This is the grave of Orval Faubus.
Born in Combs, Arkansas in 1910, Faubus was…named after Eugene Debs. His father was a socialist who loved Debs. This in itself is a worthy topic of discussion. There was a tremendous socialist movement in rural America during these years, with very real socialist movements in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, as well as further north in the Dakotas. So it really isn’t that surprising that Faubus’s parents gave their son a middle name after Debs. But there were sharp limits to this socialism and it was about race. If the socialism was about white people, then you might see a lot of support for it from the poorer whites of rural America. But if then encouraged racial equality? Nope. This was obvious enough to the conservative powerbrokers of these states, who played up white supremacy to break those socialist movements.
Anyway, Faubus’ parents really were committed to training their son in socialist principles, all the way to sending him to the little socialist institution Commonwealth College. But the principles didn’t stick. Faubus turned out to be super politically ambitious and was willing to sell out to advance himself. In 1936, he ran for the Arkansas state legislature. He lost the Democratic primary, which was all that mattered. It’s quite possible the election was stolen. This was not at all uncommon from southern elites seeking to control white rural revolt. But rather than contest the lost, he felt it was in his interests to play along. He did not challenge it, which gained him a lot of respect within the conservative Democrats who ran the party. So they let him be circuit clerk for Madison County, a minor position but one that would launch a rising star.
Faubus went on to fight in World War II. When he came back, he was still considered a progressive within the Democratic Party. He was a major voice in the anti-corruption wing of the party, was close to the progressive governor Sid McMath, and helped lead the GI Revolt. The latter was an interesting little movement. This was basically a clean government movement largely led by returning veterans and it was these people that got McMath to Little Rock. They had a real impact too–taking a big chunk out of Arkansas’ poll tax, which was the device by which not only did conservative Democrats keep Black Arkansans from voting but also to manage the corruption needed to fix elections that reformist whites voted in.
McMath lost in 1952 to a right-wing primary opponent named Francis Cherry. These were two-year terms. Faubus decided to be the progressive candidate against Cherry in 1954. And he won.
So up to the point when Faubus becomes governor, he’s about as progressive as an Arkansas white could be. In fact, in that 54 governor race, Cherry’s supporters basically said Faubus was a communist for his time at Commonwealth. Faubus didn’t handle it well, mostly lying and saying he was only there for a couple of weeks when in fact he was there for over a year. But it didn’t hurt him as much as it could, he narrowly won that primary and then obviously won the general election easily.
So how on earth did a guy who was a progressive become the first political face of the hard-right racist South in the face of the civil rights movement? No one really seems to know. The best guess is that the incredibly ambitious Faubus saw the anti-communist attacks as deeply threatening to his future and so he would never be outflanked to the right in Arkansas again. But he turned toward oppression and he turned hard. People were legitimately surprised by this in 1957, when he used the Arkansas National Guard to stop the integration of Little Rock public schools. Dwight Eisenhower was a racist. But he was also a military man and he was outraged that Faubus would disobey orders. And so he famously overruled Faubus after many phone calls, nationalized the National Guard, and used it to escort the students into Central High School. Among those shocked by Faubus’ actions was Sid McMath, his former mentor, who couldn’t believe that this former reformer with socialist leanings immediately became the face of the revanchist South.
It really does seem that at least as much as George Wallace, Faubus acted in this way out of naked ambition. He saw the future of southern politics as playing to the most racist elements of society. He knew he would lose the next primary if he wasn’t the farthest right person possible. And nothing was going to get in the way of that ambition, especially Black people. After Eisenhower nationalized the National Guard, Faubus’ response was to support Little Rock’s decision to simply have no public schools in the 1958-59 school year, which laid the groundwork for the rise of the segregation academy that has made sure that schools remain largely segregated all the way to the present.
In a 1958 poll asking Americans to name their favorite Americans for a Top Ten Most Admired Americans thing, Faubus made the top 10. It wasn’t just in Arkansas that this was popular. From Massachusetts and Michigan to South Carolina and Texas, racism was the ideology of white America.
This all did pay off for Faubus, at least in a way. He was a pariah on a national level, despite his popularity with white racists. But he was gold in Arkansas, at least for awhile. The state had two-year governor terms at this time and he won six of them. After Little Rock, he faded from the national spotlight, ceding that world to Wallace, while basically getting along with both Kennedy and Johnson. Arkansas was still a very racist place, but it was other states where the rest of the iconic civil rights battles took place. By 1962, the White Citizens Councils thought Faubus had become too accommodating to civil rights and supported a primary candidate. So Faubus cast himself as a moderate, did not attack civil rights if he said nothing in favor of it, and barely won the primary. By 1964, Faubus won 81% of the Black vote, helping him hold off a strong Republican candidacy by Winthrop Rockefeller as the Republican Party was becoming the White Man’s Party. Such is the duality of the southern thing. Outside of his segregationist actions, Faubus was a fairly progressive governor, investing heavily in building the state’s infrastructure and siding with environmentalists to stop plans to dam the Buffalo River.
But Faubus saw the writing on the wall. He knew that he was probably finished. He chose not to run again in 1966 and Rockefeller in fact won, the first Republican to lead Arkansas since Reconstruction. But he couldn’t give up politics. Increasingly out of touch with everyone, he kept running for the Democratic primary and losing by increasingly large margins. As late as 1986, Faubus ran against Bill Clinton, who won 60-33. By this time, only the real old-style racists who also couldn’t see themselves as Republicans were voting for him.
Faubus died of prostate cancer in 1994. He was 84 years old.
Orval Faubus is buried in Combs Cemetery, Combs, Arkansas.
If you would like this series to visit other awful segregationist southern governors of this era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Wallace is in Montgomery, Alabama and Lester Maddox is in Sandy Springs, Georgia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.