Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation

Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation

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by Elizabeth Jacoway

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In September 1957, the nation was transfixed by nine black students attempting to integrate Central High School in Little Rock in the wake of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. Governor Orval Faubus had defied the city's integration plan by calling out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school.See more details below


In September 1957, the nation was transfixed by nine black students attempting to integrate Central High School in Little Rock in the wake of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. Governor Orval Faubus had defied the city's integration plan by calling out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school. Newspapers across the nation ran front-page photographs of whites, both students and parents, screaming epithets at the quiet, well-dressed black children. President Eisenhower reluctantly deployed troops from the 101st Air-borne, both outside and inside the school.

Integration proceeded, but the turmoil of Little Rock had only just begun. Public schools were soon shut down for a full year. Black students endured outrageous provocation by white classmates. Governor Faubus's popularity skyrocketed, while the landmark case Cooper v. Aaron worked its way to the Supreme Court and eventually paved the way for the integration of the south.

Betsy Jacoway was a Little Rock student just two years younger than the youngest of the Little Rock Nine. Her "Uncle Virgil" was Superintendent of Schools Virgil Blossom. Congressman Brooks Hays was an old family friend, and her "Uncle Dick" was Richard Butler, the lawyer who argued Cooper v. Aaron before the Supreme Court. Yet, at the time, she was cocooned away from the controversy in a protective shell that was typical for white southern "good girls." Only in graduate school did she begin to question the foundations of her native world, and her own distance from the controversy.

Turn Away Thy Son is the product of thirty years of digging behind the conventional account of the crisis, interviewing whites and blacks, officials and students, activists and ordinary citizens. A tour de force of history and memory, it is also a brilliant, multifaceted mirror to hold up to America today. She knows what happened to the brave black students once they got inside the doors of the school. She knows how the whites' fear of "race mixing" drove many locals to extremes of anger, paranoia, and even violence. She knows that Orval Faubus was only a reluctant segregationist, and that her own cousin's timid tokenism precipitated the crisis.

Above all, Turn Away Thy Son shows in vivid detail why school desegregation was the hottest of hot-button issues in the Jim Crow south. In the deepest recesses of the southern psyche, Jacoway encounters the fear of giving black men sexual access to white women. The truth about Little Rock differs in many ways from the caricature that emerged in the press and in many histories -- but those differences pale in comparison to the fundamental driving force behind the story. Turn Away Thy Son is a riveting, heartbreaking, eye-opening book.

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Editorial Reviews

Stanley N. Katz
What we hear in this marvelous, insightful and courageous volume is the voice of a native southern liberal judging her own community honestly and harshly.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Alex Lichtenstein
Jacoway enlivens her text with a host of moving anecdotes and colorful characters.
Chicago Tribune
An absorbing and surprising account that reveals our nation at its best and worst. It is also a balanced and scrupulously fair story.

Juan Wiliams
Turn Away Thy Son, then, offers a different view of the governor and a sexy angle on the entire Little Rock crisis. There is no discovery here that will require us to rewrite the drama's history, but this book is a reminder of the sexual tension behind many of the nation's debates about race.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Although the ingredients for a groundbreaking account of the 1957 integration of Little Rock's Central High School are here, this account by the niece of the city's superintendent of schools falls short of its promise. A Little Rock native who went to a different school during the crisis, Jacoway draws on more than 50 interviews of her own, which include all the major players, along with dozens of interviews conducted by others, and private and public manuscripts. But the result is a numbing mass of detail that entombs the drama and its personae. The oral histories add verisimilitude, but the day-by-day, even hour-by-hour, detail is frequently tedious. The total effect is, curiously, a vindication of Gov. Orval Faubus and a reproach of journalist Harry Ashmore and the author's uncle, Superintendent Virgil Blossom. A daring subtext, that the root of the crisis was "a white fear of miscegenation," frames the book in preface and afterword. Jacoway's insight that "female questioning could somehow threaten the established order" also makes her particularly attentive to the roles women played in causing and calming the crisis. The result is an informative but dully written book. (Jan.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Little Rock, AK, became ground zero in September 1957 in the social revolution that was U.S. public school desegregation. For the 50th anniversary of the crisis, independent Ph.D.-trained historian Jacoway extends her earlier Understanding the Little Rock Crisis (coauthored with Fred Williams), focusing on primary figures involved between 1957 and 1959. She thus personalizes the advent, events, and aftermath of fearful cultural change through which she lived as the white teenage niece of the city's superintendent of schools. Applauding the white leadership that found ways to accommodate the blacks who resolutely insisted on equal civil rights, she ends on a note of unfinished business in a re-segregated America. Copiously documented, Jacoway's detailed, engaging narrative of personal and political costs of changing attitudes centers the deepest sources of segregationist behavior in sexual taboos and an orthodoxy of white superiority and racial caste. Comparable with Diane McWhorter's acclaimed Carry Me Home, this rich reconstruction is an essential read for the white side of the integration story. Highly recommended for civil rights, local, and Southern history collections.-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Thoughtful recounting of a fateful year-plus of desegregation in the Deep South by a native daughter. Jacoway, a historian who was just a couple of grades behind the so-called Little Rock Nine, writes with measured wonder about the state of the world during her childhood, when militant governor Orval Faubus cried totalitarianism at the federally ordered dismantling of Jim Crow educational laws and the civil-rights movement acquired a potent icon in Elizabeth Eckford, a black student who inaugurated desegregation at Little Rock's Central High, "absorbing an outpouring of white rage." Such signal moments, historians recognize, are the product of great social forces. But they are also the work of individuals, some barely remembered today, and the chief virtue of Jacoway's well-written study is its concern for individuals and small moments. Daisy Bates, for instance, the noted civil-rights activist, planned to drive the black students to Central High, where they would be surrounded by a cordon of black and white ministers who would serve as a "moral shield" against the hostile crowd. But the Eckfords did not have a telephone, and so Elizabeth unknowingly entered the lion's den of Central High alone. She was threatened with death, as was a Communist firebrand named Mrs. Lorch, who responded with threats of her own. In the meanwhile, Governor Faubus-who had been helped into office by the pioneering integrationist reporter and editor Harry Ashmore-had ordered the Arkansas National Guard not to keep the peace, but to keep black students away. Jacoway's narrative introduces readers to important and passing characters on both sides of the struggle, who fought bitterly as the Little Rock case wentup before the Supreme Court. They fought less bitterly afterward, when most Arkansans accepted the Court's upholding of the federal desegregation mandate-a ruling, Jacoway notes, that "left unanswered many of the procedural questions that plagued southern school boards in ensuing years."A lucid and revealing key to events of half a century ago, when moral suasion and self-interest together "trumped racist values in Arkansas's capital city"-and beyond.
From the Publisher
“A lucid and revealing key to events of a half century ago.” —Kirkus Review “An absorbing and surprising account that reveals our nation at its best and worst. It is also a balanced and scrupulously fair story.” —Booklist “What we hear in this marvelous, insightful and courageous volume is the voice of a native southern liberal judging her own community honestly and harshly.” —Stanley N. Katz, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette “Jacoway enlivens her text with a host of moving anecdotes and colorful characters.” —Alex Lichtenstein, Chicago Tribune “This is a mesmerizing and brave book, a story with complicated layers and meaning for all Americans, a heroic saga of progress and its consequences.” —Ken Burns, director of Jazz and The War

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Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford wanted to be a lawyer. Thurgood Marshall was her hero, and although she had never dared to hope she might one day meet the man who had argued and won Brown v. Board of Education before the United States Supreme Court, the African-American youngster dreamed of doing the same kinds of daring things for her people. When, however, her principal at all-black Horace Mann High School asked in the spring of 1957 who wanted to help pioneer desegregation at Little Rock Central High School in the fall, shy, serious Elizabeth did not raise her hand. Explaining her hesitation several years later, she recalled that she had thought she could not reach such an important decision without a lot of careful deliberation.

As a consequence, Elizabeth was not included among the sixteen students Superintendent Virgil Blossom had selected to initiate desegregation in September. She knew she wanted to go to college, however, and she knew that Central High School offered courses she would not be able to take if she stayed at Horace Mann. After thinking about it all summer, Elizabeth finally told her mother in August she wanted to go to Central High. Birdie Eckford hoped her quiet, studious daughter would change her mind.

In her own childhood Birdie Eckford had witnessed in her hometown the death of a black man at the hands of a white mob that was similar to a gruesome 1927 lynching on the streets of Little Rock. She had felt the same wave of panic wash over the black community, much as it had in Little Rock when a black man captured after the rape and murder of a young white girl had been hanged, riddled with over two hundred bullets, dragged by the head for blocks behind an automobile, and then thrown on the trolley tracks at the intersection of Ninth and Broadway in the heart of the black business district and set ablaze.

Along with other members of Little Rock's African American community, Birdie Eckford had absorbed from such experiences the lessons of growing up black in the South, and she feared the white beast that could rise up at any moment and strike her people. Her husband, Oscar, had learned in his Little Rock childhood that any time a white woman came toward him on the street he should cross to the other side, just to remove all possibility of her sensing anything untoward in his glance or manner. For their own survival, southern blacks had to understand and explain to their children, especially their sons, the chemistry that could unharness the beast.

Elizabeth Eckford had learned from her parents, and from the grandfather who doted on her, the demands and the function of hard work. Her father later told a visiting reporter that he was the only man in Little Rock who worked nine days a week: seven nights at the Little Rock railroad station, and two days cleaning the home of a white Arkansas National Guard colonel. Birdie taught laundry skills at the Arkansas School for the Blind and Deaf Negro, where she had a son enrolled, and she also took correspondence courses in psychology and English literature. Grandfather Oscar owned a grocery store and worked long hours; he catered to an integrated clientele, and Elizabeth had noted he was as forthright and dignified with his white patrons as with his black ones. Of all his grandchildren Oscar Eckford Sr. had a special bond with tiny Elizabeth, apparently seeing in her some of the spunk he valued in himself. As Elizabeth's father explained, "Maybe Papa felt that he and I didn't do nothing, so maybe Elizabeth would."

Elizabeth persevered in badgering her reluctant mother, and finally Birdie agreed to take her second daughter for an interview with Superintendent Virgil Blossom. Elizabeth had all A's and B's and her school record was a model of citizenship. After keeping Elizabeth and her mother waiting for a very long time, Dr. Blossom tried to discourage the youngster, as he had all the other applicants, by explaining she would not be allowed to participate in any extracurricular activities. The determined fifteen-year-old quietly held her own against the imposing former football coach, however, and Blossom added Elizabeth Eckford to the list of students already slated to enter Central High School the next week. As a consequence of her late decision, Elizabeth missed the preparation some of the other students had been receiving at the home of Daisy Bates, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Elizabeth had paid attention throughout the summer as an increasingly vocal group of white people, the Capital Citizens' Council, had mounted a propaganda campaign against the planned desegregation of Central High School. She had been confident, however, that school authorities and the local police would maintain order at the high school, and she felt nervously excited rather than fearful as the opening of the fall term approached. In preparation for that day, in her small, crowded household, she laid out on the living room floor the fabric and pattern for a new dress, a beautiful white shirtwaist with a deep gingham hem, to wear on the first day of school. Her sewing occupied her thoughts in the last few days. Even as Governor Orval Faubus surrounded her new high school with armed National Guardsmen on the night of September 2, Elizabeth fretted over her new white buck loafers and bobby socks, making sure that everything was ready for this exciting new chapter in her life.

Birdie Eckford was terrified by the Arkansas governor's actions. She thought she heard him say on television that if the black children insisted on pressing their right to attend Central High School at that time, "blood will run in the streets" of Little Rock. The next day the black children stayed home while the Little Rock School Board went into federal court to ask for a temporary delay of its integration plan. Federal Judge Ronald Davies, visiting from North Dakota to clear up a backlog of cases, noted the governor had said his Guardsmen would function neither as integrationists nor segregationists but only to preserve the peace. He ordered the School Board to proceed immediately with its federally mandated plan. The children and their parents had met that same afternoon with Superintendent Blossom, and when they got home Birdie Eckford insisted the family pray together. After dinner Birdie instructed Elizabeth to read Psalms 27 and 4.

Filled with excitement and a growing apprehension, Elizabeth tossed and turned all night, finally rising early on the morning of September 4 to iron her new dress one last time. When her little brother turned on the television and the announcer blared that a crowd was already forming in front of Central High School, Birdie shouted from the kitchen "Turn that TV off!" Oscar Eckford paced back and forth through the house chewing on his pipe and carrying a cigar, both unlit, and Elizabeth would have laughed if she had not been so nervous. After reading Psalm 27 one last time, the plucky teen told her parents not to worry and boarded the city bus, alone, for the short ride to Central High School.

Elizabeth did not know that late the night before, Daisy Bates had arranged for the black children to assemble at her home in order to drive them as a group to meet with city policemen two blocks from the school. From that point, a group of black and white ministers planned to escort the children to the school grounds and to offer themselves as a moral shield of protection in the event a hostile crowd assembled outside the school. Working into the early morning hours to call all of the parents, an exhausted Bates realized at length the Eckfords did not have a telephone. She fell into bed making a mental note to find Elizabeth in the morning. The next morning, Bates forgot about Elizabeth in the crush of activity at her home. Meanwhile, Governor Faubus was changing his orders to the National Guard, instructing them not simply to "keep the peace" as he had the day before, but to bar the black children from the campus of Central High School.

When the bus deposited her at the corner of Twelfth and Park Streets Elizabeth could see the large crowd that had formed in front of the massive buff brick school. As she approached the corner of Fourteenth and Park, she felt comforted by the presence of the National Guardsmen ringing the school, and she headed for the sidewalk behind the line of soldiers so they would be between her and the noisy protesters. Elizabeth neared the soldiers and was relieved to see a white girl pass between them. One of the Guardsmen, however, motioned for her to cross to the other side of the street, suggesting she should approach the decidedly unfriendly throng of about two hundred whites.

Obedient as always, Elizabeth did as she was told, and the whites initially drew back to let her pass. When, however, she heard one man say "Here she comes, now get ready!" she felt the first real fear surge through her. She moved to the middle of the street, walking with the soldiers on her right and the large band of increasingly hostile whites on her left.

Elizabeth saw some white students pass through the line of soldiers about halfway down the two-block campus, and she headed for that spot. Whites were crowding close behind her saying such things as "Go back where you came from! Go home before you get hurt, nigger. Why don't you go back to the goddamn jungle!" As she told a local white minister several days later, she began to grow fearful, but the proud and dignified young girl also worried she would "bust out crying and I didn't want to in front of all that crowd."

When the frightened child finally arrived at the midpoint of the campus and tried to pass between two soldiers, they raised their guns and barred her entry. Her knees now shaking, Elizabeth turned to face the mob, hoping to find a friendly or compassionate soul. One grey-haired woman seemed to have a kindly manner, but when the black girl looked at her beseechingly, the woman spat in her face.

With dignity and composure, Elizabeth turned and walked briskly toward the Sixteenth Street bus stop. As she traveled that nightmarishly long block, an aroused mob trailed closely behind her hurling threats and epithets. "Lynch her!" was the one she remembered. At some point during the seemingly endless journey, a young photographer for the Arkansas Democrat snapped a haunting picture that soon traveled around the globe, later becoming an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. That picture of a stoic Elizabeth Eckford absorbing an outpouring of white rage suggested the depth of black courage, endurance, and hope.

Elizabeth made her way to the bus stop at Sixteenth and Park and considered sitting on the bench. With the mob at her heels, however, she decided to cross over to Ponder's Drug Store and use their telephone to call a taxi. As the terrified child approached the store, someone inside locked the door. Elizabeth went back to the bench and sat down, while people around her shouted "Lynch her!" and "Nigger bitch!" A black man she had never met materialized beside her -- it was L. C. Bates. He pulled back his coat to show he had a gun in his belt and invited her to leave the scene with him. Elizabeth knew her strict mother would never approve her leaving with a strange man, and she declined.

Handsome Terrence Roberts sat down beside her, another one of the black students Virgil Blossom had selected who had also been turned away, and he suggested they walk home together. Elizabeth knew he lived closer to the school than she did, and she feared what any whites who chose to trail along behind them might do to her once Terrence went into his own home. She decided to wait for a bus.

As Elizabeth began to cry, New York Times education editor Benjamin Fine sat beside her on the bench and laid down his notepad, abandoning his role as a journalist. Putting an arm around her he lifted her chin and said, "Don't let them see you cry." It helped the frightened child regain her composure. Now the mob descended on the Jewish New Yorker, shifting easily from racism to anti-Semitism, and threatened the small, appalled newsman that if he did not stop interfering they would castrate him. Elizabeth sat frozen, raging in her mind against Virgil Blossom, Daisy Bates, and the other white newsmen and photographers who were doing nothing to help her. When word went through the crowd that more black children were trying to enter the school, most of the newsmen abandoned Elizabeth to her tormentors and dashed the length of the campus to cover the new action.

While the minutes ticked away, Elizabeth's pulse began to return to normal as the milling crowd lost interest in her and shifted its attention to events at the other end of the long block. Suddenly a white woman appeared and began to berate the crowd for its mistreatment of Elizabeth. "She's scared," Grace Lorch challenged the mob. "She's just a little girl.... Six months from now you'll be ashamed at what you're doing." Cries of "Nigger-lover!" flew up on all sides. Mrs. Lorch, the wife of a mathematics professor at the local black college, Philander Smith College, was also a member of the Communist Party. Elizabeth did not know this, of course, but she thought in terror that the woman was trying to incite a riot. Finally a city bus arrived and Elizabeth rose to board it, as did Mrs. Lorch.

A few young toughs stood in front of the bus and said to the older woman, "You nigger lover, you are not going to get on this bus." Mrs. Lorch raised her hands and said, "I am just aching to punch someone in the nose. This is what I have been wanting to do, just waiting for. You stand there and you will get your nose punched in." The bullies backed down and faded away. Glad as she was to escape the situation, Elizabeth believed Mrs. Lorch demonstrated a lack of sincere concern for her when the older woman got off the bus a few blocks later without seeing the frightened teenager safely to her destination.

Elizabeth rode the bus to her mother's school. When she arrived at the laundry area where Birdie worked she found her mother standing by the window with head bowed, terrified after hearing accounts on the radio of her daughter's ordeal. Elizabeth collapsed into her mother's arms and wept. As Mrs. Eckford recalled, "I went with her to the rest room, and she braced up and came on home alone." The two women then did what their survival under segregated oppression had taught them to do: they squared their shoulders, and they raised their chins.

National Council of Churches representative Will Campbell, who was in town as an observer, had volunteered to join Ministerial Alliance President Dunbar Ogden in escorting the black children to Central High when Ogden was unable to secure such a commitment from any other white minister in Little Rock. Forty years later Campbell looked at the pictures of that day and said, "'Where,' the photographs cry out, 'are the white Christians in this scene?'" In the same volume of images Hazel Bryan, the young white girl who shouted "Nigger!" at Elizabeth Eckford in Will Counts's haunting picture, described herself as having been "very religious" at the point in her life when she hurled such slurs. Hazel Bryan's story complicates the standard narrative seemingly depicted in Counts's iconic photograph.

Hazel had grown up in the country close to Pine Bluff, one of the centers of black population and white racism in Arkansas. She had had affectionate relationships with several older black women in her poor, rural community. As a child she was never encouraged explicitly to hate blacks, but as she recalled years later, "...you just somehow knew from the expression or the tone of 'nigger.'" According to Hazel, both of her parents were "very racially prejudiced," as were literally all of the whites of their acquaintance. A member of the Church of Christ, which was among the most rigid practitioners of Christian fundamentalism, she never heard directly from the pulpit that the races should be kept separate, but in thinking back to those days, she remembered "...you always got the idea that you weren't supposed to marry, intermarry...."

Hazel's family had moved to Little Rock when she was nine so her mother could take a job at the Westinghouse lightbulb factory. Her father was a disabled veteran who stayed at home and drove the children to school. Hazel had spent the summer of 1957 dancing to rock 'n' roll music in the numerous lakeside pavilions around Little Rock, and especially on the popular afternoon television program Steve's Show, where she had gotten to be friends with the other white girl in Will Counts's picture, Sammie Dean Parker. Parker later became one of the ringleaders of the segregationist students inside Central High School, while Hazel's parents withdrew her from Central and sent her to one of the county high schools, mainly for what they perceived to be her "protection." Hazel's addiction to rock 'n' roll and her swooning over the highly sexualized, black-influenced sounds and gyrations of Elvis Presley caused her parents to fear, as did so many other white parents across the nation, that traditional cultural norms were giving way to something base and sinister.

Hazel's father took her to school on September 4, as did Sammie Dean's father, and they met in the carnival atmosphere of the crowd outside the school. Boys waved Confederate flags, a man played "Dixie" on his coronet, and a minister with a bullhorn bellowed at the crowd, "They don't want in your school, they want in your bedroom!"

Suddenly Elizabeth Eckford appeared in Hazel and Sammie Dean's line of vision, coming toward them with a crowd at her heels. As she passed, they fell in behind her followed by Sammie Dean's father, the menacing-looking man in Counts's photograph. The two girls, both show-offs with an unexpected audience of photographers, and getting swept up into the spirit of the moment, joined the heckling. Hazel had no awareness of the issues involved, and as a typical 1950s teenage girl, she had no interest in the larger world of politics and social concerns. She recalled years later that Mr. Parker was angry with his daughter for placing herself in such a dangerous situation. Instead of heckling Elizabeth Eckford, as countless viewers of the photograph have assumed over the years, he was ordering Sammie Dean off the street.

Hazel knew immediately she had made a mistake, and as the Civil Rights Movement unfolded and she understood increasingly the depth of her error, she called Elizabeth and apologized in 1962. She kept quiet about her role in the affair for the next thirty-five years, until the fortieth anniversary of the Little Rock crisis in 1997, when she attempted to do penance for her behavior by confessing it publicly and apologizing again to Elizabeth. By that time she had experienced dramatic growth in her religious and racial views. She had left the church and worked for a number of social betterment causes in Little Rock, especially in programs to help black children learn to read. Hazel's story reveals unexamined dimensions of the struggle for desegregation in Little Rock, and elsewhere. Her experience adds depth and texture to Will Campbell's oversimplified question concerning the apparent contradiction between Christianity's central command to "love thy neighbor" and the segregationists' hate-filled treatment of the black people in their midst.

The sources of white hatred and rage toward African-Americans were as old as relationships between the two races on the American continent. White racism stemmed primarily from the fear in white minds of pollution, of race-mixing, of miscegenation, of "mongrelization." It stemmed from a fear of the loss of racial purity, the loss of control of white women, the loss of potency, both social and physical. It stemmed from a fear of black sexual exuberance and capacity. That fear was at the heart of white America's perception of black character and personality. Once aroused, it often became the operant element in unleashing primitive, irrational behavior. Elizabeth Eckford did not know, when she alighted from her bus at Twelfth and Park, that she was walking into the jaws of the beast.

Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth Jacoway

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What People are saying about this

Alex Lichtenstein
"Jacoway enlivens her text with a host of moving anecdotes and colorful characters."--(Alex Lichtenstein, Chicago Tribune)
Ken Burns
"This is a mesmerizing and brave book, a story with complicated layers and meaning for all Americans, a heroic saga of progress and its consequences."--(Ken Burns, director of Jazz and The War)
Stanley N. Katz
"What we hear in this marvelous, insightful and courageous volume is the voice of a native southern liberal judging her own community honestly and harshly."--(Stanley N. Katz, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

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