been the most militantly segregationist state, and Barnett had been elected in 1959 with the full-throated support of the Citizens’ Councils. Meanwhile, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission — an arm of the state government — surveilled the activities of civil rights activists.

The federal courts backed Meredith’s entrance into the school, but Barnett opposed it and turned up the rhetorical temperature. “We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them no,” Barnett declared to a statewide television and radio audience on Sept. 13, adding, “I have made my position in this matter crystal clear. I have said in every county in Mississippi that no school in our state will be integrated while I am your governor.” Citing the discredited pre-Civil War doctrine of “interposition,” Barnett suggested that states could nullify federal laws they rejected and twice personally intervened to stop Meredith from registering at the university.

Though he certainly was a segregationist, Barnett understood he had no legal means to prevent the university’s integration. And so while he publicly stirred up racist opposition, the governor was privately talking to the Kennedy administration about ways to carry out the court order without sacrificing his ability to demonstrate his resistance to his constituents. At one point, Barnett even discussed a scenario with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in which he would block Meredith’s entrance only to reluctantly relent when federal marshals drew their guns.

On Sept. 29, Barnett delivered his most incendiary comments of the crisis at halftime of a college football game between Mississippi and Kentucky. “I love Mississippi! I love her people! Our customs. I Iove and I respect our heritage!” he announced as the crowd roared in approval.

“I looked back at the crowd and I saw anger in the faces of the people right next to me, and it sort of flashed through my mind that those rebel flags looked like swastikas,” one student later recalled, “[These] were just ordinary school kids who were being whipped into a fever-pitch of emotion by their own leaders.” Barnett was pouring gasoline on a fire.

The next day, the final attempt to register Meredith took place. While primarily relying on local law enforcement to maintain order, federal marshals arrived with Meredith to protect him. The governor’s observer, however, ordered the state highway patrol to withdraw from campus, opening the door to violence. With Meredith ensconced in a dormitory, a mob of students and outsiders gathered near the center of campus and started attacking the marshals. The marshals came under gunfire but had orders not to respond in kind.

With a riot underway, President John F. Kennedy ordered U.S. Army units from Memphis to restore order, with help from a federalized Mississippi National Guard that had already arrived on the scene. After hours of violence, these forces put down the riot but not before two people, a French reporter and a local bystander, had been killed and many more were injured. Meredith then registered for classes and would graduate the following year.

The two demagogues endured different electoral fates for their irresponsible actions. Faubus won reelection as governor four more times after the Little Rock crisis before stepping down in 1967 (Arkansas elected governors to two-year terms at the time). Mississippi governors were term-limited then, so Barnett couldn’t run again in 1963, but he made another run at the office in 1967, coming in a dismal fourth in the Democratic primary.

Regardless of their electoral performance, history’s verdict on both men has been harsh, as they are remembered for defying the law and holding back racial progress. Trump, too, probably will face a similar fate and always be associated with the events of Jan. 6. And when leaders behave in such a fashion — stoking discontent and encouraging disobedience of the law — it necessitates the intervention of National Guard troops as we witnessed during the inauguration.

Robert Fleegler is instructional associate professor at the University of Mississippi.

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