There, Abraham Lincoln, brooding and bearing the weight of a nation’s fate; Hither, Mahatma Gandhi, spartan and humble but challenging a mighty empire; just ahead, Martin Luther King, Jr., his stirring oratory echoing in our hearts and souls; and so it goes on. Yet, the task of carrying the torch of human progress against all odds is often the work of lesser gods with their many fallacies and faults.
No marble statues or sacred mausoleums mark their birthplace or celebrate their achievements, but the stories of civilizations and societies have been revolutionized because of their contributions. Woodrow Mann, the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, was one among them.
The machinations of Orval Faubus
The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declared that segregation was unconstitutional in public schools and set off an arduous process of integration across the south. In Little Rock, Arkansas, after many years of fits and starts, Mayor Woodrow Mann oversaw a plan to admit nine African American students to Central High School in 1957.
However, “planned, manufactured, racial incidents“ gave Governor Orval Faubus, an ardent segregationist, the excuse he was looking for. On September 4, 1957, Faubus, using the smokescreen of impending violence, commanded the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the entry of African American students, triggering an exceptional chain of events.
Mann’s resistance and the backlash
Stunned and furious at the governor’s actions, Mayor Mann labeled Faubus’ maneuvering in the name of law and order a hoax.
“If any racial trouble does develop, the blame rests squarely on the doorstep of the governor’s mansion,” Mann said.
While the rest of the political leadership and business community were silent, Mann relentlessly sought ways to implement integration and became Faubus’ “chief official critic”, according to Roy Reed, the author of ”Faubus: The Life and Times of an American Prodigal.”
Consequently, Mann and his family suffered from a campaign of harassment, including numerous death and bomb threats. This intimidation took on an ominous air when Mann woke up one night to a burning cross in his yard.
“There on my front lawn was a true symbol of what had come again to Little Rock-the old Klan spirit,” Mann would later recall in a series of articles about the Little Rock incident for the New York Herald Tribune in 1958.
In addition to physical and psychological bullying, he endured political isolation as a petition to recall the mayor began to circulate. Five of the ten city aldermen pledged fealty to Governor Faubus.
The fire chief refused to institute mob control measures. The county sheriff and the state Attorney General were derelict in their duties, Mann wrote in the Tribune. If political courage is the act of defying “the pressure of his constituency, the interest groups, the organized letter writers, the economic blocs and even the average voter” as President Kennedy had described in his book, “Profiles in Courage,” then Mann was the very embodiment of it.
But the days would grow darker still. On Sept. 23, 1957, as a large mob of more than 1,000 people besieged the school, Mann received an urgent message from his son Woody, a senior at Central High.
He reported that there were rumors that the nine African American students — who had been sneaked into school earlier in the day through a side entrance — were to be “taken care of at noon time.” Concerned for their well-being, Mann directed that the students be escorted to safety.
On Sept. 24, 1957, the hostile crowds outside Central High showed no signs of dissipating and the situation had become dire. Running out of options to safeguard the Little Rock Nine, Mann sent a fateful telegram to President Eisenhower at 9:15 a.m., requesting federal support urgently.
“I am pleading to you as President of the United States in the interests of humanity, law, and order, and because of democracy worldwide,” it read. At 10:22 a.m., Eisenhower spun into action and ordered a battalion of the 101st Airborne to Little Rock.
The heroes of the Ardennes and Normandy were now deployed on home soil to protect Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals as they walked to school through a minefield of racism and bigotry.
A child of the south
It would be remiss not to delve into Mann’s years in office before the school crisis. Though he was a self-professed child of the south, “early in his administration, the mayor “promoted racial integration without legal prodding or attracting much attention.”
One of his major achievements was the integration of Little Rock’s public transportation system. However, it was accomplished without much fanfare since “a full throated endorsement of racial integration” would have alienated many of the white union workers. Mann “doubled the number of Black police officers on the Little Rock police force and made it known that more needed to be hired, and appointed African Americans to city boards, including the Parks and Recreation Commission.”
In another instance, Mann ordered the removal of “Colored Do Not Drink Out of Fountain” signs in city hall. Desegregation was fated to be a journey of a thousand miles but undoubtedly Mann took the first few steps in his tenure as mayor.
In the words of President Kennedy, Mann’s courage kept “alive the spirit of individualism and dissent which gave birth to this nation” but his unpopular stance cast a pall on his prospects in business and politics.
The backlash turned him into a pariah and “almost certainly cost him any future that he had in politics in Arkansas.” Facing financial ruin after leaving office in November 1957, Mann moved to Houston and lived there until his death in 2002.
Orval Faubus, it should be noted, was reelected as governor in 1958 with 82.5% of the vote and held office until 1966. Chaos theory postulates that a small initial change in a non-linear world could lead to dramatic effects at a later stage, as when the flutter of a butterfly’s wings eventually unleashes a tornado.
In that sense, Mayor Mann’s audacity was equivalent to a butterfly’s wings that propagated the momentum for racial and social justice, which would soon sweep across the Deep South.