The Other Side of the Little Rock Nine

From time to time you still see the argument that there once was a noble and idealistic conservative movement, arrayed behind the figure of Barry Goldwater, from which heights today’s gutter conservatives have fallen. And it’s always been one of the purposes of this blog to debunk the notion: our argument is that modern conservatism is a failure in its original conception, not merely in its perversion in the age of Bush. I was reminded of that again this weekend, listening to Tavis Smiley interview the Little Rock 9 on his radio show on the fortieth anniversary of the day President Eisenhower had to mobilize the 101st Airborne to escort them to school, after Arkansas governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to keep them out.

There were enough Americans who agreed with Governor Faubus’s position to earn him the tenth spot on Gallup’s annual list of most admired Americans. That Southern segregationist votes weren’t enough to get him there—that it took conservatives from all over the United States—was suggested by the headlines in one of the nation’s flagship right-wing dailes, the Manchester Union Leader. I have a picture of Governor Faubus proudly holding up the paper for photographers in my book on Barry Goldwater. “GUNS FORCE INTEGRATION,” the headline read. “THE IRON FIST IN FREE AMERICA.”

Why is there a picture of Orval Faubus in a book on Barry Goldwater?

Because, as I discovered in my archival research, the people who first boosted Goldwater for the presidency, and arranged for his manifesto Conscience of a Conservative to be ghostwritten, chose Goldwater only for second choice as their preferred conservative presidential standard bearer. Their first choice was…Orval Faubus. “[Y]ou will find a great deal of sympathetic support in the North for the procedure you outlined,” wrote the one man most responsible for Barry Goldwater’s presidential aspirations, the Indiana-based Clarence Manion, a sort of Rush Limbaugh of his day, to his Arkansas partner in the Faubus-for-President scheme. That man, by the way, Jim Johnson, was founder of the Arkansas White Citizens Counsels and one of the organizers of the Little Rock mob.

“Justice Jim,” as he’s known for his elected tenure on the Arkansas Supreme Court (he described his 1956 campaign as “damned near a declaration of war against the United States” over federal desegregation efforts), is still alive and kicking, a wingnut hero emeritus. He returned to the forefront of national conservative movement politics in the 1990s as one of the chief conspirators against the presidency of Bill Clinton, and narrators of the notorious smear video (distributed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell) the “Clinton Chronicles.” Wrote Arkansas’s premiere wingnutologist Gene Lyons, “Some historians of Arkansas political mischief are intrigued by the many parallels between “The Clinton Chronicles” and a series of equally vicious pamphlets distributed during Justice Jim’ Johnson’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign against reformist Republican Winthrop Rockefeller. Among other crimes, ‘nigger lover’ Rockefeller was accused of being a pornographer who engaged in homosexual affairs with black men.”

Meanwhile, the man who laid out that “IRON FIST IN FREE AMERICA” headline, Union-Leader publisher William Loeb, would serve yeoman’s duty as one of the right’s most respected presidential power brokers, and a tireless saboteur of liberal Democratic presidential aspirants, until his death in 1981.

The conservative line is unbroken and continuous: racists and their enablers then; racists and their enablers now.

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