September 12, 2007 EditionAlso in this issue...
Jack Allison (from left), Gary Rose, Leroy Johnson, Roger Waddell, Victor Clark, Bob Guimon, Bob Rainwater and John Elders, all former members of Company K, 153rd Infantry, reminisce about their service in Little Rock 50 years ago during the Central High School integration.
Former Guard members
recall events at Central High
As final preparations are being made in Little Rock to mark the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High School, some local residents are also recalling the event and how it affected their lives.
Having joined the Arkansas National Guard to make a little extra money, members of Company K, 153rd Infantry, based in Walnut Ridge, received a surprising, and short-notice, call on the evening of Sept. 23, 1957. Their unit had been federalized and called to active duty to help ensure a safe integration of the school.
That morning nine black students had been prepared to enter Central, when they were turned away by Guardsmen under orders from Governor Orval Faubus in defiance of federal law. The students encountered an angry mob opposed to integration. The soldiers would feel the effects of that opposition soon, as well.
They left the next morning, many riding in the back of trucks bundled in blankets. Gathered at the Polar Freeze in Walnut Ridge, nine members of the unit recalled their experience, which started with that trip to Little Rock.
"It was getting up into September, and it was pretty chilly," Bob Guimon said.
Bob Rainwater, who was also a member of the unit, interjected, "No, it was cold!"
Soldiers got their first taste of hostility when they arrived in Little Rock, where they would be staying at Camp Robinson. The camp had been closed after World War II causing the soldiers to have to purchase supplies and fuel in the community.
"We pulled into a service station and they wouldn't sell us gas," Guimon recalled.
Some of the members of the unit were very young, having just completed high school, according to Rainwater, making the experience even more frightening.
Leroy Johnson recalled making trips to carry laundry to nearby Levy. They would make this trip riding in the back of an army truck with no covering. He said people would pull along side and yell obscenities and insults at the soldiers.
"I was pretty young and that was pretty scary," he said. "They didn't like anything that was olive drab."
A trip to town was one of the scariest parts of the mission.
"They didn't want us down there," Victor Clark said.
More than 70 members of the local unit were mobilized, and most stayed for nearly six weeks, with some staying longer.
Rainwater said, at that time, the big risk of being in the guard was the possibility of losing one's job if called to serve.
"The law wasn't in effect yet to protect soldiers," he said.
Jack Allison said the extended activation did cause several to lose their jobs.
"When we went, we were expecting to be down there for a couple of days," he said.
Guimon, who worked at Kroger, said he remembers his job being on the line.
"I was told to make up my mind if I wanted to be a soldier or work for Kroger," he said.
Now, law prevents an employer from firing a National Guard member for being called to active duty, but they face a different set of risks.
"Our local unit is getting ready to go back to Iraq," Rainwater said. "The risks are a lot greater."
One thing the soldiers in 1957 had in common with those of today is missing their family and becoming homesick.
"During my six weeks, every time I could get away I was gone," Clark said. "I'd come home to Walnut Ridge, but I'd go back."
Some soldiers remained in Little Rock long-term, including Gary Rose who stayed until May of 1958. He was the third generation to be stationed at the Little Rock camp. His grandfather was stationed there during World War I, and his father during World War II.
"People look at me funny when I say we were all three there," he said. "They remember World War I and World War II, but they forget about Central High."
Allison, who was in Little Rock for 47 days, recalled why his friend and fellow guardsman John Elders stayed longer than many other local soldiers.
"They had a list up and told anyone who wanted to go home to put their name on the list," Allison said. Elders was sleeping when the list went up.
"We went to wake John, and he said, 'leave me alone,'" Allison said. "We didn't put his name on the list, and he ended up staying 80 something days."
Johnson recalled that the extra money they signed up for didn't amount to much during their activation.
"I remember that exactly," Elders interjected speaking to Johnson. "I came up to you and you were sitting in a jeep and you looked up and said, 'I just realized I'm making 10 cents an hour.'"
Roger Waddell laughed and added, "I was making about nine cents an hour."
Gary Rose said he could remember receiving a check for a month's service that was $68.
"Of course, gas was 25 cents a gallon back then, too," Elders said.
Guimon described the scene at the high school.
"On the sidewalk around the school, soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder," he said. "There were road blocks and soldiers placed for two blocks around the school. On the football field, there were trucks carrying troops, loaded and ready to go if needed."
He said there were also soldiers on the roof, at the doors, in the classrooms and in the hall, and a patrol of 30 to 40 men marched around the school.
"No one was getting in there," he said.
In addition to keeping the peace, the National Guard soldiers called up from throughout the state, along with the members of the 101st Airborne, were also responsible for keeping the black students safe.
"They would bring the kids into the school in a circle," Guimon said. "The kids would be in the middle of about 15 men forming a protective circle around them."
He said the kids would also arrive in a different car at a different spot each day.
The soldiers were successful in their peacekeeping mission and presented an impressive image of an impenetrable force.
"Little did they know, we didn't have any bullets," Leroy Johnson said.
Guimon explained that while the 101st soldiers had loaded weapons, the Guardsmen were not issued any live ammunition.
Rainwater said in actuality, Gov. Faubus never broke a law, it was just a case of state and federal law differing.
"He was upholding the Arkansas constitution," he said. "But the federal law trumps the state law, and Eisenhower came in and federalized the Guard."
"It's a shame it had to happen," Rainwater said of the conflicts that arose because of the integration.
Two years prior to the Central High crisis, Lawrence County's Hoxie School had voluntarily integrated in a much quieter fashion.
"You didn't hear anything about it," Victor Clark said.
While there was some opposition and there was some coverage of the Hoxie integration, it was calm compared to what happened in Little Rock.
Rainwater said the fact that the school district was so much larger may have had something to do with the difference in the two integrations.
"There was also more organized opposition," Allison said.
Guimon also pointed out that the newspapers made a lot more out of the Little Rock integration than what actually happened.
"We would go back to the barracks and read about what had 'happened,'" he said. "I'd think to myself I thought I was there, but that didn't happen where I was."
While all the local guardsmen undoubtedly felt threatened at some times, they all returned home unharmed. Of those who were mobilized with the unit, more than 20 have since died, according to Allison.
In addition to those named above, there are several more members of the unit who still live in Lawrence County and many also remain in the Northeast Arkansas area.
When these men got their orders on Sept. 23, they simply reported for duty and did their jobs. In doing so, though, they became part of an important incident in Arkansas and American history.
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