Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Elizabeth and Hazel: The School-Integration Crisis in Little Rock in 1957 and the Presidency of Donald Trump — Not Much Has Changed

Chauncey DeVega recently interviewed Obama pollster Cornell Belcher on what went wrong with the Hillary campaign this year, resulting in the victory of Donald Trump: one of the things Belcher says to DeVega is the following: 

Progressives have a blind spot when it comes to race. They do. Conservatives and Republicans don't have a blind spot when it comes to race. They understand the power of race and they use it. It is mind-boggling to me how tough it is for progressives to have a conversation about race without them wanting to make it a conversation about class and economics.

Conservatives and Republicans don't have a blind spot when it comes to race. They use it

1. White-supremacist race-baiter and troll-provocateur par excellence Milo Yiannopoulos could openly attack women — black women, in particular —Muslims, transgender people, and suffer no consequences at all for his race-baiting, mysogynistic, transphobic, and Islamophobic attacks until a tape surfaced (one that has been online for several years, in fact) in which he defends sex between adult men and pre-teen boys.

2. Milo Yiannopoulos, who is closely linked to Breitbart, could do all of this while landing a lucrative book contract from Simon & Schuster, getting gigs on shows like Bill Maher's, being slated to speak to CPAC — and no one blew any whistle until a video surfaced (it's been around for a long time now, in fact) in which he promotes sex between adult males and pre-teen boys.

Conservatives and Republicans don't have a blind spot when it comes to race. They use it:

3. Despite the constant obstructionism practiced by the Republican party during Barack Obama's presidency (can anyone say, "Merrick Garland"?), Rush Limbaugh can blithely inform the media two days ago, in the face of reams of evidence to the contrary, that President Obama "got everything he wanted" because he's black.

4. Limbaugh makes such statements because he knows — and anyone with sense should know — that they work: it works to feed the meme among white Americans that black Americans are all about grabbing stuff, as much as they can get, at the expense of hard-working, moral, upright white Americans who are the salt of the earth and the backbone of this nation, which belongs to them.

5. Republicans have been doing this for years now. It's how we have ended up with Trump.

Conservatives and Republicans don't have a blind spot when it comes to race. They use it:

6. The odious Milo Yiannopoulos can finally be decisively (? this remains to be seen) exposed, and the equally odious race-baiting provocateuse Ann Coulter can tweet in his defense that Milo has learned a lesson, the lesson being that pederasty is acceptable only for refugees and illegals.

7. Unspoken subtext here: pederasty is acceptable only for dark-skinned refugees and illegals.

As Cornell Belcher points out, the tactic liberals and progressives have long customarily used in response to the overt race-baiting of U.S. conservatives is to pretend, to change the subject, to refuse to utter the words "race" or "racism." In this regard, they play right into the hands of those who pretend about their racial motives for voting Republican.

1. Racism is someone else's problem.

2. I don't have a racist bone in my body.

3. My vote for Trump does not make me a racist, and don't you dare accuse me of any such thing.

4. White Catholics who voted for Trump could not possibly be racists, because racism does not exist among white Catholics — it's a Southern problem. Our disaffection is due to white working-class economic rage.

5. You are impolite and crude, as you insist on continuing to talk about this matter that we, the gatekeepers of "the" center with its "civil conversations," have declared not worth discussing.

I've just finished reading David Margolick's book Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock (New Haven: Yale UP, 2011), and cannot get the voices of Elizabeth Eckford, Hazel Bryan Massery, and other protagonists of the Central High integration crisis in Little Rock in 1957 out of my head, as I listen to the conversations I have just cited above. So many important lessons in the story of Elizabeth and Hazel, that our society has refused to learn . . . . 

So many lessons that I know are important, because I grew up in Little Rock and lived through the Central High crisis in Little Rock, and know that Margolick's testimony is based on incontrovertible, inconvenient truth that many American liberals and progressives still refuse to hear to the tremendous detriment of our society— even now, even after the top levels of our government are controlled by white supremacists. Racism is still with us. The election of Barack Obama brought it roaring back in a way that now threatens to swamp the entire nation.

And many American liberals and progressives even now refuse to speak about this. (Any posting I make here about racism is read by far fewer readers than a posting about salacious issues like clerical sexual abuse of minors or what Cardinal Burke is wearing today.) 

Elizabeth and Hazel: Lessons Still to Be Learned:

1. On the day on which Elizabeth Eckford tried to walk into the white high school, Central High, and was barred from doing so by military men standing guard outside the school, as she was isolated from the eight other black students integrating the school and ran the gauntlet of white hatred all alone, this happened:

The primitive television cameras, for all their bulkiness, had no sound equipment. But the reporters on the scene scribbled down what they heard: "Lynch her! Lynch her!"*

"String her up!," supporters of President 45 screamed during his campaign rallies. About Hillary Clinton . . . . 

We are still there. Things have not changed, not nearly enough. We have not learned, not nearly enough.

2. On the day on which Elizabeth Eckford walked that lonely gauntlet, with white citizens of my city surrounding her and screaming for her to be lynched, no. Christian. pastor. helped. her. 

No Christian pastor stood with her. No Christian pastor walked with her. No Christian pastor defended her. No Christian pastor shielded her. Margolick reports that, as Elizabeth walked her solitary gauntlet, one pastor, the pastor of Pulaski Heights Christian church, Reverend Colbert Cartwright, witnessed what was taking place, but refrained from becoming involved, for fear that his involvement would be perceived as paternalistic. He took notes, writing the following:

"What struck me with force was the fact that neither segregationist nor integrationist preachers had bothered to help," he wrote. "Her only help came from this single woman who was generally regarded as an intellectual Communist. Who was neighbor unto that girl?"

The evening after Elizabeth's lonely walk, Baptist pastor Reverend Will Campbell of the National Council of Churches came to her family's house. Margolick reports on what Campbell stated as he visited with the Eckford family:

Elizabeth’s protectors, he noted, had been a Communist (Grace Lorch) and a Jew (Benjamin Fine); where had all of Little Rock's Christians been?

Cartwright gave a sermon to his church about what he had witnessed, entitling it "Portrait in Ebony." The sermon called on white Christians of Little Rock to repudiate racism and support for racial segregation, in the name of Christ and the gospel. In response to his sermon, thirty members of his Sunday bible class demanded that he be dismissed as pastor of the church, and he came under surveillance by the Arkansas State Police.

Benjamin Fine was a New York Times reporter who sat with and tried to shield Elizabeth Eckford when she was decisively turned away from the school's doors and could not find the other eight black students integrating the school, then decided to return home. Grace Lonergan Lorch, who also sat with Elizabeth and tried to protect her on that day, had been a teacher in the Boston public schools. Her husband Lee Lorch, a mathematician, lost job after job due to his affiliation with the Communist party, until he ended up in Little Rock teaching at the historically black college, Philander Smith (at which I was academic dean for several years).

Journalist Harold Isaacs of MIT, who happens to have been Jewish like Fine (and who would not, Margolick notes, have been permitted to join exclusive whites-only, Christians-only clubs in Little Rock in the 1950s) interviewed Presbyterian pastor Dunbar Ogden, who did assist the eight other black students from whom Eckford was separated on the day of her solitary gauntlet walk. Here's Ogden's testimony, reported by Isaacs as summarized by Margolick:

Of the clergymen he [Isaacs] interviewed, only the Rev. Dunbar Ogden, pastor of the local Presbyterian church and the sole white minister who, on that first day, had accompanied the black children to school, supported school desegregation. He found Ogden to be a tortured man, badgering, even begging, Isaacs to judge him. "I could not undertake to help Ogden wrestle with his soul," Isaacs wrote. "But I was relieved to find him struggling anyway. I wouldn't have wanted not to have met in Little Rock at least one preacher of the Gospel who at least showed an awareness of what it called upon him to be."

We can fairly well count on the fact that some 99.99% of those screaming curse words and racial epithets at Elizabeth Eckford as she was turned away from Central High on that fateful day in 1957 were Christians. Most of them would have been white evangelical Christians. Many, like Hazel Bryan, who walked behind Elizabeth Eckford bawling hate at her, would have been devout members of their white evangelical churches.

Effectively, the churches — particularly the white ones — did nothing as the hate poured out in this period of racial confrontation in Little Rock. This is my childhood memory of how things happened. Margolick's report confirms my childhood memory. The white churches did nothing, that is, to staunch the hate. In far too many cases, they defended and egged the hate on.

Hazel Bryan reports having heard sermons in her Church of Christ defending segregation and claiming that God does not want the races to mix.

Not much has changed. Substitute the words "gay" or "transgender" for "black" in these stories, and you'll find our churches — notably the white evangelical ones, but today joined by the Catholic ones — behaving today precisely as they did in 1957, in the face of prejudice and hatred.

3. As Margolick reports, when eastern Arkansas cotton-and-rice farmer Davis Fitzhugh placed an ad in the statewide paper Arkansas Gazette in which he invited Arkansans to study the photograph of Hazel Bryan screaming hate at Elizabeth Eckford on Elizabeth's lonely walk to the schoolhouse door — "Study This Picture and Know Shame," his ad said — people, nice white people, in Little Rock did what we love to do when someone mentions the unmentionable: as Margolick reports,

Local reaction to Fitzhugh’s gesture fell into what for Isaacs had become a recurrent pattern throughout the Little Rock story: "politely not noticing the unpleasant."

Fitzhugh's ad stated, "When hate is unleashed and bigotry finds a voice, God help us all."

Harold Isaacs interviewed Fitzhugh to try to find out why Fitzhugh had placed the ad: Fitzhugh explained that, as an Army major, he had commanded a company of black soldiers during World War II (Fitzhugh was white, you understand, a wealthy landholder) and had served to liberate Germany from the Nazi regime. As he worked with German communities to rebuild them at the war's end, this is what he experienced, he told Isaacs:

"I tried to find out from people how they could stand by and see Jews persecuted and murdered," he explained. "They'd say they felt guilty, but didn't know what they could do; that it was dangerous to do anything. This is something like the feeling I feel here now, something of the same evil spirit, the same inability to act. It almost seems ridiculous to think that this could be, here, yet it is. And I ask myself: what do you do? What do you do next? What do we all do next?"

As the events unfolded at Central High School, people throughout Arkansas continued doing what we customarily do in the face of unpleasantry it would be impolite to notice or mention: they pretended it was not there, and that anyone mentioning it was a boor. Fitzhugh reported to Isaacs that citizens of his part of Arkansas who supported what he had done would not speak to him on the street in an open way, to tell him they supported him. They'd pull him into an alley to speak where no one could see them.

His wife reported to him that at a bridge party she attended, a local minister's wife dared to speak in support of him. All the other women in the room kept putting down their cards on the table in total silence, after the minister's wife had her say. They kept playing their game.

As the Central High crisis occurred, we white Arkansans did what we're good at doing: "politely not noticing the unpleasant." Not much has changed. As Margolick notes, most of the white students at Central High School constituted a "great silent majority" as hate played out among them when the school was integrated, and the nine black students were, variously, shoved down stairs, tripped in the lunchroom, catcalled in the hallways, scalded in the gym showers, had spitballs and other objects thrown at them, had the N- word whispered behind them as they sat in classrooms.

We continue to be good at pretending, we white citizens of Arkansas. Only a few weeks ago, I was told by a neighbor of mine, a young white man, in a public forum hosted by the Nextdoor site to shut up when I dared to suggest that racism remains a problem in our community. (Does anyone locally know who was elected president last November, for Pete's sake?)

What racism? All that was in the past — in 1957, in 1927 when the last lynching occurred in our city. We're a post-racial society now. No one who voted for Donald Trump has a racist bone in his/her body. 

4. As Margolick reports, Elizabeth and Hazel reconciled — they had a sort of reconciliation, a series of sorts of reconciliations — and then parted ways again, after Hazel had apologized to Elizabeth, telling her that she had just been "hamming things" up by following Elizabeth and screaming hate at her. She was the class clown. She was boy crazy. She just wanted attention. She was just acting out what she heard at church.

Elizabeth's response:

If you can’t name what you did, it's not an apology.

Margolick tries to intervene, to get Elizabeth and Hazel to meet again. Hazel refuses. She claims she is a new woman whose eyes are now open to racism. But when Barack Obama runs against John McCain, this happens:

Hazel vacillated between the candidates but eventually voted for John McCain. She found herself a reason—Obama would give away too much money to too many unworthy people—but really, it was bitterness, and a broken heart.

Obama would give away too much money to too many unworthy people: I'm not a racist. I don't have a racist bone in my body. But I vote Republican because Obama gave away too much stuff to too many unworthy people.

To too many unworthy black people. (Like my "friend" Elizabeth Eckford . . . .)

Not much has changed in Arkansas. This remains how "post-racial" Arkansans think and vote. I know this, because they are my own family members. My mother grew up in the same small town south of Little Rock in which Hazel Bryan grew up.

5. That last lynching in Little Rock in 1927, when my mother was five years old? People brought their children to see it, to see the body of John Carter after he had been hanged, his body riddled with bullets and then dragged through the city behind a car. Margolick writes,

They wanted their children to grow up with the memory of a human being hanging from a tree, his head almost shot away, blood streaming from a hundred holes in his body!

This is my city's heritage. This is our nation's heritage. Not much has changed. I want all of this to change. I want that desperately.

But citizens of my state voted overwhelmingly for the white supremacist candidate in the past election, whose chief advisor is a known out-and-out white supremacist. Though we love pretending — along with many other Americans, many white Catholics in the North included, as they pretend that they vote Republican out of "working-class rage" — that we don't have a racist bone in our bodies and voted for Donald Trump (and hated Barack Obama) for entirely other reasons than racial ones.

*I read Elizabeth and Hazel in an unpaginated version on Kindle, and apologize to you that I cannot cite page numbers.

The iconic photo of Hazel Bryan screaming at Elizabeth Eckford as Elizabeth sought to go to school in 1957 is by Will Counts, and is available for sharing online at Wikipedia, under the fair use policy.

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