Fifty-five years ago yesterday, President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce public school integration and protect the black students known as the “Little Rock Nine.”
In the weeks preceding the federal government’s involvement, the Arkansas governor had deployed his state’s National Guard to support the segregationists who gathered at Central High School to physically prevent the black students from entering. The large crowd of segregationists threatened the students both verbally and physically. One student recalled her experience on the day of September 4th, 1957 as follows:
“They moved closer and closer… Somebody started yelling… I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd – someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”
After being allowed access to the school with the assistance of the U.S. Army, the threats, ridicule, and deplorable treatment did not end. However, because of these brave students and the decisive action of the federal government, a historic milestone was achieved.
A favorite argument today by right-wing activists against anything President Barack Obama or the federal government endeavors to do is about “states’ rights.” States’ rights are outlined in the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791, which says that powers not explicitly granted to the federal government by the Constitution and not prohibited to the states by the Constitution, are in fact reserved for the states.
The argument over the balance of power between the states that make up our nation and that of our federal government is not unworthy of debate. However, the selective adherence to the principles of states’ rights by most Republicans undercuts any credibility the Constitution may lend them. Of course, states’ rights were the dominant position for slaveholders before and during the Civil War. It was also the rallying cry for bigoted individuals who opposed efforts to desegregate our public institutions, hence the need for President Eisenhower to send the U.S. Army to Little Rock.
Today, conservatives – and particularly Tea Partiers – have a renewed commitment to this brand of strict federalism. Their conflicting positions and misunderstanding of the Constitution as a living document that was designed to change with the times undercuts their proclaimed adherence to constitutional principles.
On the most compelling topics of the day, positions maintained by Republicans are at best a mish-mash of federalist talking points and big-government mandates. For example, in their view, successful healthcare models – like Obamacare – should be relegated to the states, but the federal government should ban certain citizens from the rights and benefits associated with marriage based on who they love. They say Medicaid should be run by the states, but a woman’s reproductive choices should be dictated to her from the men who inhabit the halls of power in Washington, D.C.
States’ rights adherents have been known to oppose the federal income tax, Social Security, immigration reform, and even the direct election of United States Senators by the people. These are not only activists on the fringes. In fact, one-time Republican presidential front-runner and Texas Governor, Rick Perry, holds many of these views.
As we recognize the 55th anniversary of United States federal intervention into the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, it is important to remember that despite the many achievements in equality our nation has seen since its inception, we are still called upon to work toward a more perfect union. It is my hope that myopic views of the U.S. Constitution will be replaced by thoughtful analysis and consideration of modern challenges when the issue of states’ rights is discussed. Our country and We The People deserve that much.