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.
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.
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.
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.
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”!
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.”
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.
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.