Faubus: the Life and Time of an American Prodigal (1997), by Roy Reed

Orval Faubus was governor of Arkansas from 1955 to 1967. These days, he’s chiefly remembered as the governor who did everything he could to block the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. But Reed (1930-2017), who worked as a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette and the New York Times, offers up a full account of the man, as complicated as any of us.  

Faubus could honestly claim his hillbilly origins—a political asset in Arkansas. He grew up poor  on a farm in northwest Arkansas, near Fayetteville. Somewhat astoundingly from a contemporary perspective, Faubus’s father, Sam, was not only a farmer, but also a Socialist. He belonged to a loose affiliation of Socialists in the early 20th Century which advocated for farmers’ rights in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Orval himself briefly attended Commonwealth College, a left-wing enclave that sprang up down in the southern Ouachitas. Reed’s detailed account of the school, and Faubus’s activities there, are compelling.

Much later, in the 1950s when Orval stood for state office, he was accused of being a Communist. It would have been fair to call Faubus a liberal, and possibly because he was from the highlands, where few African-Americans lived, he showed no signs of racism. He campaigned to improve the lives of all poor people, and in his first administration, he managed to achieve better schools, more humane prisons, and improved treatment for the mentally ill.

So it’s ironic that he became a strident racist, but in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), white supremacists in Arkansas and many other Southern states grew rabid. Faubus, a lifelong Democrat, faced a formidable, segregationist candidate, and if he hoped to get re-elected, he had to take a segregationist stand. At first he tried to temporize, pointing out the real likelihood of violence if Central High School were integrated. Faubus knew all along that segregation was doomed. Still, before it was over, he was as mean-spirited a racist as George Wallace.

Faubus’s later terms fell into the pattern of cronyism and corruption that often plague long-lived political machines. To take one small example, state employees were forced to contribute to Faubus’s campaigns—and, in Arkansas, those came along every two years. Like Nixon, Faubus had his lists of enemies. Ominously, his Criminal Investigation Division (CID), operated as secret police, wiretapping, spying on, and harassing anyone with integrationist leanings. Faubus at the height of his power will remind the reader of Richard Nixon in his paranoia, and Donald Trump in his pettiness.

Faubus’s downfall was sudden. It seemed nobody really liked him, and his old friends deserted him. He fell heavily in debt to build an impractical house; he had an affair with a younger woman and his marriage broke up. His new wife, a close friend of the Eureka Springs quasi-Nazi, Gerald L.K. Smith, was a vicious, unstable woman, and that marriage failed, too. At one point, Faubus took a job as a bank teller, and he was briefly involved in the ill-fated theme park, Dogpatch USA.

Orval Faubus managed to crawl out of debt. He made other, futile attempts to run for governor. He wrote memoirs. He tried to make amends to Daisy Bates, Little Rock’s determined NAACP worker, and claimed to support Jesse Jackson for president.

None of this mattered. Faubus had become an obscure, rather pathetic figure, remembered only for obstructing the march of history.

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