In the fall of 1957, while walking my newspaper-route, I read about the drama playing out at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case – in which the Supreme Court ruled that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional – the Little Rock public school system had finally moved to integrate its high school by enrolling nine black students.
These students – later called “the Little Rock Nine” – were met by an angry crowd of white demonstrators who blocked entrances to the school. Subsequently, Governor Orville Faubus – an outspoken opponent of the Court’s desegregation ruling – ordered the Arkansas National Guard to Little Rock to prevent the black students from entering the school.
Governor Faubus’s action prompted civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., to telegraph President Eisenhower, urging him to “…take a strong, forthright stand in the Little Rock situation.” Dr. King said that a failure to oppose the injustice of the governor’s action would set the process of integration “back fifty years,” adding, “This is a great opportunity for you and the federal government to back up the longings and aspirations of millions of people of good will, and make law and order a reality.”
Following Dr. King’s missive, the president sent a contingent of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to restore order and enable the minority students’ entry into the school. Gradually, the protests melted away, and the nine students were allowed to attend classes without significant incident. In the spring of 1958, Ernest Green became the first black student to graduate from Central High School.
These incidents helped our country turn a corner in the long campaign to afford black citizens full participation in the nation’s education, commerce and governance. Although the change was difficult for people who had lived in segregated communities all their lives – both above and below the Mason-Dixon Line – reasonable people could see the absurdity of wasting the great reservoir of human potential represented by people who had been denied entre to main-stream American society for generations, merely because of their skin-color. It simply made no sense. Professional and college sports had already recognized this by the time of the Little Rock integration. Black baseball, football and basketball players had become great stars, widely applauded for their skills – even by white fans. It was long past time for the rest of the country’s institutions to follow their example.
Although it is not much mentioned nowadays, President Eisenhower’s decisive action against the unlawful mobs in Little Rock established an important model for handling of racial unrest situations by future administrations. That model is not always followed, but when it is, the results are generally salutary. Just five years after Little Rock, in the fall of 1962, a black Air Force veteran named James Meredith was met by angry demonstrations – riots, really – when he tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi (a.k.a. “Ole Miss”) in Oxford. This was a delicate political matter for President Kennedy, since Mississippi was a solidly Democratic state whose 1960 electoral votes went to Mr. Kennedy. In private discussions with the president, the Arkansas governor, Ross Barnett, had promised to protect James Meredith. Later, however, he publicly vowed to keep Ole Miss completely white.
With this tacit encouragement from the governor, violence erupted on the Oxford campus when Mr. Meredith tried to enroll and attend classes. In response, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 500 US Marshals to Oxford to restore order. In the first night of rioting, two civilians were killed, execution style – one of them a French journalist – and nearly 70 people were wounded. Mississippi Highway Patrolmen were replaced by the marshals, who were reinforced by military police from the Army’s 503rd Military Police Battalion, which had been ordered to the campus by President Kennedy. Several thousand troops from the 2nd Infantry Division, agents of the U.S. Border Patrol, units from the federalized Mississippi National Guard, and U.S. Navy medical personnel were also sent to assist federal units at the university.
When Maj. Gen Charles Billingslea, commander of the 2nd Division, entered the gates of the university, his car was firebombed. Trapped in the burning car, the general and his aide forced the door open and crawled to safety under fire. They were unhurt. His troops did not return fire, thus de-escalating the situation and preventing much potential injury. I am not the first to observe that the restraint of General Billingslea and his troops clearly kept a volatile situation from spinning completely out of control, thereby saving many lives. Mr. Kennedy’s strong, decisive action in sending troops to Oxford – as well as General Billingslea’s orders not to return fire – soon calmed the campus and ended the violence.
James Meredith attended classes without incident through the ensuing academic year, graduating in the spring of 1963 with a political science degree. In 1966 he was shot and wounded during his “March against Fear” – a walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, on which he meant to promote black voter-registration. After he was injured, others completed the march for him. Now 81, he still lives in his birthplace of Kosciusko, Mississippi, after a long and distinguished career in civil rights activism.
I relate these important incidents in the nation’s history to show that racial unrest is not a new problem, and to note that good presidential examples have been set for handling such situations. The core of these examples, however, is not talk. It is action that demonstrates a commitment to restoring order, while countenancing absolutely no violence.
The August 9th fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen-ager by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, has sparked protests, looting and street-violence for the nearly two weeks since. Exactly what happened leading up to the shooting is still not clear, but there are indications that the victim, Michael Brown, 18, had committed a strong-arm robbery of a convenience store just moments before he was stopped by Patrolman Darren Wilson. Accounts vary of what occurred before Officer Wilson opened fire. Some reports – not widely published – indicate that Wilson was injured in an altercation with Brown. Various racial agitators have attempted to suppress the store’s surveillance video, which appears to show Michael Brown accosting the owner as he stole a box of cigars.
Local police were deployed in military-style riot gear when the protests began, but this provocative gesture did little to control the unrest. In response, Governor Jay Nixon recalled all local police and dispatched a cadre of Missouri Highway-patrolmen, commanded by Captain Ron Johnson, to take over enforcement responsibilities. Initially, Captain Johnson’s unit seemed to have calmed the situation, but later nights erupted in widespread looting which the state police did little to stop.
From his vacation digs on Martha’s Vineyard, President Obama has “deplored” the violence in Ferguson and pleaded for calm, while not-so-subtly signaling his sympathy with protestors’ anger at Brown’s death. On August 20, however, he finally took decisive action. No, he didn’t send the 101st Airborne or the 2nd Division. He got really tough – he sent a lawyer. Attorney General Eric Holder was dispatched to Missouri to oversee the indictment and prosecution of Officer Wilson. I saw a news-clip of Mr. Holder greeting Captain Johnson with the words, “You d’man.” – no doubt meant to convey racial solidarity with that black officer and other black citizens. Officer Wilson’s degree of confidence in Mr. Holder – probably the most racially focused attorney general in our history – remains unknown
Why Mr. Obama did not send troops to Ferguson is unclear, but it’s likely that politics was a factor. Those people marching, yelling (and perhaps looting) are Mr. Obama’s constituents – the same voters who elected him to “transform” the country. Sending troops would have offended them, just as the troops sent to Oxford, Mississippi, probably offended the people rioting against James Meredith. Despite the politics of his time, JFK knew that he had to send a clear signal against lawlessness and violence to the citizens of Mississippi, as well as to the entire country.
But Mr. Obama has not sent that signal. Indeed, it is not clear if he understands that it should be sent – that it must be sent! Quiet and order must be restored in Ferguson. Nothing productive can be accomplished with agitators, looters and hustlers roiling the waters every night. People must return to their homes and let justice take its course. Mr. Holder’s arrival does seem to have calmed things down, but whether he can help achieve “justice” remains to be seen.
As I write this, I have no clear idea of whether Officer Wilson should be charged with a crime, or whether a crime has even been committed. The rioters and race-hustlers on the streets are sure of it, but we don’t know enough facts. This is why we employ due process in such cases, instead of just letting a mob take over. I am truly sorry for the family of Michael Brown. His life will never be lived out to what it might have been, and his family will no longer have his presence. It is a wretched business. I cannot imagine the pain of it.
Emerging evidence suggests, however, that Brown’s death might have resulted from his own actions against Officer Wilson. Brown was a hulking young man, evidently accustomed to throwing his weight around, as the store-video shows. In the wake of that robbery he may have acted belligerently toward Wilson, a single policeman who feared for his life. We’re not certain of this, but we strongly suspect it. Also, Michael Brown had two companions. A single, unarmed officer would have been no match for three strong young men. Did Officer Wilson panic? Did he simply “go off,” firing barrel after barrel into Michael Brown? We don’t know. But without question that officer’s life will be forever changed. This tragic event will always haunt him. How we all wish things had worked out differently.
In the business world, where I spent my own career, we always looked for lessons-learned and useful recommendations whenever something untoward happened. We should that with reference to Michael Brown’s death, too. Accountability has a certain value – not to be neglected – but we need more than that from such incidents. If we can’t learn anything, these terrible things will keep happening over and over.
My recommendation would be for police always to travel in pairs, as they once routinely did. Why is this no longer so? Is it a question of money? If so, we need to find the money. Police-teams should be trained and equipped to restrain unruly individuals without resorting to deadly force, except in the most extreme situations dealing with an armed adversary. The partners would back each other up to ensure that no individual became physically threatening. In the Michael Brown incident, the presence of a partner supporting Officer Wilson could have meant that everyone walked away without any shooting. At the very least, Officer Wilson would have had a reliable witness to support his account of events.
We have to do better. I believe we can, but we have to want to enough to make changes. And as Ike and JFK showed, it’s important for a president to lead.