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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Living Through the Little Rock Integration Crisis–1957

People of a certain age may remember September 1957, when nine black students were escorted to the “whites only” Little Rock Central High School in compliance with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. The ensuing crisis filled the national and international news for weeks. Who can forget the iconic photograph of 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, delicate as a summer blossom in her freshly ironed dress, clutching her schoolbooks as she walked past a crowd of bigots screaming at her?

Elizabeth Eckford photo littlerocknine_zps6614bdda.jpg

But there’s another Little Rock story, one that was never told. To read it, please follow me below the fold.

In September 1957 I was 13, a ninth-grader at West Side Junior High School.  My family lived in a duplex on Summit Street in Little Rock, three blocks from Central High. My father, Edward, worked for the Associated Press as an editor; my mother, Anne, like many women of the time, was a homemaker. My younger sister was a student at Centennnial Elementary, three blocks from our house in the other direction from Central High.

Like many teenagers I was too preoccupied with the day-to-day business of getting through the school week to pay much attention to current affairs. However, “current affairs” impinged themselves on the notice of all West Side students during recess on September 4, 1957, the first day of school.

We saw a convertible racing past our playground, with boys in the front seat and girls sitting on the folded-back roof, yelling “Two-four-six-eight, we ain’t gonna integrate!” This was followed by several other cars filled with students yelling the same words.

Soon after that armed troops arrived in the neighborhood. President Eisenhower had sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce the law of the land.

Suddenly, my sister and I weren’t allowed to walk to school any more. My parents, who did not own a car, arranged for neighbors to drive us to school and back for the duration of the crisis. Outside the classroom my fellow students and I discussed the situation. Of course, they were all for segregation. Having been brought up in a household of freethinkers and having lived overseas for five of my 13 years, I didn’t share the prejudices of my classmates.

Nor did my parents. As my Uncle Jack, a retired journalist, wrote in his memoirs,

One bit of news that never made the national wires about Little Rock would no doubt have surprised most Americans. I know it surprised me in my first week in town. I went home with Ed one day after work as his wife, Anne, had invited me to dinner.  As we walked toward his front door a black postman was entering the house next door.

“Hello, Ed,” the postman said, waving.

“Hi, Bill,” Ed called back.

I asked, “Does he live there?” and Ed said yes, that such neighborhood integration was not all that uncommon.

“Then what in the hell are people here so upset about?  If they can live next door to blacks why can’t they go to school with them?”

“Who knows?” Ed shrugged.

It was one of those strange contradictions that I have never heard adequately explained.

The Johnsons were indeed our neighbors for four years, until we moved to another section of Little Rock. My mother and I used to chat with Mrs. Johnson as we hung our clothes to dry in the backyard. On the other side of the fence, Mrs. Johnson was doing the same thing. As a young teenager I was discovering that I liked to bake. I wanted to be just like my mother. Every time I made a cake and frosted it, I would cut two pieces, put them on a plate, and rush next door to the Johnsons’ house. “Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson,” I would say excitedly, “look what I just made!  Please try my cake!”

Mother, despite her upbringing in a part of the country not noted for liberal tendencies, was incapable of harboring race prejudice. To her, human beings were as beautiful and varied as seashells on a beach: they were people whose life stories she wanted to hear. When Mother left Texas she also left the church behind.  Religion continued to fascinate her, however, so despite her newfound atheism she investigated various faiths.  In Little Rock she joined the Bahai’s, who held meetings at members’ houses in the Little Rock area.

These meetings were my only chance to meet and talk to black children of my own age.  My sister Mary, three years younger than I, chased around with the other children, while I, more sedate, simply chatted.

Edward begged us not to reveal such activities to anyone outside our family.  “As an AP reporter I have to interview both sides,” he said. “On one day I may have to interview Daisy Bates and the next day I have to talk to someone on the other side. If either side knew what you were up to, it would make things difficult for me.”

Not that he didn’t take sides unobtrusively, in his own way. One day a young black reporter visited the AP offices, desperate to find a place to write his stories for The Minneapolis Tribune and a telephone to call them in. No one wanted to rent him any space. My father showed him to a desk with a telephone and a typewriter where he could work. Many years later that reporter, who had become the head of the U.S. Information Agency, remembered my father: when Edward came to Washington, DC, to look for a government job, Carl Rowan promised to expedite his application.

I’ve already mentioned in a previous diary how Edward single-handedly brought about the demise of the Arkansas Minutemen, a segregationist organization.  Here’s my Uncle Jack’s memory of that incident:

He [Ed] and all of us strived to give both integrationists and segregationists a fair hearing. This is a good time to say that if you are a reporter, your duty is to gather what facts you can, verify them the best you can, and report both sides of any controversy.  Fairness and objectivity, not opinion or bias, should be your guiding principle.

…To give you an example of being fair-scrupulously fair-to all, a small group of segregationists who called themselves the “Minutemen,” sent us a press release announcing their formation and denouncing a list of books as “subversive” and “dangerous” to America. Ed glanced over the list and then suddenly sat bolt upright in his chair-because the fourth book named on the list was The Diary of Anne Frank. How in the world could a book about a young Jewish girl who died in a concentration camp possibly be offensive?  

But Ed didn’t argue with the Minutemen, he treated them fairly, quickly knocking out a straightforward story on the group-and noting in the lead that it denounced The Diary of Anne Frank. As he handed the copy to the teletype operator, I noticed a sly smile on his face.  It wasn’t long before I knew why.

The story loosed a firestorm of protest against the Minutemen. State newspapers and broadcasters, politicians and the general public-including segregation sympathizers-cursed the Minutemen, called them Nazis and demanded that they be driven out of Arkansas. Shaken representatives of the group actually came to the AP bureau later and pleaded with Ed to do a follow-up story that would put them in a better light. Ed smiled again and said, “Sorry, we covered you already.”  The Minutemen sank from sight.  

Meanwhile, Mother continued to investigate the subject of religion. She became friends with Captain Roberts, an attractive young black woman in the Salvation Army. Captain Roberts came to our house for dinner on Friday nights, and she and Mother would argue for hours about the Bible and the meaning of different texts. Both enjoyed the exchanges but sometimes the captain despaired of Mother’s lack of belief.  Once she said to me, “You’re the only one I see any hope for!” because at the time I regularly attended church.

When Mother was recovering from an operation and therefore unable to do much housework, she employed people to help her. In the Little Rock of the 1950s domestic help was provided by black women. So far from behaving like the nasty white women in the popular novel, The Help, Mother became friends with the women who helped her, exchanging family stories and recipes.

One day it happened that I boarded a city bus and spied Betty (not her real name), a woman who had helped my mother, sitting in one of the seats.  Hailing her with delight, I went to sit beside her. I noticed she looked uncomfortable but in my teenaged self-absorption I didn’t stop to think why she might have looked that way. I merely thought, “Oh, good, here’s someone I know-now I’ll have someone to talk to!”

Sixty-odd years later, I can only hope she didn’t encounter any unpleasantness because of that.

In 1958, in order to save the pure, lily-white children of Little Rock from sitting in the same classroom with black students, Governor Orval Faubus closed the Little Rock public schools.  The seggies were pleased, but not so the students who were relying on attending accredited schools so they could get into college. For one semester I simply stayed at home. My father gave me a reading list and quizzed me on the books when he returned home in the evenings. (I liked most of the books, which ranged from The Odyssey to The Decameron, but fell asleep over three different translations of The Iliad, which I hated.) For the second semester of that year I attended a makeshift high school in a Baptist church. Fearful that the schools would remain closed during my junior year of high school, my parents scraped together the money to send me to St. Mary’s Academy, a private Catholic high school for girls. A couple of girls from Trinity Cathedral, where I went to church, attended along with me.

Five mornings a week we St. Mary’s students would get on the city bus to travel to school. At almost every stop, traditionally built black women, already looking tired from the humid Arkansas heat, would climb on to the bus too.  I’d immediately spring up and ask, “Ma’am, would you like to sit down?”

“Oh, thank you, honey,” would come the reply.”Would you like me to hold your books?”  

I wasn’t the only St. Mary’s student to give up her seat-we all did. We had quite a pleasant time chatting as the bus trundled down the public highway.

The following year I briefly attended Little Rock Hall High School. There were several black students in my senior class, and that was the only time I ever attended an integrated public school in this country. In October 1960 my family moved from Little Rock to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In 1989 on our way to Texas to spend Christmas with relatives, my husband, teenaged son, and I stopped in Little Rock. Central High was still a beautiful school, and Trevor, my son, was fascinated by the architecture. The neighborhood I used to live in looked sad, with many boarded-up houses. West Side Junior High School was no longer a school but a community center. We spent the night at the North Little Rock Holiday Inn and ate dinner at the Inn’s restaurant. When I noticed that many black diners were being waited on by white servers, I realized that change had indeed come to Little Rock.

If you’ve borne with me thus far, thank you for reading this. I wanted to tell those who might doubt it that not everyone in the South was a narrow-eyed, mean-mouthed bigot and that change does happen, however slowly.

I only wish change didn’t involve pain and suffering on the part of the people who bring it about.


  1. Diana in NoVa

    was posted elsewhere a couple of years ago. Denise and Portlaw asked me to post it here, so I hope my fellow Meese will enjoy it.

  2. I wonder how many of those kids blamed Governor Orval FaubusĀ (sorry, I wanted to see that name again) and how many blamed the black kids? You already knew that segregation was wrong … do you know what the reaction of your former classmates was or had you already left before opinions had been formed? Young people are generally not as hidebound as their parents and I would hope that some realized that what Faubus did was wrong and why it was wrong.

  3. Diana in NoVa

    Peer pressure can be so daunting when one is that age. I’ve read Melba Patillo’s book, in which she said that some white students supported her.

    I’m so glad those days are GONE, for the most part. We still have a long way to go, though.

  4. Portlaw

    overwhelmed by this, a story that is not often heard. Am going back to read it again. As for what you wrote

    I only wish change didn’t involve pain and suffering on the part of the people who bring it about.

    Amen, Amen. Also the photo of Elizabeth Eckford in her freshly ironed dress has me filled with tears of admiration. How brave she was. How quickly we forget that courage. Thanks again. And special thoughts for your terrific parents!

  5. DeniseVelez

    and for telling this in the first place.  You have an important perspective on a time that made headlines – but rarely do we hear from those people who weren’t either getting screamed at or doing the screaming.

    On a personal note of identification – my grandmother (the one who was white from Kansas) fooled around with a variety of religions after she married my black grandfather.  She was no longer a bible belt Baptist and became a Baha’i eventually (they accepted inter-racial marriage)  

  6. Diana in NoVa

    There is a Baha’i temple in Sterling, Virginia, down the road from our house. Haven’t visited it. Mother also investigated the Unitarians and joined them for a while. She didn’t stay–Mother was just constitutionally unable to fit herself into anything resembling a liturgy. Nor did she have any patience with men wearing robes and congregations singing from hymnals, even though the hymns were interdenominational.

    Your grandmother was ahead of her time. This very morning when I was reading the WaPo at breakfast, the Supreme Court ruling of Loving v. Virginia was mentioned. You probably know that our new Attorney General refuses to defend the state amendment against marriage equality. The Commonwealth of Virginia was on the wrong side of history with the Loving case and is wrong in this case too.  

    If I live long enough to see marriage equality in this Commonwealth, I’ll be very happy. If I live long enough to see WOMEN finally get, and keep, our damn rights, I will be flying instead of walking!

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