Showdown Over Segregation

Students are blocked by the Arkansas National Guard  from entering Central High School.
Students are blocked by the Arkansas National Guard from entering Central High School. (Francis Miller / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)
Reviewed by Juan Williams
Sunday, March 18, 2007


Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked

The Nation

By Elizabeth Jacoway

Free Press. 477 pp. $30

Fifty years after the national crisis sparked by the integration of Little Rock's Central High School, this book makes the case that all the headlines about rioting, political feuds and the arrival of the 101st Airborne hid a deeper truth.

Elizabeth Jacoway, an academic who has spent 30 years researching Little Rock, argues that the fear of black men having sex with white women was the hidden yet powerful dread that inspired much of the opposition to enrolling nine black students at Central. Jacoway argues that Southern resistance to integrated schools was rooted in white men's insistence on controlling white women and white bloodlines by keeping them away from black men. "In the mannerly, distinctly southern environment of Little Rock, such sexual concerns rarely rise to the level of verbal discourse, and almost never in the company of women, then or now," Jacoway notes.

The author -- the niece of Virgil Blossom, Little Rock's school superintendent at the time of the 1957 crisis -- was in the ninth grade when the city's schools were ordered shut by the state, then integrated by a reluctant President Eisenhower. At the time, she recalls not understanding and not caring about the racial turmoil taking place in the city, involving her uncle and several family friends who were leading Arkansas political figures. She then went off to college where, by her account, she "majored in sorority life" and heard the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" twisted into a parody that began, "We Shall All Be Beige." But after doing graduate work on Southern history at the University of North Carolina, she began to research her hometown's defining moment.

Her theory about white sexual anxiety acts as a spicy subplot to a generally scholarly book. At its best, this is a comprehensive, sometimes overly detailed telling of the Little Rock crisis. Armed with five decades of books written by the principals in the drama, as well as interviews, newspaper accounts, letters, legal briefs and legal rulings, Jacoway offers a sometimes stilted, character-driven narrative that moves the accepted telling of the tale from the world of segregationist politics to the world of personal failings and insecurities.

Jacoway's theory that the "subtext of the whole experience was . . . a white fear of miscegenation" is not new, of course. The historian Winthrop D. Jordan famously explored the idea in his 1968 classic White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, in which he described white men with split emotions, mixing desire and repulsion and craving sex across racial lines. Jordan concluded that, most often, white men had sex with black women as a "ritualistic re-enactment of the daily pattern of social dominance," looking to such real-life cases as Thomas Jefferson and such cultural touchstones as "Othello."

Turn Away Thy Son superimposes such theories on the Little Rock crisis. Jacoway notes that the city's school board wanted to start integration at the high school level, assuming that mature white girls, aware of the rules of Southern society, would be better trained to handle relationships with black boys. She recounts opponents to school integration playing an audio tape at mass meetings with a male voice, falsely identified as a black Howard University professor, saying that white men prefer black women and that the white woman is "violently dissatisfied with the white man." Amis Guthridge, a leader of the Little Rock chapter of the segregationist group White America Inc., tells one audience that school integration is all about black men having white wives: "They want in the white bedroom."

In this version of the Little Rock story, only one black person comes to life as a compelling actor on the stage of history: Daisy Bates, the young president of the Arkansas branch of the NAACP. Meanwhile, the nine black students at the center of the commotion are portrayed almost as extras, sympathetic victims of circumstance caught up in a psychosexual drama. The sexual angle seems to have had its impact on them, though; Jacoway reports that at least four of the Little Rock Nine married whites.

Beyond her theory about the sexual roots of the crisis, Jacoway tries to break new ground with her unconventional description of Arkansas's Democratic governor, Orval Faubus. Most histories of the crisis conclude that Faubus, facing pressure from a segregationist opponent as he campaigned for a third term, cynically decided to appease racist elements in the state by calling out the National Guard to prevent the black students from entering Central High. But Jacoway's retelling gives the governor less control over events; she casts Faubus as a weak leader trapped under the weight of well-organized resistance to school integration from the White Citizens' Council and other groups determined not to have Arkansas become the first Southern state to comply with the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Jacoway's version of events is a deliberate -- and convincing -- counter to the way the story was told by Arkansas's top journalist of the time, Harry Ashmore. But she dismisses Ashmore -- the editor of the Arkansas Gazette who won a 1958 Pulitzer Prize for his editorials on the crisis -- as an indifferent journalist who became a darling of Northern parlors for bashing white Southerners as "rednecks." Jacoway blames Ashmore for portraying the fight over Central High as a crisis manufactured by Faubus; in her telling, Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to keep black children out of Central High School because he was frustrated by the success his political opponents were having in using segregationist rhetoric to stir white voters.

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. ยท

Juan Williams is a senior correspondent for NPR's "Morning Edition" and a contributing political analyst for the Fox News Channel. His books include "Thurgood Marshall," and, most recently, "Enough."

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