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Orval Faubus: Quotes & Biography

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

In this lesson, we will discuss Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas from 1955 to 1967, who gained national prominence in 1957 for ordering the National Guard to block African-American students from entering white schools.

Who was Orval Faubus?

Governor Orval Eugene Faubus of Arkansas
Governor Orval Eugene Faubus of Arkansas

Orval Eugene Faubus was born on January 7, 1910, in a small shack, deep in the hill country of northwest Arkansas. He was one of six children and the son of Sam Faubus, an impoverished farmer and socialist who gave his son the middle name 'Eugene' after his personal hero, labor organizer and socialist leader, Eugene V. Debs. Orval grew to be a deeply ambitious young man, determined to escape the bitter poverty all around him. Despite only earning an 8th grade education, at the age of 18 he passed a state-given test for a teaching certificate and, while teaching, also worked to secure a high school diploma. He spent summers as a migrant farm laborer, traveling the country and working to support himself and further his education. At the time, the Great Depression was ravaging America, and Faubus became an avowed liberal who believed that the government could be used for the good of the people. After returning home, he became involved in the politics of his county, claiming that he wanted to alleviate the suffering of those he had grown up around. His career was sidelined by the outbreak of World War II, but he volunteered to serve and eventually became a Major in Army intelligence.

School Desegregation and National Prominence

Governor Orval Faubus speaking to protesters in Little Rock
Governor Orval Faubus speaking to protesters in Little Rock

After returning from the war, Faubus served in a number of political positions, eventually becoming State Highway Commissioner in the administration of Arkansas Governor Sid McMath, where he quickly gained a reputation as that administration's most liberal member. He used his position to launch his own campaign for governor, which he won in 1954, campaigning as a populist who wanted to reform schools, and improve the condition of the state's roads. His Democratic primary opponent called him a liberal radical.

At first, Orval Faubus did not consider race to be an important factor in his administration. He brought several African-Americans into the Democratic Party leadership, and oversaw the state's efforts to desegregate busing. His primary concern was in improving the quality of schools within Arkansas, and he even worked for a tax increase that would go towards a pay raise for teachers. However, race would soon define the nation's impression of Governor Faubus, during what was known as The Little Rock Crisis. In 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation violated the constitution, and ordered that schools be desegregated 'with all deliberate speed.' A follow-up decision by the courts in 1957 called for Arkansas' schools to be desegregated immediately. Faubus ordered the National Guard to surround Central High School in Little Rock and prevent African-American students from entering the building. His actions caused a national crisis, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower eventually federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered them to return to their barracks, while sending in the 101 Airborne Division to protect the students. Many historians believe Faubus had manufactured this crisis in order to turn attention away from his controversial tax increase, and also to protect himself from James D. Johnson, a staunch segregationist who was trying to unite conservatives in the Democratic Party against Faubus.

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