This review is a first for me, which is befitting since the subject of this book was also a first, although infinitely more courageous and important act. This book, Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration, meant for readers ages eight through about 14. That makes this the first “Juvenile” book I have reviewed here. That said, I know an awful lot of adults who could benefit from a refresher course in American History.
On September 4, 1957, less than two weeks from today, in Little Rock, Arkansas nine African American students defied their governor and started the fight to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. Now known as The Little Rock Nine, those children faced both physical, verbal and emotional abuse few of us will ever face. And, with few exceptions, could not and would not find protection or support in adults, teachers, their fellow students or the community. The fight was not won that day, and it wasn’t won even that year or necessarily for years to come. Perhaps that fight still hasn’t come to an end.
First, the book. The author, Shelley Marie Tougas set out to write a contemporary history aimed at an audience of fifth through eighth graders depicting an era that is every bit as important as many other milestones in American History. I think she achieved both goals exceedingly well. She researched the book thoroughly, finding many photographs and interviews that haven’t seen the light of day in decades. The interviews and recollections of the children who were on the front line that day and in days to come, are especially poignant. Further, Ms. Tougas did not color the narrative with her own feelings and emotions. This is well documented history an eight year old could easily digest and an adult could profit from as well.
It is a straightforward history, 64 pages long, containing many historical photographs of the events started that day, and continuing through that school year. There are also many photographs and recollections from the recent past that put a very human face to these events. Many of the Little Rock Nine, the photographers and journalists, parents, supporters in the black community and nationally, contribute and tell a broader story.
The stage was set for the events in Little Rock in 1954 when the United States Supreme Court ruled in the landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 which allowed state-sponsored segregation.
Three years later, 15 year old Elizabeth Eckford attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School, television cameras recording the moment. A jeering crowd chanting, “two, four, six, eight – we don’t want to integrate.” Elizabeth, hugging her books and wondering where her fellow black students were, was alone.
Nine students had been handpicked by school official to integrate the school that morning. The night before, the eight other students had received a phone call from Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP telling them to meet a handful of local ministers, both black and white, who would walk with them to the school to help them feel safe and to, perhaps, remind the hostile crowd of the importance of “tolerance.” I will come back to that word, “tolerance” in a moment.
Elizabeth did not get the word. Her family did not have a telephone. As she neared the doors of the school, she was seen looking around at the crowd of angry white people, spewing hate and following her to the entrance. She momentarily seemed to find hope in the soldiers with rifles near the school, guessing that they were there to make sure she and the other eight children got into the school safely. It was not to be. The governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, had ordered the Arkansas National Guardsmen to turn away the black students. Elizabeth was met by armed soldiers with crossed rifles to deny her the protection guaranteed under the Constitution of The United States.
As she turned away and walked back towards the bus stop she had just arrived at, she seemed to scan the crowd for support, only to be met with a woman lunging forward to spit on her. Another teenager, Hazel Bryan — as seen in the Pulitzer Prize winning photo on the cover of the book, a photo that would galvanize the world, and change forever the fight for integration — ran behind her, shouting ”Go home, nigger!” The man who took that photo, Will Counts, said when he saw Hazel Bryan’s contorted, hate-filled face in his view finder, that he knew that he had captured an important moment.