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Journeys in the Deep South V:  Money & Glendora, off the Blues Highway

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics IX

“Till’s death received international attention and is widely credited with sparking the American Civil Rights Movement.”

  • Plaque installed at “Bryant’s Grocery” store, on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides

 

Did the murder of a 14-year old boy launch the Civil Rights Movement?  It sounds absurd, but perhaps no more or less absurd than the view that was conventionally held about, say, the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58 [formerly known as the “Sepoy Mutiny”], which was said to be have been triggered by the effrontery that Muslim and Hindu soldiers in the Bengal army of the East India Company experienced when they had to chew on pork and beef fat, respectively, in order to be able to load the cartridges in the rifles that had been issued to them.  Historians and scholars are likely to be wary of a question such as this one, but it continues to excite the popular imagination.  And even the officially-sanctioned narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, for instance in the state of Mississippi, has sometimes come close to adopting this view.

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The plaque outside Bryant’s Grocery Store.  Photograph:  Vinay Lal, Sept. 2017.

Some months ago, on this blog, I wrote on Emmett Till without taking up this query.  That was before my journey to the Deep South.  A number of books and scores of articles have been written on Emmett Till, who left Chicago to visit his relatives in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955 and never returned home.  His horribly mangled body was found in the Tallahatchie River; the face was mutilated beyond recognition. His mother, consumed by grief at her loss and equally daring his murderers to reveal themselves, insisted that young Emmett’s body should be on open display at his funeral.  Her emotional strength was at first not equal to her mental resolve; at his funeral, she fainted before finally coming back to her feet.  Mourners went by Emmett’s body, almost in a daze, their silence a mark both of their rage and respect; elsewhere in America, some must have asked what had provoked the unbridled fury and hatred of white men.

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Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, at his funeral in 1955.  Photographs of her son can be seen on the casket cover.  Source:  Chicago Sun-Times/Getty Images.

My daughter and I veered off the Blues Highway in quest of Money.  On August 21st, 1955, Emmett and his cousin, Wheeler Parker, reached this tiny and non-descript town on a visit to relatives.  Three days later, sometime in the earlier part of the day, the 14-year old Emmett and his cousins arrived at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market to buy some candy.  The story was being manned by Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year old white woman who lived above the store with her husband, Roy, and their two children.  Apparently, Emmett, who had spent little or no time in the South, had been told that he was in no way to infringe the codes of etiquette and honor that had characterized white plantation society and still dominated relations between blacks and whites.  These codes didn’t merely demand that, nearly a century after the abolition of slavery, black people were always to address white men as “Sir” and white women, when at all they were addressed, as “Ma’am”, no doubt with an explicit show of deference.  (That the entire South, black and white, is down to the present day infused with a touch of such politeness came as a surprise to me: a not inconsiderable difference between the South and the rest of the country.)  The codes were altogether stringent on one point:  white women were untouchable.  Emmett wouldn’t have known about the Cult of Confederate Women and the aura of the sacred: white slave-owners’ version, shall we say for the present, of the Goddess traditions that have informed religiosity in some parts of the world.

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Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, Money, Mississippi, c. 1955.  The date of this photograph has, however, not been identified.  Source:  http://usslave.blogspot.com/2011/07/preserving-historic-emmett-till.html

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The plaque outside this store & gas station identifies it as the site of Bryant’s Grocery store, which, notwithstanding efforts to save it as a crucial site in the history of the civil rights movement, was torn down a few years ago.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Carolyn Bryant alleged, at any rate, that the young Emmett flirted with her; and in court she stated, implausibly, that he grabbed her around the waist.  She was something of a beauty—even a “beauty queen”, according to newspaper reports, though what kind in miserable Mississippi we cannot say. Her good looks aggravated the offense, whatever it may have been:  perhaps he had made a lewd suggestion; on some accounts—rumors were thick in the air—Emmett let loose a “wolf whistle”.  Emmett’s cousins were terrified; the boys scrambled and drove off in a jiffy.  The hours passed; sunset would have been around 8:00 PM at that time of the year. They must have tossed and turned in bed, sweating profusely, the terror amplified by the stillness of a hot and humid night:  the slightest sound—the creak of a door, the gentle rustling of leaves, the faint screech of a distant owl—probably sent the boys, and especially Emmett, diving under the covers.

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Money, Mississippi, was never much of a town; it has a dilapidated look about it even today. Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Whatever one’s fears, the sun rises: tomorrow, Emerson said, is the dawn of a new day. That has been described by his detractors as the sunny optimism of a New England man of letters. Nothing had happened.  Another night passed.  And yet another night.  Perhaps the old South, where the lynchings of black males was common sport and entertainment for Sunday picnics, had changed.  Emmett was most likely sleeping better.  And so yet another night passed—almost.  And then, in the wee morning hours of August 28th, they came.  Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett at gun-point and brought him to Milam’s home.  They set about torturing the boy: he was pistol-whipped, stripped naked, bludgeoned, and then shot through the head with a .45-caliber Colt automatic.  Milam’s home no longer stands, but the site is recalled by—what else—a plaque, placed in the midst of a flowery shrub that stands in an expanse of not quite verdant green.

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Here stood Milam’s House, where Milam and Roy Bryant admitted to the journalist William Bradford Huie that they had murdered Emmett Till.  Glendora, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The devil’s work is never done.  Slavery may have been a thing of the past, but why should the implements associated with the slave not be put to use? Another chapter in the iconography of the cotton gin fan had yet to be written. From nearby Glendora, Messrs Bryant and Milam lifted an old metal fan that had been used for ginning cotton. They barb-wired Emmett’s body to the seventy-four-pound gin.

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The fan cotton gin which was barb-wired to the dead body of Emmett Till was taken from this site in Glendora, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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The fan cotton gin that was introduced as evidence in the trial of Emmett’s murderers subsequently disappeared and has never been found.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, Sept. 2017.

Emmett’s body was then dumped into the Tallahatchie River. It would be some days before it was recovered.

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The Tallahatchie River, where Emmett Till’s barb-wired body was dumped before being found three days later.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The story takes on different hues of the gruesome as it proceeds down to our day.  Early this year, Carolyn Bryant, in a rare interview, confessed that she had made up the part of her testimony where she had claimed that he had grabbed her and made sexual advances.  But let us return to the story, bare bones only:  just days after Emmett was murdered, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were apprehended on charges of murder. They would be brought to trial. An all-white male jury took little time to acquit them of the charges; photographs from their acquittal show friends milling around them in the courtroom after the verdict was pronounced, the whole lot of them grinning from one ear to another.

The story could not be complete, not in America where money is the bitch-goddess, and certainly not in the town of Money without a transaction to sanctify the holy deed.  Bryant and Milam sold their story to Look magazine for the tidy sum of $3,150, perhaps a bit more: safeguarded by the Constitutional protection against double jeopardy, they openly and unashamedly confessed to the crime that everyone knew that they had committed.  This part of the story, too, is now part of the record; what is less recognized is the aftermath which fueled more deaths.  Less than 200 meters from where stood the house of Milam, on the night of December 3, a white cotton gin operator by the name of Elmer Otis Kimball drew up in a car at a gas station.  He was driving the automobile owned by J. W. Milam; the gas station attendant was a black man, Clinton Melton.  They got into something of a heated argument; Kimball drove off in a rush, returned to the gas station with a shotgun, and blew Melton away in the presence of the gas station owner and several other witnesses.

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Here in Glendora stood the gas station where Clinton Menton was killed by Elmer Otis Kimball.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Another all-white jury of respectable townsmen deliberated for four hours and found Kimball not guilty. Beulah Melton, Clinton’s wife, did not live to see this outcome: as she was driving her car the day before the trial, she was forced off the road. Her car fell into the bayou; her death was deemed “an accident”.

My daughter and I were headed for Money when we stumbled upon Emmett’s trail.  Emmett’s story is now the stuff of history books; the young boy was pronounced a martyr years ago. The road that brings one close to Money is called the Emmett Till Memorial Highway. But I suspect that many elements of this epic tale have not yet been fathomed by those who are operating only within the vortex of ‘history’.  Emmett had to be sacrificed: in this Biblical land, certainly as the slave-owners and their descendants understood it, perpetrators of crimes and their victims both partake of this language and mythos.  Emmett never returned home; neither did slaves.  The exile continues—the exile not from Africa, but the exile from the very notion of the human. Slavery’s afterlives make sacrificial victims of black people. The ocean gobbled up so many lives during the Middle Passage; bodies were thrown overboard.  No slave died a ‘natural death’, or else the insurance companies would not pay up: here, too, the bitch-goddess. Emmett’s body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River; Beulah drowned in the bayou.

The water, the water, bottomless, fathomless, cruel.  But it is not without its trail . . .

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Review of Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830. By Jonathan Eacott. (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2016. xiii, 455 pp. Cloth, ISBN 978-1-4696-2230-9.)

Most narratives of the place of India in the making of America have revolved around a few well-worn themes, commencing with Columbus’ landing in America and his egregious error in supposing that he had arrived in India.  The first truly great milestone in the received narrative touches upon the deep-seated interest in Indian philosophy shared by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson:  there is now a substantial interest in how India seeped into the thought and writings of the American Transcendentalists, and I myself wrote a Master’s thesis, which remains unpublished, on Emerson and Indian philosophy (Johns Hopkins University, 1982).  Those who are familiar with Thoreau, for instance, may recall the famous indeed inimitable lines in Walden about how the waters of Walden Pond seemed to merge with the waters of the Ganga:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. 

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Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, 1 January 1908; photographer:  unknown.  Source:  Wikipedia, in the public domain.

Thoreau would also dedicate the Tuesday chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers largely to a discussion of a few Indian texts from he quoted copiously.  But in all this, he had been, in some respects, anticipated by his mentor (of sorts), Ralph Waldo Emerson—whose first engagement with the ‘idea of India’ may be seen in a long poem called Indian Superstition (1821), which the young student wrote when he was but seventeen years old, and who in his poem Brahma (1856, published in 1857) showed just how far Emerson had traveled in his understanding of Indian philosophy in the intervening 35 years.  But, to return to the main subject, after some tidbits here and there, whereby Hindu mysticism, yoga, and the interest in Sanskrit among some scholars are brought into the picture, and the origins of Indian immigration into the US around 1890 are identified, the narrative of India’s place in the making of the United States generally moves to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Gandhi nearly became a household word in the United States after the embrace of his ideas of nonviolent resistance by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement.

The terrain covered by Jonathan Eacott in his meticulously detailed study, Selling Empire, enhances enormously our understanding of how India was configured in the American imagination and economy alike, though his ambition is yet greater as he seeks to place Indian within the global British imperial system.  The backdrop to his book is furnished by a more enhanced conception of the Atlantic world and a newfound interest in Indian Ocean studies; but there is also the stimulus of what these days are called “interconnected histories”.  Scholars of Britain’s possessions in America have seldom been concerned with the second British empire of which India, in the clichéd phrase, was the crown jewel; and, likewise, studies of British India have generally been written with indifference to what was transpiring in Britain’s empire in North America.  Curiously, the two figures who have on occasion surfaced in attempts to write an integrated narrative are altogether missing from Eacott’s study:  Elihu Yale, who amassed a fortune as the Governor of Madras (1684-92) before he was dismissed on charges of venality and went on to become the benefactor of a college that would eventually take his name, and Lord Cornwallis, who, if one had to put it cynically, seems to have been rewarded for his surrender to George Washington at Yorktown (1781) with the Governor-Generalship of India (1786-93).

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Painted and dyed cotton from India, 1625-1685, not for the European market.  Collection:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  Source:  http://demodecouture.com/cotton/

Eacott shifts the focus to the 17th and 18th centuries and his history might be described as revolving around two axes.  The question at the outset for traders, mercantilists, and financiers in Britain was:  Could America be a new India?  In what manner could one conceive of a triangular trade between India, Britain, and the American colonies in North America?  Eacott lavishes much attention on the trade in calicoes, and not only because of their immense popularity.  1750-75 banyan, painted & dyed, India (fabric). Designed for European market.

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Indian cotton fabric (banyan), painted & dyed, designed for European market, 1750-1775.  Collection:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  Source:  http://demodecouture.com/cotton/

There was much expectation in Britain that eventually consumers in the Americas would support the East India Company and thus support the British empire and the metropole (London) through which everything was funneled.  However, Eacott by no means confines himself to this terrain of cotton, chintzes, calicoes, silk, and woolens:  tea and spices were much in demand both in Britain and North America, but, quite unexpectedly, so were umbrellas and the Indian hookah.  Perhaps a scholar with a greater sense of play, and not so rigidly bound to the idea of what constitutes scholarly work, a scholarly ‘monograph’, and the notion of ‘historical rigor’, may have done wonders with tea and the hookah.  There are precedents, if I may put it this way, both to Starbuck’s marketing of “chai” and the proliferation of hookah bars and restaurants in recent years in American cities.

SamuelJohnsonAtTea

The English writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), at tea:  a print by by R. Redgrave and H. L. Shenton. Source:  http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/14/398833059/tea-tuesdays-the-evolution-of-tea-sets-from-ancient-legend-to-modern-biometrics

It is, however, Eacott’s discussion of the anxieties generated by ideas of the despotic and effeminate Orient that forms the most arresting part of his book.  Montesquieu is commonly seen as the originary point of European notions of ‘Oriental Despotism’, but the satirical play, Eastward Ho (1605), gave considerable expression to the idea of Asia, “with its great wealth,” as a “place of emasculating luxury” (p. 23).  India’s manufactures, an essay in the American Magazine and Historical Chronicle in 1744 proclaimed, displayed a “gaudy pride” and needed the sobering restraint of Protestant Britain (p. 165). The sensuous, profligate, and colorful Orient is never too far away from the idea of excess.  On both sides of the Atlantic, Eacott notes, reports of Company servants strutting around on horseback and accumulating fortunes “by every method of rapacity” circulated widely (p. 305).

In his unusual attentiveness, thus, to questions both of political economy and of the politics of representation, Eacott opens for historians new possibilities of linking Britain’s first empire to the British Raj.

 

[A shorter version of this review was first published in the Journal of American History (June 2017), 173-74; doi: 10.1093/jahist/jax024]

 

 

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Los Angeles:  October 2nd, 2017

Today, October 2nd, is designated by the United Nations as the “International Day of Non-Violence.” A General Assembly resolution to this effect was passed in 2007, with the hope that a day so designated would be an occasion to “disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness” throughout the world.  The choice of October 2nd was, of course, no accident:  the day marks the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the principal architect of the idea of mass nonviolent resistance.

Today, October 2nd, I woke up like millions of others to the news that a gunman, identified as Stephen Paddock, 64 years of age, had positioned himself in a room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel from where, on the night of October 1st, he fired dozens of rounds of bullets from an automatic rifle on thousands of people attending a country music concert before turning the gun on himself and preventing his capture by the police outside his door.  When the firing ceased, at least 50 people had been killed; another 500 had been wounded.  The death toll, some 20 hours later, now stands at 59.

This is how America celebrates the international day of non-violence.  Oh, yes, it does—loud and unmistakably clear.  I can already hear the din of noises disturbed by what they will characterize as a caricature of this nation.  I can hear them saying that what Paddock did is not what the United States is about.  There will be the furious hashtag messaging — #thisisnotus – and thousands of others will point to the first responders, to those who have graciously given blood to the hundreds now lying on surgery tables, and even more so to those who gallantly even chivalrously laid down their lives—such as the young 29-year old man who had been married for just a year, shielded his wife’s body with his own, and so took the bullets that spent his life—as representing the real story of America.  They are right:  that is the story of America, but not uniquely so:  there are such decent and good people everywhere.

The story of America is, however, uniquely a story of violence in a certain idiom.  There is no other country in the world which has such a troubled relationship with violence, beginning with the genocidal impulse that swallowed up a continent and its indigenous peoples.  From thence we move on to slavery and to wars of extermination, to the saturation bombing of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and of course to the regime of guns.  Some others have enumerated in detail the many catastrophes that I have omitted which ensued worldwide in the wake of American foreign policy; yet others have hinted at the metaphysical foundations of American violence.  The indubitable fact remains that the United States is, in this respect as in so many others, an anomaly on the world stage—even as it, of course, claims leadership of that mystical entity which has become a license to police the world, that thing called “the international community”.  India was long under British rule; the United States is under the rule of guns.

The wounded are still being attended to but the so-called “debate” over gun control laws has already led to the firing of missives from various parties.  We will doubtless hear an argument fit only for imbeciles, namely that guns do not kill, people do:  by this logic, those who can afford to keep tanks to protect themselves from drones or large mobs of people should be allowed to do so, since tanks do not kill people and only gunners do.  A veritable arsenal was found in Paddock’s hotel room:  15-20 firearms have been mentioned in media reports, and around the same number of firearms have been recovered from his residence.  I doubt if in the entire city of Osaka, to take one illustration, there are as many firearms as Paddock had stuffed in suitcases that he brought to his hotel room.  (Osaka city has a population of around 2.7 million; the greater metro area is home to about 20 million people.)

The precise nature of his firearms is now being discussed:  should they be characterized as machine guns, assault rifles, automatic or semi-automatic rifles?  Most if not all of the assault weapons in Paddock’s room had a telescope.  It appears that only a few days ago he purchased three rifles, and passed a background check.  But of course: should one have expected otherwise?  How many rifles should a man be allowed to purchase?  Should background checks be more rigorous?  What if a killer moves from a state where firearms are regulated “tightly” to one where open carry policies are followed?  What does one do when the assassin is a “lone wolf”?  What if, like many a Nazi, he goes about the business of killing during the day, gassing a few people here and there, machine-gunning others for practice, before returning home in the evening to his wife and children and reading the Bible to his children before putting them to bed?  These “debates”, as they are called, will go on—assuredly, as  night follows day.  Meanwhile, Congress is preparing to vote on a bill which would remove a tax on gun silencers.  Perhaps, perhaps, passage of the bill will be derailed for a few days, or weeks, out of “respect” for the victims of the shooting:  par for the course.  And then of course it will pass:  more par for the course.

In a previous blog, then occasioned by a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, I called for having a law passed that would lead to the abolishment of the NRA and having it declared a criminal organization.  It is necessary only to gesture at the arguments that I then advanced at some length.  There are countries such as Australia, which historically has shared a culture of addiction to guns and violence with the US, where gun buy back provisions have fundamentally removed firearms from the public domain.  Of course, the scale of any such measure in the US would be immensely different, considering that 300 million firearms are in private hands:  but if gun violence were viewed as a public health hazard, akin let’s say to the poisoning of the water supply of all major cities in the country, it would receive the attention it requires. It matters not a jot whether there are “genuine hunters”, which is another anomaly, and even less whether fidelity to an arcane provision of the United States Constitution should hold millions of people hostage to a wretched conception of ‘American freedoms’.  Adherents of the 2nd Amendment might suitably be given an extended course on “how to read a text”.

Paddock took at least fifty-nine lives.  But what he has done on the day of nonviolence is to eviscerate the voices of those who have resolutely stood for nonviolence, in word, deed, or thought.  He ensured that October 2nd would not be remembered as a day dedicated to nonviolence, and that the voice of Gandhi would be drowned out by a cascade of bullets and the cacophony of a mindless debate over something that Americans call “gun control”.  So, in that respect, the crime of Paddock is much greater—but the crime is not solely his.  He only pulled the trigger; he is only an assassin of ideas and ideals acting at the behest of others, whether those be members of the NRA, the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of guns and firearms, the politicians who extend their patronage to the gun lobby, and the myriad others who have turned America into a spectacle of murderous idiocy for the world to behold.

At the end of the day, then, we should let Gandhi speak. His most famous expressions have now been mass marketed, blanketed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, car stickers, billboards, and much of the rest of the paraphernalia of modern life.  But, at this juncture, even a clichéd aphorism from Gandhi stands forth as a salutary aphorism on how nonviolence alone can call us to the ethical life:

An eye for an eye only ends up

making the whole world blind.

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The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics IX

 It is not surprising that a good portion of even mainstream America should have unequivocally condemned the display in Charlottesville of right-wing terrorism.  President Trump cannot be counted among those who came down swiftly on the neo-Nazis and their kinsmen.  He did not merely prevaricate but, in a scarcely veiled attempt to exonerate “white supremacists”, took it upon himself to condemn “all extremist groups”—though even this disapprobation was late in coming—before, on August 15th, stating with greater conviction in his pathetically juvenile English that “there is blame on both sides”: “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.”  To take only the examples of prominent public figures who cannot remotely be accused of having a liberal disposition, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan described the white supremacists as “repugnant”, while Senator John McCain called them “traitors” on his Twitter account.  Even Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, whose own commitment to civil rights is, to put it mildly, exceedingly questionable, but who as the country’s chief law-enforcement officer must at least put forward the semblance of some respect for the rule of law, was moved to admit that “the violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice.”

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Street clashes in Charlottesville, 12 August 2017. Source:  Los Angeles Times.  Photograph:  Michael Nigro / Pacific Press.

The widespread outrage over white extremist violence that followed has doubtless been genuine.  The liberal constituency in the US is considerable, and most people in that community do not condone violence, at least not right-wing violence directed against other Americans.  Moreover, one can even subscribe to racist sentiments and yet forswear violence.  In the frenetic world of social media, the hashtag #thisisnotus was at once embraced by thousands.  They may have done so to bring to mind the better possibilities that reside in the American self and to invoke a necessary political solidarity for the present.  And yet I have the inescapable feeling that the crass affirmation, “this is not us”, creates a much smaller place for reflection and dialog than the unthinkable:  #thisisallofus.  One could invoke, of course, “the hooded Americanism” that historians of the KKK have documented in such meticulous detail, or the lynchings that were invitations to Sunday picnics in Jim Crow South[i]; one could also point, if one stretched one’s canvas beyond the cruel deprivations to which black America has been subjected, to the genocidal tendencies that have conspicuously been part of the grand design of making and keeping America “great”.  Just how do these disingenuous expressions of outrage permit whiteness to remain unscathed even as white supremacists are banished, as they should be, to the realm of the barbaric and the unforgiveable?

LynchingAJollyGoodShow

Lynching:  What a Jolly Good Show!  This lynching took place in Duluth, Minnesota, not in the Deep South.  Source:  https://sherielabedis.com/2015/03/29/new-report-on-lynchings-in-jim-crow-south/

White supremacism necessarily entails a profound adherence to whiteness, but (to borrow a phrase from the scholar George Lipsitz) “the possessive investment in whiteness” runs deep through American culture and only manifests itself as white nationalist ideology or outright fascist-style violence occasionally.  A large and increasingly growing body of commentary by liberals and left-leaning scholars has now made the idea of ‘white privilege’ a familiar part of American political discourse.  Such white privilege takes many forms, some obvious and others scarcely so, commencing with the assumption that is tantamount to the original sin, namely that America belongs to white people just as white people can rightfully, naturally, and preemptively call America their own.  The white American, unlike the African-American, Japanese-American, or Chinese-American, has never had to be hyphenated:  as Roland Barthes would have it, he belongs to the realm of the exnominated, those who never have to be named, those who can be universalized and whose rules become everyone else’s rules (Mythologies, 1972, trans. Annette Lavers [New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux]).  There are other less transparent forms of whiteness, though with even a little prodding they can be easily excavated.  Such, to take one example from studies of environmental racism, is the notion that non-white communities should have to bear the burden of toxic and nuclear wastes, pollutants, and the garbage produced in everyday life.

White privilege is perhaps best witnessed in the mounting critiques over US immigration policy and affirmative action in higher education.  The Trump regime has, contrary to common opinion, little interest in stemming illegal immigration; by law, those who are in the US “illegally” can be summarily deported.  This is apart from the consideration that illegal immigrants are an invaluable asset to the American economy.  To understand the true import of pervasive anti-immigrant sentiments, it is sufficient to understand that the slogan, ‘Take America Back’, means nothing but taking America back to the period before the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which made possible Asian and African migration into the US and thereby slowly but surely altered the social fabric of American life. “Make America Great Again” is not only a slogan calling for the revival of manufacturing in the United States and once again turning the country into the predominant industrial power in the world:  it is also a call to make American white again.  It is thus legal, rather than illegal, immigrants who pose by the greater problem for those who would like to see the US restored as a principally white dominion.

Similarly, the massive white unrest over affirmative action occludes two facts.  First, as every study has shown, and as is confirmed by a recent New York Times analysis extending to 100 universities, including Ivy League institutions and the flagship public universities, black and Hispanic students are today more rather than less underrepresented at such institutions than they were 35 years ago.  More significantly, it is almost never conceded that the entire system of higher education is effectively the consequence of an unwritten code of affirmative action over decades on behalf of white students. It is white entitlement, not supposedly the lower bar for admission for blacks and Hispanics, that has kept Asian Americans from predominating in elite American institutions.

In speaking of “the possessive investment in whiteness”, George Lipsitz was adverting to something more than white privilege; indeed, the more compelling part of his argument resides in the claim that “all communities of color suffer from the possessive investment in whiteness, but not in the same way.”[ii] Immigrant communities have, in their own fashion, sought to claim whiteness, or at least an approximation to it; whiteness has entered into the sinews, pores, arteries of American society.  Ironically, much of white America hasn’t quite fathomed its own overwhelming success; if it had, white Americans would not be staging, as they are today, a new secessionist movement.  Robert E. Lee, at least, would have understood the animated and largely cliché-ridden dispute over Confederate statues as fundamentally a proxy war over whiteness.  Even as he might have looked askance at having his own statues knocked down, he would likely have been pleased that the idea of secessionism continues to thrive.

 

[i] On the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings in the US, I would point readers to a few works, among them:  Leonard J. Moore, Citizen KlansmenThe Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1971, reprint ed., 1995); David M. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism:  The History of the Ku Klux Klan, 3rd ed. (Durham, North Carolina:  Duke University Press, 1987); and Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond, ed. Anne P. Rice (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003).

[ii] See George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in WhitenessHow White People Profit from Identity Politics Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1998), 184.

 

(Concluded)

The two pars of this article were first published as a single piece in somewhat shorter form as “Whiteness and Its Dominion:  Letter from America”, in the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai) 52, no. 35 (2 September 2017).

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The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics VIII

“The problem of the twentieth century, wrote the African American intellectual W. E. B. DuBois in 1903, “is the problem of the color-line.” Nearly every book on race relations in the United States that has been published since, especially over the last several decades, has dwelled, if implicitly, on the prescience of DuBois’s observation.  Writing on the 40th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which pronounced the slaves as henceforth free and thus entitled to lay claim to the Jeffersonian formula of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, DuBois saw instead that the “very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.”  That shadow, which the white man called “prejudice” and no more—something that could be undone, presumably, with education, cultivation of the virtues, goodwill, informed legislation, and social engineering—condemned the black person to “personal disrespect and mockery”, “ridicule and systematic humiliation”, indeed “the disdain for everything black.” (See W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk [1903], Mineola, New York:  Dover Publications. 1994), v, 6, 9, 111).

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W. E. B. DuBois, 1868-1963.  Source:  The Poetry Foundation.

However emboldened black people in the slave-owning slaves may have felt at the end of the Civil War and through Reconstruction, a period that some unrepentant whites characterized as one marked by ‘Negro swagger’, their liberty, such as it was, did not last very long.  Black America had to be brought to its knees, a project that still continues however disguised the forms in which such oppression takes place, however loud the voices clamoring for diversity, multiculturalism, respect, and tolerance.  Though DuBois would have been scarcely alone in his assessment of how the black person had become disenfranchised and consigned to what he unequivocally termed “a second slavery”, he deployed a striking metaphor to characterize what had befallen America and “the souls of black folk” (p. 7).  Early in life, he says, it dawned on him that he was shut out of the white world “by a vast veil”. This “veil” is something like Churchill’s “iron curtain”, but DuBois pushes the metaphor much further.  The numerous 18th century slave revolts, which suggest that “the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves,” had the effect of “veiling all the Americas in fear of insurrection.”  And yet more, since “the Negro” is himself born “with a veil”:  in what is the book’s most arresting insight, albeit one where the language is anticipated by Hegel in his discussion of the master-slave dialectic in Phenomenology of the Spirit, DuBois describes the veil as one which “yields him no true self-consciousness”; the Negro can only see “himself through the revelation of the other world”, through the eyes of the other.  DuBois termed this phenomenon “double consciousness” (pp. 3, 28, 7).  Malcolm X was among those who drew on this idea in drawing a distinction between the “Field Negro” and the “House Negro”:  though the former was able to maintain some, howsoever indistinct, form of autonomy, the latter was profoundly colonized, unable to see the world except through the eyes of the master.

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Kenza Drider, wearing a niqab, was detained Monday by undercover police officers at a demonstration in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, 11 April 2011.  Source:  New York Times; see: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/12/world/europe/12france.html

DuBois’s metaphor of veiling remains apposite for our times, and may have yet ever greater salience, and not only because much of contemporary political discussion, and white anger, in the United States and Europe has swiveled around the figure of the veiled Muslim woman.  The ban on veiling, or more precisely on covering one’s face, in public has been in effect in France since April 2011.  Muslim women are not necessarily the only ones who are affected by this ban, nor are Muslim women mentioned explicitly; indeed, besides the burqa and niqab, the ban also covers masks, scarves, and helmets.  But, of course, the ban is targeted mainly at the practice of “Islamic veiling”.  Offenders are fined 150 Euros, or about US $165-180 depending on the rate of exchange.  Remarkably, one man, Rachid Nekkaz, had by April 2016 paid the fine on behalf of 1300 women charged with illegally veiling themselves in public, thus incurring a personal expense of 235,000 Euros.  This is in itself an extraordinary story, one that compels us to think anew about notions of tolerance and charity, and the ethos of hospitality:  but a story for another occasion.

The United States has no such ban on “Islamic veiling” or, more broadly, on covering one’s face in public.  Yet, it is white America that shrouds itself in a veil, unable to look upon itself, incapable of the self-reflexivity which would suggest both maturity and a capacity to confront the naked truth.  To unveil America’s unshakable grounding in a virulent and diseased whiteness, we can do little better than turn to the events that transpired not too long ago in a picture-postcard town in the state of Virginia, which housed the principal capital of the Confederacy.

 

What Happened at Charlottesville

Charlottesville, Virginia, a two-hour drive from the nation’s capital, was home to two of the country’s “founding fathers”, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.  Each served as the Governor of Virginia and as President of the United States, but Jefferson also has the distinction of being the founder of the University of Virginia and the architect of the university’s signature building, the Rotunda.  In recent years, Charlottesville, perhaps in keeping with the notion of a ‘university town’, acquired something of a reputation as an outpost of liberal thought in a state that has long been a bastion of conservatism.

In July 2014, the US National Bureau of Economic Research pronounced Charlottesville the “happiest” place in America.  In the received view, it is a small town with most of the assets and none of the liabilities—traffic gridlock, pollution, social anomie—of a big city.  The scenic Blue Ridge mountains are nearby, the climate is temperate, and paeans there are many to the town’s supposed gastronomic refinements.  (This is surely one of the many ways in which the US has changed over the last few decades:  not only are tofu and yogurt widely available, and these were virtually ‘foreign’ foods in late 1976 when I first arrived in the US, but there is the cult of the chef and much hullabaloo over ingenuous culinary creations.  Universities lure students and faculty with the promise of gastronomic delights—one of many recruitment tools.)

Happy are those who know little of the past, one might say: Charlottesville, not unlike the state of Virginia, has ugly racial antecedents.  Its black population was not permitted to build their own church until 1864, not coincidentally in the thick of the civil war; even more ominously, considering that the US had partaken of two global conflicts to save the world from fascist tyranny and enshrine democracy as the supreme value, in 1958 the city responded to federal court orders to integrate white schools, issued in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) that declared segregation unconstitutional, by closing all its white schools as part of a concerted strategy of resistance.  A similar strategy was pursued by other cities and school districts in many of the southern states.

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Downtown Charlottesville, VA. (Photo: Payton Chung/Flickr)

If the town has indeed become more liberal, or more receptive to diversity, Charlottesville’s black people appear to be thinking otherwise.  The black share of the population has fallen from 22 percent in 2000 to 19 percent at present [Eligon 2017]. Many will put this down to gentrification and rising rents, but of course those have precisely been some of the ways in which black people have been run out of town and excised from the white world.

It is in this pleasure dome of happiness, then, that white America erupted recently as it does every now and then.  The ancient Greeks and Indians were among two people who understood that happiness is ephemeral; as the lawgiver Solon informs the vain king Croesus, “But in every matter it behooves us to mark well the end:  for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.”  On the night of August 11th, as a prelude to the call by the white supremacist Richard Spencer to “Unite the Right”, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan marched through the campus of the University of Virginia bearing torches and swastikas, all to the accompaniment of slogans such as “blood and soil”, “White Lives Matter”, and “You will not replace us”.

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White supremacist and Neo-Nazi rally at the University of Virginia, 11 August 2017.  Photograph by Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty

The following day, they gathered in force at a public park in Charlottesville.  The ostensible reason for this gathering was a decision by the town council to remove an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who unsuccessfully attempted to lead the slave-holding states in secession from the Union.  These exponents of white terror found themselves facing a vigorous and much larger opposition comprised of liberals, left activists, ordinary citizens—a motley crowd of decent people.  Clashes ensued; the police stood by:  much of the world, but not most of gun-loving America, would have watched in astonishment at the sight of people openly flaunting assault weapons, automatic rifles, and handguns. Before the day was over, a young neo-Nazi sympathizer had, with intense deliberation, plowed his car into the crowd of protestors, thereby killing 32-year old Heather Heyer.

 

(To be continued)

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Journeys in the Deep South IV:  The Murder of M L King, Jr. and Medgar Evers

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics VII

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is indisputably a world-historical figure.  One cannot say what would have become of him had he not been assassinated in Memphis on the evening of April 4, 1968.  His peer, the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is far from being a household name in the United States.  The airport in Jackson, Mississippi, is now named after Medgar Evers, but even in his native Mississippi I found that many did not recognize his name; to the rest of the world, he is all but an unknown entity.  Yet one might still reasonably call Evers an “icon”, since in the histories of the civil rights movement he is justly a celebrated figure.

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Statue of Medgar Wiley Evers, outside the Medgar Evars Public Library at 4215 Medgar Evers Boulevard, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Martin Luther King was 39 years old when he was silenced: I would not say ‘forever silenced’, because he speaks to us still; or, as a cartoonist from the Chicago Sun-Times put it more arrestingly, men such as him have to be assassinated repeatedly. This is something of which assassins are profoundly unaware.  Medgar Evers was not quite 38, yet almost there, when a sniper took his life outside his own home as he returned home around midnight after another day of work organizing his people to equip them to resist racism and oppression.  Evers, born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, had a stint in the US army before he earned a degree in business administration from Alcorn A&M College.  As an insurance salesman working for Magnolia Mutual Life, moving from one house to another, he came to see first-hand what he already knew by virtue of being a black in Mississippi, namely the deep poverty that afflicted most black homes in his native state.  In 1954, he applied, without success, to Mississippi Law School and at once moved to accept the position, which had been offered to him on the basis of ad hoc work that he had already been doing on behalf of the NAACP, of regional field secretary for the same organization.

The murder of Emmett Till the following year would draw Medgar Evers deeper into civil rights work.  His voice was loud and clear in insisting on a civil rights investigation into Till’s murder and Evers was relentless in seeking to bring the murderers to justice.  As Medgar’s wife, Myrlie, recalled decades after, “Looking back, I know that from that time on [that is, after he had resolved to track down Till’s killers,] I never lost the fear that Medgar himself would be killed.”[i] Only months later, Martin Luther King, then a young preacher of little renown, was cast into the limelight when he accepted the call of black leaders in Montgomery and agreed to take leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  King’s rapid rise to fame has been documented in hundreds of books:  he would go on to become a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and in the early 1960s a series of interventions and engagements —the Albany Campaign, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington—made him indisputably into the public face of the Civil Rights movement.  The conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize was, some reckoned, the crowning glory.

Meanwhile, Medgar Evers, perhaps the epitome of a grass-roots organizer, worked incessantly to bring black voter registration to every hamlet and town in Mississippi.  Such work, in much of the Deep South, was an invitation to an assassination.  In June 1963, shortly after SCLC had commenced a campaign against economic injustice and racial segregation in Birmingham, the situation in neighboring Mississippi had become tense.  White-owned businesses had been targeted for boycott by black leaders; and students from Tougaloo College had initiated sit-ins at Woolworth’s.  On the evening of June 11, President Kennedy gave a televised address to the nation billed as a “Report to the American People on Civil Rights.”  The President affirmed that the “nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”  Several hours after President Kennedy delivered his address, Medgar Evers pulled up in the driveway to his home and slid the car under the car port.  He opened the trunk to his car to take out a stack of t-shirts bearing the logo, “JIM CROW MUST GO”—t-shirts that were to be used in a demonstration in the morning in downtown Jackson. Just then, he was felled by a bullet in his back which tore through his chest, shattering the living room window and passing through the kitchen wall before ricocheting off the refrigerator.

 

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The driveway of the Medgar Evers home where Evers was killed in the very early hours of 12 June 1963.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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Medgar Evers had pulled up in his car and parked behind the family station wagon. Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The bullet hole in the kitchen wall can still be seen in what was then the family home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers and their children.

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The hole in the kitchen wall created by the trajectory of the bullet after it had ripped apart Medgar Evers.  Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The white t-shirts were stained with Medgar Evers’ blood.

The country, too, was indelibly stained—except that the country was never white, not white in fact, in color, in purity, or in nobleness of intent.

Medgar Evers’ killer was a sniper, a former army man by the name of Byron de la Beckwith who served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of the war. He responded to the Supreme Court decision that held segregation in schools unconstitutional by becoming a member of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist organization; he also attended Ku Klux Klan rallies.  Twice he was tried for Evers’ killing; on both occasions, an all-white male jury acquitted him.  In Mississippi then, though to what degree this is substantially different now is an open question, the possibility that a white man would be convicted for the death of a black man was impossibly remote.  Not until 1994 was Beckwith, who had over the years openly boasted of killing Evers at KKK rallies, finally convicted.  To the end of his days, Beckwith remained not merely unrepentant:  he described himself as disgusted and repulsed by the touch of a black person, and he tried to ensure that no black doctor or nurse would attend to him at the University of Mississippi Medical Center where he passed on, not a moment too soon, on 21 January 2001.

Beckwith had scouted the neighborhood where Evers lived for days before he finally took his life, shooting him from a home that was set further back diagonally across the street with an Enfield .30-06 caliber rifle equipped with a telescope.  I wonder whether he inspired James Earl Ray, the supposed assassin of Martin Luther King, who also shot the civil rights leader from a building across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, where King had been staying when he was called to Memphis by Reverend James M. Lawson to help with the sanitation workers’ strike.  Ray apparently used a Remington Model 760 rifle with a telescope, and positioned himself in a bathroom on the top floor of the rooming house diagonally across from the hotel:  when King stepped out onto the balcony outside Room 306, he was a sitting duck.  A .30-06 bullet entered his right cheek and ripped apart several vertebrae as it traveled down the spinal cord.

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The bullet that killed Medgar Evers was fired by Beckwith, who had positioned himself in the house, here in the background, diagonally across from the Evers family home.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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James Earl Ray, or whoever the assassin of King may have been, fired from a bathroom adjoining this window on the top floor of the rooming house across from the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis; the spot where King was standing when he was felled by a bullet is marked by the wreath.  The assassin had a clear view of his target.   Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

Both King and Evers were tireless workers for the cause:  they went into the trenches and soldiered on, whatever the setbacks, disappointments, obstacles, and threats.  Evers was almost 38 years old at the time of his murder, and King was just a little older than him when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet.  Neither reached the ripe old age of 40.  There is no controversy as such over Evers’ assassination; the facts of it are well-established.  The same cannot be said of the assassination of King, about which doubts linger on and will surely never be dispelled.  But the modus operandi of the assassinations seems to have been remarkably similar in many respects.  And yet, as I commenced this piece, Medgar Evers is now little known outside his native Mississippi, except to students of the Civil Rights movement, while Martin Luther King, Jr has taken his place among the immortals and has been adjudged alongside Gandhi as one of the supreme exponents of nonviolent resistance.

The contrasting trajectories of Evers and King in the aftermath of their assassination say something perhaps about the vicissitudes of fame. King wanted to be remembered only as a “drum major” for the cause; he didn’t know that he would be credited as the orchestrator, conductor, and drum major of a movement.  Is it King’s oratory that his endeared him to history, or are there accidents of history that pushed him to the fore?  Perhaps we would be better served spending less time trying to probe the conspiracy theories that swirl around King’s assassination and reflecting rather more on how some people enter into history and others in rather similar circumstances become relegated to footnotes. And yet a foonote, as Anthony Grafton reminds us in his marvelous book, The Footnote: A Curious History, is no small thing.  Sometimes it endures when the text it is meant to embellish, illuminate, or explicate has all but vanished.

 

[i] Myrlie Evers with William Peters, “Mississippi Murders”, Civil Rights since 1787, eds. Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor (New York:  New York University Press, 2000), 355-57.

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Journeys in the Deep South III:  The Longevity of Segregation

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Politics, Culture VI

This week marks the 60th anniversary of what became known as the most intense crisis over integration in the country’s history.  Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, looks unlike any other school in the United States.  Its website features the Principal welcoming visitors to “America’s Most Beautiful High School.”  Beautiful is not quite the word for this hulk of a fortress; ‘imposing’ is far more apt.

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Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The present structure dates to 1927, though in its first incarnation the school dates to 1869; many mergers later, it became the Little Rock Central High School.  It is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service as the site has been declared of national importance.  Earlier this month, when my daughter and I visited the school, which is fully functional with an enrollment of around 2500 students and therefore cannot be visited without an escort, the Park ranger who served as our guide mentioned that it was built at a cost of $1.5 million, then perhaps the most expensive public high school in the country. We were also told that the city and the NPS have made a bid for Central High to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation supposedly reserved for natural, architectural, cultural, or spiritual sites of incalculable richness.

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Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

In the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, which held the separation of public schooling for whites and blacks to be unconstitutional, effectively pronouncing the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ a guaranteed recipe for social inequality, Central High School in Little Rock would become the ground for testing the country’s resolve to move towards desegregation.  In Arkansas, the Little Rock School Board put forth a plan whereby the integration of schools would begin at the elementary level, and then incrementally proceed over the course of a few years to encompass middle and high schools.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit in 1956 on behalf of 33 black students who had sought admission in a number of white schools.  Not only was progress slow, even though court rulings had urged schools to proceed “with all deliberate speed” to implement integration, but the innocuously named Citizens’ Councils, which were nothing but associations of white supremacists determined to keep schools and other nurseries of their race havens of lily-white purity, were also adopting both constitutional and extra-constitutional measures, that is to say intimidation and violence, to keep segregation intact.

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A plaque at the Visitors Center, Little Rock National Historic Site.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

In Little Rock, some black families with school-going children determined, with the active assistance of the NAACP, to have their children admitted to Central High. Nearly 150 black students were identified as, in principle, candidates for admission; over the next few months, this number continued to dwindle:  some families, intimidated by white hostility, had moved out of Little Rock, while others felt their resolve weaken.  The school was informed, shortly before the beginning of the new term in September 1957, that a small number of black children intended to enroll at Central High.  White segregationists made it known in no uncertain terms that they were equally determined to prevent their citadel of learning from being defiled.  Both sides appealed to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who, by the standards of the Deep South, appeared to be only moderately conservative, in other words someone who could be counted upon to least give black people a hearing. The segregationists warned that the forcible integration of the school would lead to violence; the desegregationists, insisting upon their constitutional rights, urged adherence to the rule of law.  Faubus in turn sought the intervention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a veteran of more than one battle who surely, in his days as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and Governor of the American Zone of Occupied Germany, never anticipated that he would be sorely tested by a high school in what was little more than a town in the American backwaters.

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A painting by George Hunt of the Little Rock Nine, now at the Visitors Center:  according to the plaque, they are “flanked by a soldier on the left, who symbolizes the defense of every citizen’s rights, and an adult supporter on the right, representing leadership.”  The painting was commissioned on the 40th anniversary of the events at Central High; it hung in the Clinton White House and in 2005 was featured on a postage stamp.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The story of the integration of Little Rock Central High School, which in September 1957 had 1900 white students, has been told in countless number of books and documentaries and need not be enumerated at any length here.  Nine black students sought to enter school on the first day of term on September 4th:  when they made their way to school they felt emboldened by the presence of the Arkansas National Guard.  Eisenhower, however, had been outsmarted by Faubus, the very model of pusillanimity:  as the students found out, the Guard had been sent to strengthen the hand of white racists, not the young black students who were jeered, taunted, and abused by a large crowd of white students egged on by their parents and other ‘responsible citizens’.  By dint of circumstances, fifteen-year old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, found herself alone, hounded by a mob—one instance where the use of this word is justified, a headless beast baying for blood.  She walked back to the bus stop—here, as all so often in the story of the Civil Rights movement, the semiotics of the bus stop—from where she took a bus to safety.  On orders of a Federal Judge, the Arkansas Guard was some days later ordered removed from the school:  thus, on September 23rd, a second attempt was made by the nine students to enter the school.  They walked, with determination; they were met with abuse, vulgarity, spittle.  They prevailed, or seemed to:  by lunch-time, the mob of 1000 white people outside the school appeared to be out of control, and the children were escorted out of school under armed guard.  At this juncture, Eisenhower sent units of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and federalized, by Executive Order 10730, the Arkansas National Guard.  Finally, on September 25th, the Little Rock Nine, escorted by soldiers, entered the school premises and lasted the day.  On television, some days later, Governor Faubus described Little Rock as “occupied territory”!

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Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, a hostile crowed behind her:  the (in)famous photograph that was splashed across newspapers in the US and around the world.  Source:  The Heroine Collective; see:  http://www.theheroinecollective.com/elizabeth-eckford/

The story of Little Rock’s integration crisis is narrated with care and sensitivity at the National Park Service Visitor Center outside the school.  The vast majority of visitors will surely view the Visitor Center with its exhibits as an inspiring educational experience and as acknowledgment, howsoever belated, of the evils of racism.  They will be relieved by the presumption that African Americans have finally been given their due and that white people, in turn, have tamed some of their nastier instincts and curtailed their drive towards racism.  Such exhibits are certainly reassuring to citizens who have been bred on a number of ideas, among them the notion that, at least in the United States, the good eventually prevails, and that the story of humankind is fundamentally an uplifting narrative of the triumph of progress—albeit in fits and starts. The United States has, of course, become remarkably good at such demonstrations of repentance, and this kind of museum complex must be seen as complementing what I have described in numerous writings of mine as a culture of ‘apologies’.  All such narratives thrive on the idea of heroes (and increasingly heroines), and the growing trend now is to find such heroic figures from among the ranks of common people. There is something particularly uplifting, we are being told, about the fact that a common person—in the case of Central High School, school-age children being subjected to violent intimidation—can rise to the ranks of the martyred, a reminder as well of the similar potential within each person. Thus the near canonization of the Little Rock Nine. No one engaged in such exercises has been much exercised by Brecht’s observation, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

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The scene outside Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, after school was over:  12 September 2017.  Photo:  Vinay Lal.

The crisis of Little Rock, remarkably, persists—not at Little Rock as such, which on the day of my visit seemed a bit of an oasis, as a visibly diverse body of students sauntered in the mid-afternoon after school was let out towards the long line of school buses, but rather in the nation at large. In a country of ‘experts’, there are many who continue to study the patterns of segregation which dominate American public school education.  Some have argued that segregation is, if anything, a more intense problem today than it was in the day of Jim Crow:  back then, one knew the problem for what it was, nor were black children steeped in the ideology of whiteness.  Even many of those, and they must surely be the majority, who are not inclined to at all accept such a reading are nevertheless prepared to accept the softer version of the verdict that American public schooling is, with respect to the question of segregation alone, in deep distress.  The Civil Rights Project at UCLA has documented long-term reversals of gains made during the Civil Rights era, and its recent report on growing segregation in the South has this to say: “Building on the gains of the Civil Rights era, from 1968 to 1980, the percentage of Black students in intensely segregated schools (schools where 90 percent or more are students of color) fell from almost 80 percent to a low of about 23 percent. But since then, the percentage of Black students in intensely segregated schools has risen to more than one in three (35.8%).”  A recent article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, which often furnishes insights into contemporary American society that are unavailable in American newspapers, states baldly that “US schools are, on balance, more segregated today than they were 45 years ago.”  The article documents two schools in the Jackson school district in Mississippi:  Raines is 99% black, and only 4% of its students are proficient in math and 11% in English; a few blocks away, Madison Elementary is 70% white, and over 70% of its students are proficient in both English and math.

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This monument to the Little Rock Nine stands in the State Capitol Building gardens.  Sculptors:  Deering, Scallion and Deering Studio.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The battle that was fought at Little Rock was never just over integration:  the question of the rights of states and the prerogatives of the Federal government was paramount, as it is today in nearly all the disputes that have rankled the nation, whether they be over statues of confederate soldiers or Obamacare.  I shall turn to these questions in later essays:  however, to the extent that segregation became the visible platform over which the lines of battle were drawn, it is indisputably clear that the fortress of segregation has yet to be breached.

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