"The niggers are coming!"
September 25, 2007 10:03 PM   Subscribe

Through a Lens Darkly - on September 4, 1957, when 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford tried to enter Little Rock Central High, she was blocked by the National Guard and surrounded by a screaming mob of 250: "Lynch her! Lynch her!" "No nigger bitch is going to get in our school! Get out of here!" "Go back to where you came from!" Looking for a friendly face, she turned to an old woman, who spat on her. Photos. Dramatic news footage. Ernest Green, another of the Little Rock 9 recalls the first day of school.

Also in 1957
A Picture Counts - recent thread by zzazazz of Dorothy Counts entering the Charlotte School system in 1957
Willie Edwards: Justice Still Absent in Bridge Death - January 23, 1957
All Through the Night - Strom Thurmond's 24-Hour Filibuster, August 29, 1957
Civil Rights Act 1957 - signed by Eisenhower September 9, 1957
posted by madamjujujive (48 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Great post, madamjujujive.

Bill O'Reilly should have Elizabeth and Hazel on The Factor and/or take them out to dinner.
posted by Poolio at 10:15 PM on September 25, 2007

Oh my goodness, I've been looking for this photo for a while now. Thank you! Turns out the girl is Hazel Massery (formerly Hazel Bryan).
posted by Xere at 10:42 PM on September 25, 2007

Also of interest: Elizabeth Counts
posted by Xere at 10:45 PM on September 25, 2007

ARGH! Dorothy Counts, I mean!
posted by Xere at 10:46 PM on September 25, 2007

Every time I am reminded of this, I think of me going up and standing with them. A white guy showing that not all white people are racist idiots.

Then I wonder if I'd have the guts. Then I wonder if I'd be beaten by the other white people as a "nigger lover". Then I wonder if the black people would accept me on their side in any case.

What a horrible situation.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:02 PM on September 25, 2007

The Arkansas Times has a great special issue about the commemoration this week and pictures from the events on their blog.
posted by lemoncello at 11:33 PM on September 25, 2007

Beautifully done, as usual, madamjjj. It reminds me that I never got around to posting a dramatic story from Birmingham I heard about... what was it, a year ago? I was writing about a gallery in Portland (ME) and learned about a box of photo negatives from the Civil Rights era that had been hidden for years until they were discovered by a local photo intern.

I think of me going up and standing with them... I wonder if I'd have the guts. Then I wonder if I'd be beaten by the other white people as a "nigger lover".

A remarkable video was made from some of the photos, showing what happened when Birmingham minister and activist Fred Shuttlesworth tried to integrate the city's train station in March of 1957, and a white man who did stand by him was attacked by a mob.

Certainly it was a time when, to quote Robert Byrd on a different matter, you would have to say, “Today I weep for my country.”
posted by LeLiLo at 11:34 PM on September 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

This is a wonderful group of links. Thank you!
posted by amyms at 12:00 AM on September 26, 2007

The natural heirs to these people (the racists) now have gays to hate instead. I wonder who they'll be hating in 50 years time.
posted by rhymer at 1:13 AM on September 26, 2007

God I have so much respect for Elizabeth Eckford. What incredible courage and fortitude to stand up to those ugly, frightening racists and brave the obstacles to simply go to school. A girl of 15. all alone. Not a single friend there nor any other black person.

That video made me cry. And it's also totally inspiring, seeing someone stand up to such negative pressure...and win.

Elizabeth Eckford on CNN in 2004.

Thanks for the post mjjj.
posted by nickyskye at 1:37 AM on September 26, 2007

ps "One of the fascinating stories to come out of the reunion was the apology that Hazel Bryan Massery made to Elizabeth Eckford for a terrible moment caught forever by the camera. That 40-year-old picture of hate assailing grace — which had gnawed at Ms. Massery for decades... And the graceful acceptance of that apology was but another act of dignity in the life of Elizabeth Eckford."
posted by nickyskye at 1:41 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Nice article in Vanity Fair, and possibly just a bit ironic that all of the lovely women surrounding the article are about as white as you can possible be.
posted by maxwelton at 2:46 AM on September 26, 2007

Great article.
posted by grouse at 3:07 AM on September 26, 2007

The only thing that puts to bed these horrible, senseless moments once and for all is forgiveness. It's very hard for me to believe that the hatred embodied in those photos has dissipated in 50 years, but the only thing that makes it even possible for that to happen is people of character like Elizabeth Eckford with the strength to forgive their tormentors when they were moved to contrition.
posted by psmealey at 3:40 AM on September 26, 2007

I wonder who they'll be hating in 50 years time.

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:31 AM on September 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

every time I read somebody slamming LBJ -- and God knows that Vietnam does indeed drowns his legacy in an ocean of blood, and it always will -- I cannot avoid to think that had he not rammed desegregation down these motherfuckers' throats,

the more I read about the history of the civil rights struggle, the more I realize that those of us who were not even born then cannot fully comprehend the enormity of what LBJ had accomplished. of course LBJ's Civil Rights Act is the culmination of two decades of heroic civil rights work by millions of good Americans whose name have not remained written in history -- no one will ever undermine what those heroes have accomplished. but the fact remains that that flawed giant of a President simply did something that still, with that kind of opposition, looks unthinkable, especially in these sad days of poll-driven policy tested in malls the way Hollywood tests action films and romantic comedies.

(and the fact that with the stroke of a pen LBJ hopelessly lost his party about half the country -- impolitely put, the former Confederacy -- makes one wonder that all this talk about being a "conservative" may actually hide something much less savory than that quite anodyne word indicates. LBJ had indeed canteloupe-sized balls. if somewhere, somehow, the good and bad we did on this earth gets indeed written in two columns on a blackboard, there cannot be only the Vietnam slaughter under LBJ's name, there just cannot be)

thanks, mjjj
posted by matteo at 4:49 AM on September 26, 2007 [6 favorites]

huh, lost a sentence there:

I cannot avoid to think that had he not rammed desegregation down these motherfuckers' throats, they would have been still doing shit like that well into the 1980s, just like in South Africa.
posted by matteo at 4:51 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

makes one wonder that all this talk about being a "conservative" may actually hide something much less savory than that quite anodyne word indicates.

Ain't that the truth. I think for many, they feel okay hiding under the rubric of "conservatism" since the last great institutional evil (Jim Crow) has been conquered. But the truth is that so long as there remains something out there to be disapproved of, the haters will always have a rallying point. The language is more polite now, but the feelings are still there.
posted by psmealey at 4:57 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

You'd think that conservatives would get tired of always being on the wrong side of history.
posted by octothorpe at 6:04 AM on September 26, 2007 [8 favorites]

It's still hard to fathom that kind of blind hatred, even when you allow for it largely being based on fear and ignorance.

Great post. Now I'll have to crack open my subscriber copy of Vanity Fair and read the article.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:34 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think it's important to look at events in history without judgment, since our morals are just a product of our current society, no better or worse than the values of those white folk back when these events took place.

The key is to look back and learn - specifically - what exactly happened that we don't want to happen again? And once that is pinned down - what was the environment and what were the circumstances that were conducive to those events? And, finally - how can we change this to prevent it from happening again?
Let's not just assume that there was something in the water 50 years ago that made white people racist and angry, and let's assume that we'd act the same way in those circumstances.

The next step would be to determine the reason that we look back in such horror at those events, while we are far less able to be critical of the actions of ourselves and our peers today. One reason would probably be that instilling change, going against the grain, and taking the long/painful/high road is much tougher than criticizing events that we are powerless to change. But there are other reasons as well, and at the very least it's worth thinking about.
posted by vin43075 at 6:34 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

The natural heirs to these people (the racists) now have gays to hate instead. I wonder who they'll be hating in 50 years time.

My guess is the same people they hate now and hated then: themselves. Who they'll take it out on is anyone's guess.
posted by dobbs at 6:52 AM on September 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

lelilo, thanks for those great links - the courage that these people displayed is boggling - particularly since all too often, death threats weren't idle.

To psmealy's point about dissipated racism and matteo's point about "they'd still be doing shit like that" - the recent refusal by most candidates to participate in debates before minority audiences and ritual pilgrimages to Bob Jones University show that republicans need to come to grips with the wink and a nod racism that continues to permeate the party.

vin43075 and dobbs: the demonization of immigrants and the uptick in vigilanteism show that such ugliness can rear its head again, imo.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:02 AM on September 26, 2007

That's a good article. She seems very human, rather than the mythological all-american-if-only-america-would-realise hero you get from low-fi history.
posted by Luddite at 7:09 AM on September 26, 2007

NPR story with comments by Elizabeth Eckford; part of their series on Little Rock in 1957.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:26 AM on September 26, 2007

Sports Illustrated, of all places, had an interesting article a few months ago about Little Rock High School's football team during integration.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 7:28 AM on September 26, 2007

The father of one of my very best friends was a (white) student at Little Rock High during this time.

He is now a college professor, and I asked him once to recount the experience, which he gladly did.

He said that inside the school, there were of course individuals but for the most part, the students were blissfully unaware of what was going on, and few cared very much at all either way. They were typical high school students.

He would come home, and his parents would be in a panic after seeing the soldiers and the mob outside. He said most of the mob were not even people from Little Rock, but protesters bussed in from out of town, even out of state. He said the soldiers and crowds were all amassed at the front door for a "photo shoot" and the rest of the school, including other entrances, etc, were just like normal.

It was interesting to hear his viewpoint. Now, as an egghead, it could have been that he was far removed from, or even just not cognizant of, what was really transpiring.

But he said he certainly didn't appreciate the significance of it until years later.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:35 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Horrible as this was, it's also worht noting that this ugliness was not limited to the Jim Crow South. There was also similar desegregation related stupidity and violence on display in in the northeast.
posted by psmealey at 8:08 AM on September 26, 2007

You'd think that conservatives would get tired of always being on the wrong side of history.

Except it was Eisenhower who federalized the National Guard and sent in the Army Airborne to escort the Little Rock Nine.

Conservative, yes.

Wrong side of history, no.
posted by neat-o at 8:11 AM on September 26, 2007

Wrong side of history, no.

That's kind of where the use of the word conservative breaks down. It's current connotation is more or less synonomous with reactionary: people who aspire to some version of the past that was "better than things are now". It wasn't always that way. At various points it meant cautious to change, wanting to preserve and conserve order by not lurching too far in one direction or the other.

The point is that people who most vehemently opposed desegration in the "solid south" were overwhelmingly Democratic (the GOP still carried the stigma of Reconstruction with it in those days), and mostly turned coat to Republican in the years following 1964.

As for Eisenhower, he was duty bound to enforce what was then the law of the land (Brown vs. Board of Ed), as well as maintain public peace in a time of crisis. I don't think that he was necessarily wearing his conservative hat at the time; he was being presidential.
posted by psmealey at 8:33 AM on September 26, 2007

Kickstart70, there where certainly plenty of white people who got beaten badly during the freedom rides and other civil rights events, so yeah you stood a good chance of taking it on the chin.
Hazel Bryan Massery's story is interesting, they where showing a LR9 clip on the news lat night and recounted what those brave souls went on and did in later life, but I was left wondering what those godforsaken haters did later on, and what they thought now, did their minds change, sounds like at least one did.

vin43075: I don't know if you can really look at history and apply such a strict relativistic filter to it. There are mind bogglingly numerous events that can be pointed to that can be quantitatively called bad. Letting cultures or periods of time off the hook by saying it is just their way of doing things does not abrogate them of responsibility for their actions. Looking at cultural and temporal norms may be good to help explain certain actions but does not excuse them. If we truly felt that way, taken to an extreme we would never call the cops on a domestic dispute, never intervene in a genocide, most certainly charity would be non existent, social change would stagnate, we move (hopefully) towards what we think is greater good out of reaction to situations like this. No, relativism has its limited time and place but can't be used as a salve to excuse actions that are demonstrably inexcusable.
posted by edgeways at 8:45 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

... btw, not to say that Eisenhower didn't support Civil Rights (he did, but very cautiously), but the National Guard action was a clear case of his acting as the Constitution required him to.
posted by psmealey at 9:02 AM on September 26, 2007

Edgeways: Well stated.

My question to you would be this: What would be the benefit of attempting to place responsibility on an individual or group of individuals?

You pegged me accurately as a moral relativist, and my opinion of judgment, morality, and behavior stems largely from John Dewey's 'Human Nature and Conduct'. I won't attempt to phrase it any better than he did:

"Courses of action which put the blame exclusively on a person as if his evil will were the sole cause of wrong-doing and those which condone offense on account of the share of social conditions in producing bad disposition, are equally ways of making an unreal separation of man from his surroundings, mind from the world. Causes for an act always exist, but causes are not excuses. Questions of causation are physical, not moral except when they concern future consequences. It is as causes of future actions that excuses and accusations alike must be considered."

What this means to me is this: When reflecting on past events, there is no purpose in applying any type of judgment - it's cause and effect, not morality. When deciding how to act, it becomes your moral obligation to do so based on how you think it will affect future events, not necessarily in relation to past ones.
posted by vin43075 at 10:33 AM on September 26, 2007

Hazel Bryan Massery showed class in apologizing to Elizabeth Eckford in 1963 and they both did in trying to form a friendship in the 1990s. It's a shame they've had a falling out, but it probably wasn't possible for either of them to get past the symbolism of who they are and the time and place they grew up in.

I just finished reading Robert Caro's biography of LBJ, largely out of curiosity about how a southern Democrat came to take such an important action in civil rights. Like most Southern politicians of the time, Johnson helped obstruct civil rights legislation during most of his tenure in the House (1937-1948) and the Senate (1948-1960). His conversion to supporting civil rights was due more to ambition than principle (he wanted to run for president in 1956 and felt that a Democrat couldn't win without supporting civil rights), but he was instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the Senate. It was the first civil rights legislation to pass Congress since Reconstruction. Regardless of his motivation, he did the right thing with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, especially with his accurate prediction of the political cost.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:51 AM on September 26, 2007

My guess is the same people they hate now and hated then: themselves. Who they'll take it out on is anyone's guess.
posted by dobbs

posted by EarBucket at 12:55 PM on September 26, 2007

I remember the Little Rock 9 from a documentary called Eyes on the Prize which is for you if you find this thread interesting. (It cannot be currently sold due to copyright issues; it was downloadable for free a while; It's worth having a look around for
posted by yoHighness at 12:57 PM on September 26, 2007

You'd think that conservatives would get tired of always being on the wrong side of history.

Except it was Eisenhower who federalized the National Guard and sent in the Army Airborne to escort the Little Rock Nine.

Conservative, yes.

Eisenhower was no conservative. He was the quintessential moderate (and had been courted by both parties).

The conservatives distrusted the moderates and did everything they could to undermine them.
posted by dhartung at 1:53 PM on September 26, 2007

Bill O’Reilly eat there too?

"You'd think that conservatives would get tired of always being on the wrong side of history."

Totally. Because it's always had the same common social connotation throughout history, just like liberalism. Bring out the guillotines.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:13 PM on September 26, 2007

I don't think that he was necessarily wearing his conservative hat at the time; he was being presidential.

Talk about faint praise. Eisenhower deserves a lot more credit than he tends to get for the Civil Rights movement, since he tended to act in spite of the desires of those around him.

I mean, sure -- he did what the Constitution demanded via the outcome of the SCOTUS decision in Brown v. Board. It would have been hella easy for him to simply ignore said decision. Or better, do something a lot more watery and pusillanimous than send in the National Guard.

LBJ deserves credit as well, but matteo's comment was a fairly massive derail, IMO. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

(And hey, as long as I'm saying nice things about Republican presidents, let's not forget that Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency.)
posted by bardic at 3:53 PM on September 26, 2007

Eisenhower deserves a lot more credit than he tends to get for the Civil Rights movement, since he tended to act in spite of the desires of those around him.

The CRAs of 57 and 60 were largely token affairs, and while it took some guts to nationalize the Guard and mobilize the Army, it's still the Constitutional duty of the Executive to enforce the law of the land. Eisenhower avoided a potential Constitutional crisis (and possible 2d civil war) by doing what he needed to here. I don't think Truman or FDR would have done any different.

Having said that, it really wasn't until JFK (who started the ball rolling) and LBJ (who brought it the rest of the way home) that pols didn't start to have to balls to really do what needed to be done, at enormous cost to their party.

Eisenhower did not do nothing, that's true, but he also shouldn't get too much credit either.
posted by psmealey at 4:05 PM on September 26, 2007

it's still the Constitutional duty of the Executive to enforce the law of the land.

Agreed, but I can think of a few ways Eisenhower could have weaseled out of doing his duty. Just sayin'. Maybe it was for less than pure reasons, but he did the right thing and took some risk.

I guess we're at opposite ends of the telescope. Was Eisenhower the bestest friend of African Americans ever? No, of course not. But let's give credit where credit is due.

(I mean, isn't it kind of quaint to remember how presidents, regardless of party affiliation, used to try and uphold the Constitution?)
posted by bardic at 4:12 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Amen, brother.
posted by psmealey at 4:16 PM on September 26, 2007

What I find "funny" (bad word, but I can't think of a better one) is how differently integration went in other parts of Arkansas. Fayetteville High School was the first in the south to be integrated and there was hardly a whisper from anyone about it. When I was in school there, when the subject came up, it was a point of pride that it went so easily there.

They let the black kids play football, even, despite it causing other schools to refuse to play against them.

Of course, at the time, Fayetteville was almost completely segregated, with the blacks living in what was then referred to as "nigger hollow" and the kids had previously been bussed to Fort Smith (at least a 2 hour drive at that time) to go to school.

Even today that area still has the highest concentration of blacks in Fayetteville. It's now essentially a housing project, a few single family homes, and several churches. There are some white people who live in that area now, though.
posted by wierdo at 5:52 PM on September 26, 2007

Sometimes I wish we would have had more US civil rights history in school, I seem to be continually amazed how bad things were when this stuff was going down. I mean when was the last time you heard about journalists getting beat down by a mob?
posted by Mitheral at 6:42 PM on September 26, 2007

Actually wierdo, the Charleston, Ark. school district was the first in the South to integrate, and with little fanfare. Former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers was the district's lawyer at the time.
posted by lemoncello at 8:35 PM on September 26, 2007

Bah, the link feature doesn't work on this crappy old Mac. Here's the article about it: http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=730
posted by lemoncello at 8:36 PM on September 26, 2007

When they choose to be frank, as Bob Herbert notes, Republican strategists are quite frank about how they deliberately appeal to racists- specifically, Southern whites- through coded language.

"In one of the vilest moves in modern presidential politics, Ronald Reagan, the ultimate hero of this latter-day Republican Party, went out of his way to kick off his general election campaign in 1980 in that very same Philadelphia, Miss. He was not there to send the message that he stood solidly for the values of Andrew Goodman. He was there to assure the bigots that he was with them.

“I believe in states’ rights,” said Mr. Reagan. The crowd roared.

In 1981, during the first year of Mr. Reagan’s presidency, the late Lee Atwater gave an interview to a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University, explaining the evolution of the Southern strategy:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,’ ” said Atwater. “By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:22 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

vin43075, sorry it took awhile to get back to the thread, I just now saw your reply.

Is it not possible to look at these actions and label them reprehensible, whether you are saying society is to blame, or the individual is to blame? The actions are the same, and they have the same result. Personally I tend to proportion individual actions as originating from multiple external and internal, consciousness and not sources. We can cite multiple societal reasons why the murder has murdered, why the "terrorist" has committed acts of terror, but fundamental it was the choice of that individual to do so (unless his mind was so broken he was unable to rational make that choice).

Just looking at the moral relativism argument you cited above makes me want to compare it to behaviouralism and perhaps reductionism, both of which have some very valid things to say about aspects of behavior and how to analyze it, but behaviouralism has famously been criticized for discounting anything that can not be measured (Skinner's infamous quote: "there is no mind"), and reductionism in the form of Cartesian-ism falls to much the same line of thinking. Descarte refused to believe that animals truly feel pain.

In such a strict moral relativism framework where is there room for individuals to make change? Coming at this from a position of ignorance having not read Dewey, he (forgive me if I am wrong) seems to be saying all our actions are predicated on what the norms of society are at that time, and there is little room for individual freedom of choice or action. Relativism has, at its heart an assumption of neutrality, no judgement calls, nothing is better than anything else. But, how is that mirrored in any aspect of life? Can we really say that Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is equivalent to present day New Zealand, or even present day Cambodia? Just because a society holds something as a norm does not make that norm a positive thing. By all means we should be cultural sensitive, we should embrace and accept different ways of doing things, but that doesn't include genital mutilation, physical cohesion of innocents, or other forms of unwarranted subjugation (the precise definitions of those is a different conversation).

We don't have to assign blame, we can simple look at those actions and define them as "bad". Looking for motivations is a separate act than observation and labeling. (the whole debate post 9/11 is a great example of this, some where stuck in the labeling and not wanting to understand, while others where trying to understand motivation, while still labeling the action as bad) If, the is a need to assign blame in this instance you can just as easily say that society was broken as saying that individual was broken.

I guess in a nut shell my position is any given system of thought can add to how we understand things, but to attribute all human action to one theory is untenable. Just because I have a horrible aversion to being burnt, does not mean that I can not consciously choose to get burnt if the anticipated consequences are sufficiently worth my while. Just because there are a multitude of fantastic cultural and social practices in Turkey does not mean I can not judge individual Turks as being in denial and violent when it comes to issues about the Kurds or the Armenian genocide. Just because you are a member of an "ethnic minority" can't also make you a small minded bigot. The reverse to all these things also hold true in individual circumstances.

Culture and individualism, the interplay dictates our actions and neither can exist in a vacuum.
posted by edgeways at 9:41 AM on September 27, 2007

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