Thursday, April 1, 2010

Karen Anderson's "Little Rock"

Karen Anderson is professor of history at the University of Arizona. She is the author of Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II and coauthor of Present Tense: The United States Since 1945.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School, and reported the following:
In Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School, I offer new interpretations of the school desegregation crisis that developed in that Arkansas community in the 1950s by locating it more broadly in a context of rapid social change and heightened community fears and conflicts. I illuminate these themes by centering different social actors, including white women activists organized on both sides of the issue, and by focusing on the emotional cultures, political strategies, and competing visions of the public good evidenced by Little Rock’s activists.

Little Rock received national attention in the fall of 1957 when Governor Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the entry of nine African American students into all white Central High School. After President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered federal troops to protect the students’ right to enter, segregationists turned to new strategies, as I note on p. 99:
After the African American students returned to school on September 25, 1957, with protection from the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army and the recently federalized Arkansas National Guard, resistant white students began a long-term war of attrition designed to drive the black students from Central High. Taking advantage of the vast size of the school building and grounds, they orchestrated a campaign of verbal threats, name-calling, and physical harassment that ranged from shoving and tripping to spilling ink on students’ clothes and putting broken glass on the floor in the gym’s shower room.
The resistant white students received crucial assistance from adult supporters, including the Mothers’ League of Central High School, a small group of working class women. The Mothers’ League mobilized children as political actors and politicized their treatment when school officials tried to discipline them for harassing African American students. Their actions reflected and created a segregationist political culture focused on white “victimization” and righteous retribution against all whom they associated with desegregation. Rooted firmly in class anxieties, racial fears, fundamentalist religion, and sexual concerns, segregationists’ emotional culture fueled their movement and motivated their most important political miscalculations.

In response to segregationists’ threats to their power, school officials and their allies in the business community backed off from effectively protecting the black students, fearful that they would be creating “martyrs” to the segregationist cause. Business leaders, who were primarily concerned with maintaining a lawful image of their community in order to foster business development, adopted a politics of caution and evasion that ultimately paved the way for white flight. They faced opposition not only from the segregationists, but also from African Americans who sought to dismantle segregation at a faster pace than the glacial one desired by Little Rock’s moderates. After segregationists closed the public high schools in 1958, an organization of middle class white women, the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, formed. The liberal leaders of the WEC soon found themselves also at odds with the local power structure over issues related to race and the schools. Little Rock explains the outcomes and consequences of these interrelated struggles for local power.
Read an excerpt from Little Rock, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue