The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Far-right views in law enforcement are not new

65 years ago this week, Edwin Walker helped enforce Little Rock integration. Then he devoted himself to segregation.

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington on June 25, 2017. A new report says that the names of hundreds of U.S. law enforcement officers, elected officials and military members appear on the leaked membership rolls of a far-right extremist group that's accused of playing a key role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Recent analysis of leaked Oath Keepers membership rolls by the Anti-Defamation League indicates the growing presence of law enforcement, military and elected officials within militia movements.

This report is the latest in an alarming volume of evidence of a militant, conspiratorial vanguard building institutional power on the right. In forging direct links between vigilantism, law enforcement and elected office, this movement aims to consolidate control over what law and order means and to whom it applies.

Such a development is not surprising. Decades of scholarship on groups as wide ranging as the Ku Klux Klan, the Texas Rangers, lynch mobs, strikebreakers and veterans’ organizations indicate that the United States has always blurred the lines between political mainstream and extremist fringe. While this reality has been missing from popular memory, one particularly disturbing example stands at the forefront of one of the most iconic events in U.S. history: that of Edwin Walker, the decorated military officer charged with integrating Central High School in Little Rock in 1957.

As a figure like Walker shows, the mid-century triumphs of civil rights activists did force lawmakers to disavow white supremacy’s most militant defenders, ostensibly driving a greater wedge between mainstream and fringe. At the same time, mainstream and fringe figures continued to organize around kindred white supremacist policies and cultivate common enemies, even as their methods and rhetoric diverged.

Sixty-five years ago this week, the Little Rock School Integration Crisis reached its climax. After the Supreme Court’s ruling against school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, segregationist lawmakers in the South laid siege to the decision in united opposition to constitutional rights for Black people.

On Sept. 25, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and deployed an additional 1,000 troops under Walker’s command to address flagrant White defiance of an integration order by a U.S. District Court judge. Only under military guard and intense media scrutiny were the Black students known as the Little Rock Nine able to safely attend classes, even as Central High remained a snake pit of white supremacist antagonism.

Walker, who served in World War II and the Korean War, oversaw integration in his capacity as commander of the Arkansas military district in Little Rock. “We are all subject to all the laws,” he told an assembly of White students upon his arrival, “whether we approve of them personally or not, and as law-abiding citizens, have an obligation of conscience to obey them. There can be no exceptions; if it were otherwise, we would not be a strong nation but merely an unruly mob.”

The press lauded Walker as a “model of aloof correctness” for his role in quelling the unrest. However, his detachment masked a personal repugnance for his orders. Walker was born and raised in Texas and was a staunch conservative, segregationist and militant anti-communist. His fierce attachment to states’ rights doctrine, coupled with his anticommunism, brought him into close contact with a burgeoning far-right movement that believed federal intervention in Little Rock was part of a global communist conspiracy to destroy the United States.

After Little Rock, Walker immersed himself in a movement of segregationists and conspiratorial anticommunists that was highly organized, well-funded and committed to the political long game.

In 1961, a tabloid sensationalized elements of his anti-communist training program for U.S. soldiers, including his use of literature from the ultra right-wing political advocacy group the John Birch Society and his suggestion that prominent liberals, including Eleanor Roosevelt, were “definitely pink.” The revelation prompted admonishment from his superiors and fueled fears over right-wing radicalization among military leadership. Walker resigned in protest of this minor rebuke, becoming a martyr in far-right circles and a national cause celebre.

Walker, now an open opponent of civil rights, linked White resentment of Black protest to White anxiety over communist subversion. His infamy peaked in September 1962, when he escalated White violence against the enrollment of Black student James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. In a theatrical public reversal, Walker declared that he had been on the “wrong side” in Little Rock and called for White people to defend themselves against “the conspiracy from within.”

The Ole Miss Riot that followed left two dead and hundreds injured.

National media panned Walker as an “eccentric” whose “paranoid mental disturbance” signaled “the dying gasps of a passing breed in whom hate has ruled over reason.”

By contrast, Black commentators saw Walker as a feature, not a blemish. “General Walker’s leadership would have fizzled out if there were not already an obsessive racist strain in the students to which he appealed,” observed one columnist in the Black press.

Indeed, Walker continued to enjoy support throughout the country. He was celebrated by white supremacist and anti-communist organizations that purported to reject extremism, including the Citizens’ Council, the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade and Americans for the Preservation of the White Race. Openly fascist and white nationalist political parties, such as the National States’ Rights Party and the American Nazi Party, exalted Walker as a “brave patriot” and called for him to run for — and win — the presidency.

Walker, for his part, backed Alabama Gov. George Wallace (“segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”) in his 1964 primary challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson. He then retreated to Dallas, where he continued to seize headlines throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

A special Army review board quietly restored his pension in 1982 after nearly a decade of appeals from Walker, though it denied him back pay. In its approval decision, the board refurbished his image as “a truly dedicated American soldier who firmly believed that insufficient action was being taken within the military establishment to combat the threat of Communism.”

Walker’s trajectory reminds us how White backlash and its reliance on collaboration between mob terror and state power are fundamental to the perpetuation of racism in the United States. Segregationist lawmakers mobilized in lockstep after Brown v. Board of Education. They passed hundreds of state laws and policies designed to defy the Supreme Court’s desegregation order. They galvanized grass-roots White revolts and dismissed subsequent attacks on civil rights activists and Black communities. Their efforts precipitated more sophisticated campaigns to erode movements for racial and education justice nationwide, including White opposition to court-ordered busing throughout the 1970s and 1980s, history curriculum wars past and present and assaults on public education outright.

Centering Walker’s experience in the story of Little Rock emphasizes the degree of political will and federal force necessary to curb white supremacist revolt. Understanding Walker’s broader career also reinforces the fortitude of the Little Rock Nine and the organizers who helped to land this decisive blow against Jim Crow in the South. Walker was ordered to protect them and to uphold the law. His rage over those orders casts light on the fuller extent of what they struggled against.

Protection before the law was not enough when law enforcement resented protecting the basic rights of Black children. The idea that the law is enough remains a fallacy when its enforcers resist deploying their enormous resources to mitigate and discipline White violence. Instead, civil rights activists were organizing to dismantle the vast system that made and lionized a figure like Walker.

The Oath Keepers membership leak is the latest reminder that Walker was not merely overzealous. Nor is his kind a dying breed. The ongoing struggle for real and living democracy in the United States necessitates clear-eyed acceptance of that fact.