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.
Back at the bus stop, Elizabeth sat surrounded by the crowd who, having won for the moment, were still not satisfied. Someone can be heard calling for the mob to drag this 15-year-old girl to a tree and hang her. A child: A child seeking nothing but an education should be hung for wanting what every American child is guaranteed.
Three reporters, to their credit, formed a protective ring around Elizabeth to keep the crowd from getting to her. Reporter Benjamin Fine from New York, sat down next to her and put his arm around her. The crowd was shocked: a white man with his arm protectively around a black child? Fine gave Elizabeth this piece of advice, “Don’t let them see you cry.” Grace Lorch, a white woman who supported civil rights, slid to the front of the crowd and admonished the hateful mob to leave her alone, “She’s just a little girl!” she yelled.
There are many more tales of bravery, sacrifice, attacks on supporters, accounts of the battle between the Federal Government and a defiant Arkansas governor – President Eisenhower eventually Federalized the Arkansas National Guard and had to call out the 101st Airborn division to get the Little Rock Nine inside the school. Tales of how the photographer who took the iconic photo used a new technology in capturing the photo. Tales of how a future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, argued Brown vs. Board Of Education and coined the phrase “Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place.” Tales of how the Little Rock school board almost completely had to elect new members to insure that the Supreme Courts orders would be carried out. Tales of the governor, in the ultimate act of cutting off your nose to spite your face, actually closing all Little Rock schools for months instead of allowing black children to receive an education seated next to white students.
There are tales of how journalists that supported the students were physically attacked. But the tale of bravery shown by Elizabeth Eckford and the other nine students that day and in the days to come is awe-inspiring. What happened in Little Rock was not just a battle about whether black kids could attend one school. The conflict tested the Federal Government’s authority over state and local government. And what happened was one of the first steps in gaining, under the laws of the land, what every person was endowed with by his or her creator.
A number of the Little Rock Nine never got to graduate from Central High School. After the governor closed all the schools for the better part of the year, students, both black and white had to seek out an education in private schools, and in some cases in other states. A lot of students continued their education at home. Elizabeth finished out the interrupted year at Central but did not come back the following year, having accumulated enough credits to graduate early. Ernest Green, the only senior among the nine, became the first black to graduate Central High School in May of 1958 months before the School Board, at the beckoning of the governor, voted to keep the schools closed rather than integrate.
The thought that kept creeping into my consciousness as I read through this book was the language of the day. When the ministers decided to escort the students into Central High School they stated they wanted to remind the white populace to be “tolerant.” Even supporters, white and black spoke of racial tolerance.
Maybe words have a deeper definition to me than most, but it seems to me that people are tolerant of things that annoy them. You are tolerant of a stone in your shoe. You are tolerant of a neighbors dog that barks inappropriately. You are tolerant of rude waiters and bad service. You are tolerant of a plane that doesn’t arrive on time. We shouldn’t be tolerant of our fellow citizens and human beings. We should be accepting. We should be appreciative of our differences, even thankful. I think that would be the lesson I would want my children to learn.
In 1999 president Clinton presented to The Little Rock Nine — Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed , and Melba Pattillo Beals — the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award.The street that runs next to Little Rock Central High School was eventually renamed for Daisy Bates, the local NAACP president and organizer for The Nine. Life Magazine voted Will Counts’ photo one of the 100 photographs to change the world.
As our children get ready to start the school year, this would make an excellent book to equip them with and could perhaps make them better citizens and human beings. The lessons of the Little Rock Nine and that point in our nation’s history in terms of importance for the future of this nation can’t be forgotten. In many ways, the fight is yet not over.