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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birth anniversary is being celebrated today, was all of 39 years old when he was assassinated in 1968.  Most political careers are far from having been established at that somewhat tender age:  the man that had King had looked up to, Mohandas Gandhi, had made something of a name for himself when he was forty, but Gandhi was at that time still living in South Africa and no one could have anticipated that within a decade he would have been transformed into the leader of the Indian independence struggle.  King was only in his late 20s when, perhaps somewhat fortuitously, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 launched him onto the national stage; thereafter, his position as the preeminent face of the Civil Rights Movement was never in doubt.  This is all the more surprising considering that King was scarcely stepping into a political vacuum:  there was already a tradition of black political leadership and several of those who would become close associates of King had developed local and regional constituencies well before he arrived on the scene.

King has been the subject of several essays on this blog over the last few years.  I have also had occasion to make reference to the extraordinary career of Reverend James M. Lawson, who initiated a nonviolent training workshop that would shape the careers of an entire generation of Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and many others.  Rev. Lawson settled in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and was until a few years ago Pastor of the Holmes Methodist Church in the Adams district of Los Angeles.  He remains firmly committed, at the age of 88, to the idea and practice of nonviolent resistance, and at the national level and particularly in the Los Angeles area his activism in the cause of social justice is, if I may use a cliché, the gold standard for aspiring activists. Over the last several years, over twelve lengthy meetings, we have conversed at length—26 hours on tape, to be precise—on the Civil Rights Movement, histories of nonviolent resistance, the Christian tradition of nonviolence, the state of black America, the notion of the Global South, and much else.

 

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Rev. James Lawson discusses his phone call inviting Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, the meeting at his church on April 3 and plans to go forward with a march with or without the court injunction in place.   Copyright:  Jeff McAdory/The Commercial Appeal.  Source: http://www.commercialappeal.com/videos/news/2017/01/12/rev.-james-lawson-recalls-inviting-martin-luther-king-jr.-memphis/96495746/

What follows is a fragment, what I think is a remarkable piece, of one lengthy conversation, which took place on 31 January 2014, revolving around some of the difficulties that King encountered, the circumstances of his political ascendancy, the so-called “failure” of the Albany campaign, and the challenge posed to him by one white supremacist, the Sheriff of Albany, Laurie Pritchett.  The fragment, which begins as it were mid-stream, has been only very lightly edited.  I have neither annotated the conversation nor removed some of the rough edges.

Vinay:              At this time, we’re talking about the Easter weekend 1960.  I’ve read in various accounts that there was a bit of impatience with King on the part of a number of people; they thought he was not radical enough, he was too cautious.

Rev. Lawson:   I think that’s reading into it.

Vinay:              You think it’s reading into it?

Rev. Lawson:   It’s also something else.  Such a view does not understand how an organization espousing nonviolence comes into being.

Vinay:              Can you say more?

Rev. Lawson:   How the person who’s become the singular spokesperson in the country for Negroes.

Vinay:              Was he at that time?

Rev. Lawson:   Oh, absolutely.

Vinay:              Already? In early 1960?

Rev. Lawson:   Oh, yes.

Vinay:              Undisputedly so.

Rev. Lawson:   Undisputedly so.  I watched it.

Vinay:              Yeah.

Rev. Lawson:   I saw some of the difficulties that he went through. He had a hard time because he was not supposed to become [the leader], he was not supposed to be.  Traditional leadership in the Negro community, in the political community, did not anticipate a young man, 26 years of age, emerging at the head of an effective bus boycott that shakes the nation and the system and spreads around the world.  He was not the chosen one.  I watched this in ’58, ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62.  The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] leadership said that mass action is not the way.  They said it then.

Vinay:              Yes.

Rev. Lawson:   They said that legal action, clean up the constitution—that is the way.  King actually as he emerged and saw what was happening with the bus boycott—he proposed to the NAACP a special direct action department of work.  They rejected that idea, and said no to that.

It’s under that aegis, then, that King starts in ’57 meeting with other clergy and then organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC].  Martin King had enough wisdom and humility that he wanted to add this dimension of life to the work of the NAACP, and the NAACP said very clearly no, that’s not possible.  That’s excluded from these [academic] books.  Worst of all, and excluded from these books, is the idea that a social campaign or movement is a social organism.  It does not arrive fully structured, fully ideologically framed.  It does not arrive with tactics in place.

Vinay:              Yes, it’s a process.

Rev. Lawson:   It’s a process. Especially it’s a process because all of the people who are attracted to it, I mean at least I my case I know, and Martin’s case I know, this was something brand new.  We had not had any experience like that in our own limited backgrounds.  I said boldly in ’59, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.

Vinay:              I find your phrase “He was not the Chosen One” striking.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah.

Vinay:              I think that perhaps it was fortuitous that Martin King was in Montgomery rather than in a place with traditional Black Leadership.

Rev. Lawson:   In Atlanta.

Vinay:              In Atlanta, because that would have been an obstruction.

Rev. Lawson:   What these scholars have no inkling about is that when Martin in ’57 organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the help of Bayard Rustin and a number of other people, and creates SCLC; when he sets up and begins to set up the office in Atlanta, and knows that eventually he’s going to leave Montgomery and go to Atlanta to work, Martin King has made a commitment to himself.  That commitment is, ‘I’m going back to Atlanta, I will be a co-pastor with my father, but I am not going to initiate any program in Atlanta.’

Why?  Because Atlanta has an organized, traditional Black Leadership group who gather once a month maybe; business, churches and clergy, artists, presidents of colleges, and they talk about their situation together.  They talk about every situation that’s coming up in Atlanta.  His father is a member of that group.  King knows that if he initiates something in Atlanta, he will have to deal with that traditional Black leadership and he does not want to.  Julian Bond and Lonnie King, and John Mac, and Maryann Wright Edelman are people who are students in Atlanta at this time.  They go to King to persuade King to take part in the sit-in campaign against riches [?] in downtown Atlanta.  King is hesitant.  He has probation problems legally, but that’s only one of them.

King’s major problem is that if he steps out in Atlanta, he will bypass Black traditional leadership.  That will stir up the hornets in Atlanta.  Now the students do not understand that.  I’m not even sure that I recognized it at that time. I mean I discovered this in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but when I discover it, I’m pretty sure is ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, not in those first months; these books don’t understand that.

King wants to be in the sit-in campaign, I have no doubt about that.  Ralph Abernathy had no doubt about that.  Others close to him had no about that.  He would prefer to be with them without reservation, but he has to deal with the fact that when he does it, he’s got all the criticism in the Black traditional leadership who are already upset with this young whippersnapper who they helped to raise, who’s coming back to work in Atlanta, and will eclipse all of them.

Vinay:              Yes, all of them, right.

Rev. Lawson:   Now none of that is in these books.

Vinay:              Yeah.  Again, in many respects this story is rather similar [Lawson laughs, in anticipation] to you-know-who.  Mohandas.

Rev. Lawson:   Yes.  Mohandas K.

Vinay:              Gandhi, yes.  Mohandas K.

Rev. Lawson:   That’s right.

Vinay:              He comes out of Ahmedabad; much of the political leadership is based in Bombay, Calcutta.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah.

Vinay:              He’s able to in fact completely change the landscape.

Rev. Lawson:   He comes to India and he is the best known Indian in India.

Vinay:              Yeah.

Rev. Lawson:   He hasn’t paid none of the price of living in India of the previous 15 years.

Vinay:              Yup, and he hadn’t paid any of the dues as they would have said.

Rev. Lawson:   Exactly, Exactly, and yet here he is.  Exactly.  You know that seems to be really the case when you have a social movement that’s going to set itself against the status quo of oppressions and tyrannies.  It takes a different leadership in the first place to really do it, I think.  In the second place that leadership immediately gets involved with the traditional leadership that’s been around.  You create a whole new dynamic that’s not there before that.

Vinay:              Let’s take apropos of this discussion, let’s take what is generally viewed, now your perspective might be different—that’s why I think it would be interesting to talk about it—let’s take the illustration of what is supposed to be one of Martin King’s more difficult moments.  Still in the early ‘60s we are speaking about, and here I’m referring to what happens in Albany, Georgia.  Now as you know very well the movement in Albany commences without King initially.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah, it’s locally started.

Vinay:              Right yeah.  It’s locally started, locally initiated.

Rev. Lawson:   That’s right, it’s locally started.

Vinay:              SNCC is not particularly keen on having King there, and he’s eventually invited by the local businessmen.

Rev. Lawson:   By Anderson who is president of the movement in Albany.   I can’t think of his first name, but he’s a doctor.

Vinay:              Right.

Rev. Lawson:   He’s a well-known doctor who is concerned for these changes and lends himself to it, and gets involved in helping make it happen.

Vinay:              Right, so one perspective on what happened in Albany is the following.  It’s been argued by a number of people; it’s also by the way shown in [the documentary] Eyes on the Prize; and is mentioned in quite a few of the scholarly works have delved into this.  Generally, the view is that this was a failure for King, what happened in Albany.  The perspective then generally amounts to the following.

Number one, that there King met, and the civil rights movement met, its’ match in Laurie Pritchett, who was the sheriff, I think, in Albany.  Apparently, Pritchett had studied what had happened in India.  In fact, this little clip in Eyes on the Prize, I was very surprised when I saw this clip where he’s interviewed, and he says I’m looking at what Gandhi did in India because that’s what these chaps are doing over here.  This whole idea of filling up the jails, apparently what he did was he decided that he was going to spread out the prisoners across jails …

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Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is arrested by Albany’s Chief of Police, Laurie Pritchett, after praying at City Hall, on July 27, 1962.  Source:  AP Photo.

 

Rev. Lawson:   Yes, I know the story.

Vinay:              That Pritchett himself is now using the weapons of nonviolence as it were against the resistors themselves, right? That’s one part of the story.  The other part of the story as I have encountered it, is that King comes in and that he misjudges the situation considerably.  Ultimately, he has to sort of leave in defeat from Albany because the ultimate objectives of the movement were not met there.  Now what is your perspective on what happened in Albany?

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Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett & Martin Luther King, Jr.  Source:

Rev. Lawson:   Well, in the first place, I don’t think academics have the right to go and critique it when it is an emerging social process and organism, in which none of the people in Albany have done it before; they have limited experience; where the fledgling SCLC is still trying to organize its staff.  It has an executive director who’s a good man, and a smart man, Wyatt T. Walker, but it’s still fledgling.  When they yield to the invitation from the movement in Albany, and Dr. Anderson, they go in.

There are a handful of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people who are operating in the area as well, who have helped to launch the movement themselves.  How this takes place I think is greatly overlooked.   One of the key figures in that business was Charles Gerard.  Good man, still is a very good man, and Charles tells me, “Those who claim it was a failure don’t know what they’re talking about.”  He said that boldly years ago to me.

King later of course says, in assessing it, that I had problems and SCLC had problems, but it was not a failure.  Now the tensions that rose up among people is understandable.  I don’t know them myself.  King wants me to come there and I don’t go, but he doesn’t put any pressure on me to come.

 

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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 man 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 then 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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