Such a development is not surprising. Decades of scholarship on groups as wide ranging as the Ku Klux Klan, the Texas Rangers, lynch mobs, strikebreakers and veterans’ organizations indicate that the United States has always blurred the lines between political mainstream and extremist fringe. While this reality has been missing from popular memory, one particularly disturbing example stands at the forefront of one of the most iconic events in U.S. history: that of Edwin Walker, the decorated military officer charged with integrating Central High School in Little Rock in 1957.
As a figure like Walker shows, the mid-century triumphs of civil rights activists did force lawmakers to disavow white supremacy’s most militant defenders, ostensibly driving a greater wedge between mainstream and fringe. At the same time, mainstream and fringe figures continued to organize around kindred white supremacist policies and cultivate common enemies, even as their methods and rhetoric diverged.
Sixty-five years ago this week, the Little Rock School Integration Crisis reached its climax. After the Supreme Court’s ruling against school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, segregationist lawmakers in the South laid siege to the decision in united opposition to constitutional rights for Black people.
On Sept. 25, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and deployed an additional 1,000 troops under Walker’s command to address flagrant White defiance of an integration order by a U.S. District Court judge. Only under military guard and intense media scrutiny were the Black students known as the Little Rock Nine able to safely attend classes, even as Central High remained a snake pit of white supremacist antagonism.
Walker, who served in World War II and the Korean War, oversaw integration in his capacity as commander of the Arkansas military district in Little Rock. “We are all subject to all the laws,” he told an assembly of White students upon his arrival, “whether we approve of them personally or not, and as law-abiding citizens, have an obligation of conscience to obey them. There can be no exceptions; if it were otherwise, we would not be a strong nation but merely an unruly mob.”
The press lauded Walker as a “model of aloof correctness” for his role in quelling the unrest. However, his detachment masked a personal repugnance for his orders. Walker was born and raised in Texas and was a staunch conservative, segregationist and militant anti-communist. His fierce attachment to states’ rights doctrine, coupled with his anticommunism, brought him into close contact with a burgeoning far-right movement that believed federal intervention in Little Rock was part of a global communist conspiracy to destroy the United States.
After Little Rock, Walker immersed himself in a movement of segregationists and conspiratorial anticommunists that was highly organized, well-funded and committed to the political long game.
In 1961, a tabloid sensationalized elements of his anti-communist training program for U.S. soldiers, including his use of literature from the ultra right-wing political advocacy group the John Birch Society and his suggestion that prominent liberals, including Eleanor Roosevelt, were “definitely pink.” The revelation prompted admonishment from his superiors and fueled fears over right-wing radicalization among military leadership. Walker resigned in protest of this minor rebuke, becoming a martyr in far-right circles and a national cause celebre.
Walker, now an open opponent of civil rights, linked White resentment of Black protest to White anxiety over communist subversion. His infamy peaked in September 1962, when he escalated White violence against the enrollment of Black student James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. In a theatrical public reversal, Walker declared that he had been on the “wrong side” in Little Rock and called for White people…
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