Source of book: Borrowed from the library
This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. While we don’t do this every year, sometimes we join the “One Book One Bakersfield” project put on by our local library. Some years, the selections have been great, while others have been pretty meh. The fun thing is that they usually get the author to come and lecture (or, in the time of Covid, put on a virtual meeting) to discuss the book. Unfortunately, I had to teach my Wills and Trusts class the night Ms. Lanier was here in town and missed it.
The three previous One Book One Bakersfield selections I have read are:
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman
A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande
One of the difficulties of a book like this is that it is often difficult to tell what is the voice of the ostensible author, and what is the voice of the ghost writer. This is unavoidable in most cases, because the person with the great story to tell is not always - or often - a skilled professional writer. Having endured small portions of utterly dreadful writing by acquaintances, I can attest that some people can make a fascinating story sound deadly boring, or even unintelligible. So, it is generally better to have a good writer do the writing.
But then, there is the commercial problem. Who is going to buy a book by Lisa Frazier Page about the Little Rock Nine? She may be a respected editor and reporter at The Washington Post, and she may have a track record for good ghost writing, but that doesn’t sell. What sells, particularly to us American sorts, apparently, is the first-person narrative - we think something is “more authentic” because the person themself “wrote” it.
This is bullcrap, for the reasons noted above.
So, with that fine whine out of the way, I will credit this book both to Carlotta Walls Lanier, who was the source of the story - but also to Lisa Frazier Page who did the actual writing of the book. And, I strongly suspect, the background reporting necessary to fill in the gaps in memory, the directed questions to draw out the necessary information, and the vision for how to create a compelling narrative out of a story that easily could have rambled. The seams show in a few places, but given the inherent difficulties of ghost writing, I thought it was well done.
Even those who do not know the details of the integration of Central High in Little Rock Arkansas are likely familiar with a certain iconic photograph of a white student screaming racial epithets at one of the new black students.
One of the other students was Carlotta Walls, the youngest of those who volunteered to be the first to integrate. This book is her side of the story, so to speak.
Much of the book was very much as you might expect. There is the account of Carlotta’s family, her childhood, and the traumatic experiences she had at Central High. A few chapters at the end recount her later life, including President Clinton’s recognition of the Nine when he was governor of Arkansas. (Hey, remember when Arkansas could still elect democrats? Before the GOP went full KKK on us…) It is a good story, and Page tells it well.
It is hardly a unique story - the desegregation in the South went like this nearly everywhere. White racists resisted integration, rioted and bombed the homes of black students and white allies. Governors refused to implement the law, requiring President Eisenhower to send in the troops. Black students were mistreated, in many cases causing lifelong trauma. Integration sorta happened, but then white racists found other, more subtle ways to resegregate, leading us to the present, when schools are still largely segregated in fact, although not in law. And, as usual, the schools with the most black students tend to be chronically underfunded, understaffed, and neglected. And so it goes…
But, to be fair, despite the things that have failed, our country has made progress. It still feels shocking to read about how little “mixing” occurred between races, or how freaked out white people got about sharing space with non-whites. Living here in California, where whites are less than half the population, it just feels weird to be in all white spaces. For example, our recent visit to the San Diego Zoo: we were constantly around people of all colors (and a number of visitors from foreign countries - it is a big tourist destination) and it just felt normal. But the idea of sharing everything from drinking fountains to tour busses to restrooms is fairly new.
And that is one thing that really stood out about the book to me.
This is not the distant past. These people are mostly still alive.
Or, to put it in perspective in a different way: my parents were alive when this happened. These students were about 10 years older than my parents. My grandparents’ generation was the one that was freaking out about desegregation. My parents’ generation absorbed these lessons of hate so thoroughly that they stood and screamed these epithets.
Not all of them, of course, as this book makes clear. But the racists were the majority, and the ones willing to use violence, so many of the good people kept their heads down.
While it is not an excuse - there is NO excuse - the recency of this history explains in some part why so many of my parents’ generation of white people (particularly evangelicals) are such strong supporters of Trump and his KKK revival meetings. They came of age during Jim Crow, and that feels normal to them, just as much as racial diversity feels normal to me and my kids.
The Hazel Bryans of the world are still with us - even if Hazel herself made some personal progress later in life.
And so are the Carlotta Walls.
I wrote down a few lines for this post, and figured they give some insight into both this story and our current moment. One of those is the direction that Carlotta’s mother gave her regarding how to respond to bigots.
“Carlotta, we must be patient with ignorance and never, ever bring ourselves down to their level.”
This advice supported Carlotta as she increasingly experienced the ugliness of hate - it was a reminder that bigotry is a lower level of existence, and that the fault was never with Carlotta for being “uppity” - it was with those who refused to accept her equality with them.
Another passage recounts the adds that were run in the local newspapers by….wait for it….local white churches, opposing desegregation. Why?
The ads asked questions that seemed to reveal the underlying source of all the fear: Would black boys and white girls be allowed to dance together at school dances? Would black boys and white girls be paired in romantic love scenes in school plays? The mere thought that their white daughters would be in such proximity to black boys petrified white mothers and fathers throughout Little Rock.
I could spend an entire post on the psychological roots of this, from projection, to the underlying misogyny that makes male/female relations into a power hierarchy. But what is interesting is to see just how many people (again, of a certain generation) are still freaked out about interracial relationships. In Bill Gothard’s cult, they were strongly discouraged - on the grounds of “cultural differences” - and I have come to realize that this is more endemic in conservative circles than I thought. (Related: Theatricum Botanicum did a phenomenal riff on this in their production of All’s Well that Ends Well a number of years ago.)
It was, of course, disappointing to see certain white churches leading the push for segregation - although in general, conservative white churches have resisted every call for racial equality, from supporting slavery to their current embrace of a white supremacist in Donald Trump. (Also their consistent opposition to the teaching about the reality of systemic racial inequality in our institutions.)
As Carlotta puts it later in the book:
It never ceased to amaze me how often the bigots tried to hide their fear and hatred behind the banner of Christianity.
I feel this so much.
That said, there have always been other ministers and churches who have supported the civil rights movement. Carlotta mentions that once the troops enforced the desegregation, a group of ministers would escort the black students to school every morning - an interracial group of ministers.
This protection was definitely necessary, as the racists still tried to disrupt things throughout the years Carlotta attended the school.
I was also struck by a bit of reporting by the New York Times that is quoted in the book. After the students went in, a group of mothers and daughters became distraught, crying and screaming “The niggers are in our school!” Yeah. And remember, these were people close to my parents’ age. This is recent history.
It truly did take the actions of President Eisenhower to make the desegregation stick. It is kind of odd to remember that there was a time when the luminaries of both parties were committed in some degree to the expansion of civil rights. Justices appointed by both parties ruled in favor of desegregation. Both parties voted for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. It wasn’t until Goldwater’s failed run at the presidency and the resulting swerve of the Republican party under Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” that the parties essentially flipped from where they were during and after the Civil War.
This thread certainly runs through the book. There were always those who did the right thing in some way or another. Not many students were willing or able to fully stick their necks out, but a few did, and others tried subtly to give encouragement. Carlotta mentions Barbara Barnes, who gave quiet encouragement - later Carlotta found out that Barbara had a strongly segregationist grandfather who wanted her to withdraw from the school. She pushed back on his religious justifications with the words of Christ. I think we are seeing this sort of thing today as well, with the younger folk pushing back against the bigotry of their elders.
Another story involves a girl named Becky who passed notes with one of the black students. They chose not to speak in the halls, because of the harassment, but they did make a friendship.
The majority, however, fell into a third category, neither foes nor allies, but “neutral.” I think the whole passage here is worth quoting.
The majority of students at Central fell into the third group: those who kept silent. They wanted all the “trouble” to end. They did not torment us, but they didn’t extend themselves to us in any way, either, even quietly. They did not want to be associated with one side or the other. They chose to remain neutral, as if remaining neutral in the face of evil were an acceptable and just choice. They turned away. They rendered us invisible. They are most likely the ones today who, when asked about the Class of 1957, try to reinvent history. Things at Central weren’t as bad as the nine of us have said, they have recalled in recent years. The mobs weren’t as big, they say, the bad guys and gals weren’t as bad, and the atmosphere wasn’t as tense. Well, of course that is how they remember the Central journey these fifty-plus years later. When I was suffering in those hallowed halls, they turned away. They chose not to see.
One of my decisions after the election of Trump was that I would refuse to be a person who chose not to see, who remained “neutral” in the face of evil. It has cost me friends and family, as I knew it would. I wish that they had chosen to take the same journey away from hate and fear and prejudice and toward a more equal and mutual future.
Another line that stood out as highly relevant today was this one, about the way that the local authorities downplayed the bombing of Carlotta’s family home. (A pair of young black men were wrongfully convicted of the crime, even though everyone knew they were not guilty, and that the real perpetrators were well connected and thus protected.) One prominent man wrote in the local paper that he was most concerned that the bombing was costing the city business. One of the black leaders responded that this was a cowardly response, and further, that “People all around the world today are judging American democracy by what is happening in Little Rock.”
Two points here: first, yes, this is why it is important to wield consumer pressure on companies. They in turn, not wanting to lose business, stop being present in communities that engage in bigoted and oppressive practices. In fact, this was one reason that Jim Crow eventually ended. Which leads to the second point: people all over the world are observing the US, and judging us on what we do. Another major reason for the end of Jim Crow was that our leaders realized that the Communist movement was gaining ground in the third world because American “democracy” that excluded people of color was unattractive to those who were not white.
I wonder sometimes if today’s bigots understand just how much they have done to damage the reputations of Americans and America. Is it really okay with them that we have the reputation of gun-crazy, violent, stupid, and bigoted ignoramuses? I guess maybe they take pride in that, but many of their children are appalled.
Here is another fascinating observation: a white woman who helped one of the black students when she was surrounded by a white mob found that she and her husband were branded “Communists” for doing so. One of my realizations over the last decade is that, in right wing American discourse, “communist” and “socialist” are mostly just code words for “n-----r lover.” It is what you say about someone who wants racial equality, or even just decent treatment for others. I’m hardly that far left, so it was a real shock to be called that as much as I have lately. And not for, say, calling for government ownership of the means of production, but just for saying maybe we should try to make it easy for people to vote.
And the relevant parallels just keep coming! The governor of Arkansas was subpoenaed to testify in the bombing case, but he ignored it, claiming he as a chief executive, was not bound by court orders. Sound familiar? Trump may not read much, but he has the KKK playbook memorized.
Also familiar: the determination of white supremacists to silence the strongest voices for racial equality. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was the most memorable of these silencings, but you can still see it in the vicious attacks on anyone who dares stand up against bigotry. And in the way our first black president and his family have been treated.
The chapters on Carlotta’s later life were quite interesting. She didn’t realize her dream of becoming a doctor, and struggled in college. However, she found success later as a real estate broker. One interesting thing to me was that she served as a board member on the Colorado AIDS Project back in the 1980s, during the early days of the pandemic. The organization didn’t put their address on correspondence for fear of bombing - those of us who lived through those days remember the vicious hate surrounding the victims of the disease. Which is why we can recognize it now that it is focused particularly on transgender people. Carlotta draws an express parallel between racism and anti-LGBTQ bigotry, and notes that her own experience with hate helped her identify with others.
One final passage struck me. Carlotta generally didn’t say anything about her high school experiences, and it wasn’t until the report on CNN surrounding the recognition by Governor Clinton that many of her friends and neighbors realized she was one of the Little Rock Nine.
They all assumed I was just being humble. There was no explaining how desperately I had needed to forget.
I think this is important to understand, even if she couldn’t explain it. The battle for equality and justice may not be a war in the strict sense, but it is a war. It has its casualties and even its deaths. For children like Carlotta, they were the wounded, who sacrificed themselves for a better future for others. I think that is one thing this book makes clear. This wasn’t some feel-good story of progress so much as it was the story of a necessary fight against evil, with lingering damage to those on the front lines. In the struggle for justice, it isn’t enough to say “well things are somewhat better now, so it’s all good.” We have to recognize that the damage continues, and that we have a responsibility not just to cease doing evil, but to repair the damage that has been done.
We still have a long way to go, and the world continues to watch. What will we as a society do? And, equally as importantly, what will each of us do? Which side will we fight on? Because there is no true “neutrality” when it comes to hate, injustice, and oppression.
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