Friday, August 31, 2007

The Little Rock Crisis: 50 Years Later -- New Books

Fifty years ago Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas blocked a federal court order requiring the integration of Little Rock's Central High School, setting off an extended crisis in the city, which came to a dramatic close only when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops who held back white mobs and escorted nine African American students to school.

There are many events planned and new resources available as the nation takes up Little Rock's anniversary. To start off, here are two new books on the Little Rock crisis.

Legal historians might find most interesting Tony Freyer's new book, Little Rock on Trial: Cooper V. Aaron and School Desegregation, just out from the University Press of Kansas. Here's the book description:

Americans were riveted to their television sets in 1957, when a violent mob barred black students from entering Little Rock's Central High School and faced off against paratroopers sent by a reluctant President Eisenhower. That set off a firestorm of protest throughout the nation and ultimately led to the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Cooper v. Aaron, reaffirming Brown v. Board of Education's mandate for school integration "with all deliberate speed" and underscoring the supremacy of federal and constitutional authority over state law.

Noted scholar Tony Freyer, arguably our nation's top authority on this subject, now provides a concise, lucid, and eminently teachable summary of that historic case and shows that it paved the way for later civil rights victories. He chronicles how the Little Rock school board sought court approval to table integration efforts and how the black community brought suit against the board's watered-down version of compliance. The board's request was denied by a federal appeals court and taken to the Supreme Court, where the unanimous ruling in Cooper reaffirmed federal law--but left in place the maddening ambiguities of "all deliberate speed."

While other accounts have focused on the showdown on the schoolhouse steps, Freyer takes readers into the courts to reveal the centrality of black citizens' efforts to the origins and outcome of the crisis. He describes the work of the Little Rock NAACP--with its Legal Defense Fund led by Thurgood Marshall and Wiley Branton--in defining the issues and abandoning gradualism in favor of direct confrontation with the segregationist South. He also includes the previously untold account of Justice William Brennan's surprising influence upon Justice Felix Frankfurter's controversial concurring opinion, which preserved his own "deliberate speed" wording from Brown.

With Cooper, the "well morticed high wall" of segregation had finally cracked. As the most important test of Brown, which literally contained the means to thwart its own intent, it presaged the civil rights movement's broader nonviolent mass action combining community mobilization and litigation to finally defeat Jim Crow. It was not only a landmark decision, but also a turning point in America's civil rights struggle.

This is Freyer's second Little Rock book. The Little Rock Crisis: A Constitutional Interpretation was published by Greenwood Press in 1984. The newer volume, besides setting Little Rock in the context of contemporary arguments about courts and civil rights, is a better vehicle for classroom use.

Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation by Elizabeth Jacoway has been published by Free Press. Here's the book description:

In September 1957, the nation was transfixed by nine black students attempting to integrate Central High School in Little Rock in the wake of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. Governor Orval Faubus had defied the city's integration plan by calling out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school. Newspapers across the nation ran front-page photographs of whites, both students and parents, screaming epithets at the quiet, well-dressed black children. President Eisenhower reluctantly deployed troops from the 101st Air-borne, both outside and inside the school.

Integration proceeded, but the turmoil of Little Rock had only just begun. Public schools were soon shut down for a full year. Black students endured outrageous provocation by white classmates. Governor Faubus's popularity skyrocketed, while the landmark case Cooper v. Aaron worked its way to the Supreme Court and eventually paved the way for the integration of the south.

Betsy Jacoway was a Little Rock student just two years younger than the youngest of the Little Rock Nine. Her "Uncle Virgil" was Superintendent of Schools Virgil Blossom. Congressman Brooks Hays was an old family friend, and her "Uncle Dick" was Richard Butler, the lawyer who argued Cooper v. Aaron before the Supreme Court. Yet, at the time, she was cocooned away from the controversy in a protective shell that was typical for white southern "good girls." Only in graduate school did she begin to question the foundations of her native world, and her own distance from the controversy.

Turn Away Thy Son is the product of thirty years of digging behind the conventional account of the crisis, interviewing whites and blacks, officials and students, activists and ordinary citizens. A tour de force of history and memory, it is also a brilliant, multifaceted mirror to hold up to America today. She knows what happened to the brave black students once they got inside the doors of the school. She knows how the whites' fear of "race mixing" drove many locals to extremes of anger, paranoia, and even violence. She knows that Orval Faubus was only a reluctant segregationist, and that her own cousin's timid tokenism precipitated the crisis.

Above all, Turn Away Thy Son shows in vivid detail why school desegregation was the hottest of hot-button issues in the Jim Crow south. In the deepest recesses of the southern psyche, Jacoway encounters the fear of giving black men sexual access to white women. The truth about Little Rock differs in many ways from the caricature that emerged in the press and in many histories -- but those differences pale in comparison to the fundamental driving force behind the story. Turn Away Thy Son is a riveting, heartbreaking, eye-opening book.
Juan Williams reviewed the book for the Washington Post. He had this to say:

Jacoway argues that Southern resistance to integrated schools was rooted in white men's insistence on controlling white women and white bloodlines by keeping them away from black men. "In the mannerly, distinctly southern environment of Little Rock, such sexual concerns rarely rise to the level of verbal discourse, and almost never in the company of women, then or now," Jacoway notes....

Her theory about white sexual anxiety acts as a spicy subplot to a generally scholarly book. At its best, this is a comprehensive, sometimes overly detailed telling of the Little Rock crisis. Armed with five decades of books written by the principals in the drama, as well as interviews, newspaper accounts, letters, legal briefs and legal rulings, Jacoway offers a sometimes stilted, character-driven narrative that moves the accepted telling of the tale from the world of segregationist politics to the world of personal failings and insecurities.