Silver Rights, by Constance Curry (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 1995, $21.95) 280 pages.
Warriors Don’t Cry, by Melba Pattillo Beals (New York: Pocket Books, 1994, $12) 312 pages.
In several of his essays, African-American author Ralph Ellison describes with pride his school, Frederick Douglass High. It was one of many excellent, though segregated, schools in the United States prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Yet the school is, to use a phrase from Paulo Freire, off the stage of history. Its existence is not part of the official historical record of schooling in this country and therefore its accomplishments were not part of the equation which judged the educational achievements of African Americans prior to the Brown Decision.
The school’s existence should be no surprise. I have always felt that it is indefensible to argue that there can be no all-African-American schools equal in excellence to white schools. For that reason, the Brown decision has always troubled me.
The decision was a valuable and necessary corrective to the horrors of legally enforced segregation. However, the specific wording of the decision — “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” — has racist implications. Were all-African-American schools unequal on their face or because they were forcibly segregated? Is the Brown decision based on the belief that the institution of forced segregation deprives the victims of segregation of basic constitutional guarantees and therefore is unconstitutional? But if that is the rationale for the decision, why not say it is the system of forced segregation that is at fault, not the all African-American nature of the school? Why use the charged word “inherently,” which according to the Oxford English Dictionary means “existing in something as a permanent attribute”?
In Brown, the Supreme Court avoided dealing with the difference between involuntary segregation and voluntary separation under conditions of the equitable distribution of resources and openness to the voluntary participation of outsiders. The former is a patent form of oppression. The latter, it can be argued, is part of the nature of democracy. One does not have to join into other people’s worlds in order to be a decent citizen and a compassionate member of society — so long as one’s choices do not deprive others of their freedom or insult, exclude, or oppress them.
The focus on “inherent” inequality in separate facilities, coupled with the assumption that integration alone produces equality, sidesteps what is arguably the main problem in education: racism. As a result, there is little done to address the racist nature of the “integrated” institutions that began accepting African-American children after the Brown decision.
WARRIORS DON’T CRY
Melba Pattillo Beals’ recent book, Warriors Don’t Cry, recounts her experiences as one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 — one of the watershed events of the Civil Rights Movement.
As a result of the Brown decision, the Little Rock school board had decided that a limited number of Black children would be allowed to join the 2,000 white students at Central High as part of a phased-in process of desegregation. White opposition to the phase-in surfaced quickly and barriers soon ensured that only 25 Black students would be allowed at Central. Threats pared the number down to nine. By the time school started, opposition among whites was so strong that President Dwight Eisenhower called in federal troops and the Arkansas National Guard to protect the personal safety of the Little Rock Nine.
Beals’ book is a searing personal narrative of the daily torture perpetrated on the Little Rock Nine. There is no other book I know that so powerfully reveals the ugliness and viciousness of white racism. It should be required reading, especially for teachers.
It was not just white students at Central High who victimized the Little Rock Nine but also the soldiers supposedly called in to protect them. Beals, for example, describes one characteristic incident after federal troops of the 101st Airborne Division were pulled out and the Arkansas National Guard replaced them. She writes: “I couldn’t get used to the fact that our safety now depended on nonchalant, tobacco-chewing adolescents who were most likely wearing white sheets and burning crosses on the lawns of our neighbors after sundown” (see story, page 23).
Beals also writes how other members of the Guard took more seriously their responsibility to protect the nine, providing a sense that not all white people were evil. In her diary, Beals describes how she relied on the troops and writes in her Sept. 30 entry: “Each morning as I arrive, I look for the soldiers. I don’t want to imagine what it would be like without them. Even inside the classroom where
things should be safe and civilized, I am never able to be comfortable because the teachers are not in control. I can’t even take pride in reciting. One boy in English class shouted, ‘Don’t let that nigger go to the blackboard.’”
Beals poignantly addresses the problem raised earlier in this essay — that the Brown decision, with its emphasis on inherent inequality and integration, doesn’t deal with the more fundamental problem of white racism in nominally desegregated schools. As Beals writes, again in her Sept. 30 entry:
“That Monday was the day on which I came to realize the price I would pay to become a Central High student. I tried to figure out why. And then I knew it was because I was treated as though I were an outside observer, sitting and looking into a glass room that held all the white students, separate and apart from me. I was never really included in what they were doing. With that realization, a new pain seeped into my heart — a feeling I hadn’t experienced before. It felt as if I were a ghost, observing life, excited about it, but excluded. I wasn’t really a part of their world. I was treated as if I didn’t exist.”
Beals is now living in San Francisco and working as a writer and public relations consultant, after having worked as a journalist for NBC. At the end of her book, she reflects upon the consequences of her personal sacrifices for the larger goal of school integration. The reflection is notable for its refusal to embrace simplistic answers. She writes:
“ … Even as I wince at the terrible risk we all took, I remember thinking at the time that it was the right decision — because it felt as though the hand of fate was ushering us forward. Naive and trusting, adults and children alike, we kept thinking each moment, each hour, each day, that things would get better, that these people would come to their senses and behave. This is a land governed by sane citizens who obey the law, at least that’s what we’re taught in history class.
“So we headed down a path from which there was no turning back, because when we thought of alternatives, the only option was living our lives behind the fences of segregation and passing on that legacy to our children.
“Today, when I see how far we have progressed in terms of school integration, in some instances I am pleased. In other areas I am very angry. Why have we not devised a workable plan for solving a problem that has so long plagued this nation? We put a man on the moon because we committed the resources to do so. Today, thirty-six years after the Central High crisis, school integration is still not a reality, and we use children as tender warriors on the battlefield to achieve racial equality.”
Constance Curry’s Silver Rights is the story of Mae Bertha and Matthew Carter and seven of their 13 children who integrated the schools in Drew, Mississippi in 1965. (The older children had to leave Mississippi in order to get a decent education.) The book is shaped by the author and narrator, Constance Curry, who was field representative of the American Friends Service Committee when the Carters integrated the schools in Drew. Curry was part of a civil rights and religious support network that made it possible for the Carters to survive the threats, violence, and pressures that the family faced.
One cannot help but admire the Carters’ strength and their determined, perhaps irrational, belief in American democracy. Above all, the book is a story of abiding religious faith, underscoring the powerful role that religion can play in sustaining social struggle. Mae Bertha Carter describes what it was like to wonder every morning whether her children would return safe from school. She writes:
“When the bus pulled off, I went in and fell down cross the bed and prayed. I stayed on that bed and didn’t do no work that day. No ‘covering’ in sight this time. I didn’t feel good and stayed cross the bed
and when I heard the bus coming, I went back to the porch. When they came off one by one, then I was released until the next morning. But the next morning I felt the same way, depressed, nervous, praying to God. I wasn’t saying a whole lot of words; just saying, ‘take care of my kids’
— no time for all those other words. And I didn’t do housecleaning until the children came home. After about a month, I started easing up a little bit. I had prayed to God so much! I had been going to church and talking about trusting in Jesus, but I never trusted Jesus until my children went to that all-white school. That school for sure brought me to God!”
Silver Rights is constructed as a success story that shows how faith and courage triumph over adversity. Twenty years ago I would have been moved and heartened by the story. Today, I am enraged at what the family was forced to suffer, to little purpose. The story strikes me more as a white racists horror story than a tale of courage and steadfastness. The horror of the current situation is underlined when Mae Bertha notes, at the end of the book, that the same racist who put his children into White Citizens schools in the 1960s now sits in control of the schools in her community. As Constance Curry reports:
“Despite the parent groups’ efforts, William DuBard remains chair of the school board after twenty-five years, during which time none of his children attended the public schools. Following his most recent appointment by the board of aldermen in 1993, Mae Bertha and other parents voiced their displeasure to the aldermen, who responded that DuBard’s experience and wisdom in school matters overshadowed any other considerations, and so DuBard will hold office again until 1997. ‘Sounds just like the sixties sometimes,’ Mae Bertha told me. ‘But you know, we won back then and kept our children in the white schools then, by the help of God and hard work. Now we’ll just have to set these schools straight again.’”
WHAT PRICE INTEGRATION?
Curry’s narrative implies that it is worth keeping the children in white schools. But what is the price African-American children must pay when racism remains institutionally sanctioned in integrated schools? Integration in this country is not a two-way street, and African Americans have been asked to go into schools with a dominant white culture and power structure. That racism did not disappear when the schools were integrated.
Framing the issue as one of integration and not institutional racism has led to a host of problems. To cite a few:
- Some schools are theoretically integrated but tracking and “ability-grouping” are used to maintain an in-school system of segregation.
- Experienced African-American teachers were fired and replaced with “more credentialed” white teachers.
- Schools were closed in African-American neighborhoods and the students were dispersed over large geographical areas, undercutting parent and community involvement in the schools.
It is possible to create decent schools that serve a diverse student body, in which racial and class differences are a source of pride rather than stigma, and in which achievement is a personal matter. To create such schools, however, requires a specific and conscious effort to address institutional and community manifestations of racism.
If the problems addressed by the Brown decision were redefined as racism and forced separation instead of integration, remedies would have to confront white privilege and racism. The “inherency” argument avoids this issue. It assumes that white schools are worth becoming part of, rather than institutions that need to be radically transformed as their demographics change.
What kind of schools are African American and Latino students being asked to integrate into? And on what terms? What does it mean if we are asking students to integrate into racist institutions? This is not an argument against bringing together children of diverse backgrounds. It is a warning that unless white people take the responsibility to forge anti-racist curricula and learning environments, we will fail.
Warriors Don’t Cry
The following excerpt from Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals describes what it was like to integrate Central High in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.
… My hopes for a more peaceful day were dashed. Showers of loud insults greeted us. Straight ahead, in front of the school, I could see a group of about fifty boys waiting at the top of the stairs as they had the day before. This time, however, they descended on us like locusts. “Get the coons! Get the coons!” The boys were brash and bold, behaving as though they feared no consequences. …
Minnijean, Ernie, and I decided to retreat, but just then, vice principal Huckaby made her presence known at the bottom of the stairs. Tiny, erect, and determined, she stood there all alone between us and our attackers, demanding they leave us alone. One by one she challenged the leaders, calling them by name, telling them to get to class or there would be hell to pay. I had to respect her for what she did. Whether or not she favored integration, she had a heck of a lot of guts.
We circled around to the Sixteenth and Park Street entrance. As I climbed the stairs, there was no sign of Danny — or the other 101st guards I knew. In fact, I didn’t see any uniformed soldiers. Just inside of the front entrance, where Danny usually stood, I saw some of the same hooligans who had tried to block our entrance only moments before. They moved toward me, and I circled away from them and walked quickly down the hall. I was desperately trying to figure out why there weren’t any teachers or school officials guarding the halls the way they usually were.
I panicked; I couldn’t decide where to go or what to do next. I was being pounded on my arms, my back, and my legs by angry students. Their blows hurt so much that my desire to stop the pain and survive overpowered the fear that paralyzed me. I got hold of myself. No matter what, I knew I had to stand up to them even if I got kicked out of school for doing it.
“Dead niggers don’t go to school,” someone said, hitting me hard in the stomach. My first instinct was to double over. The pain burned my insides. But I stood still and stared at my attacker without flinching. He taunted me: “You ain’t thinking of hitting me back?”
“I’m gonna cut your guts out,” I said, standing my ground. There was a long pause while we stared each other down. It was a bluff, but it worked. Looking almost frightened and mumbling under his breath, he backed off.
Just then, I noticed the members of the Arkansas National Guard lounging against the walls like cats in sunlight. Gathered in small clusters with smug, grinning expressions on their faces, they had been watching my confrontation all along. I couldn’t get used to the fact that our safety now depended on nonchalant, tobacco-chewing adolescents who were most likely wearing white sheets and burning crosses on the lawns of our neighbors after sundown.
I had walked only a few steps before I was knocked to the floor. I called out for help. Three men from the Guard gave further substance to my suspicions by taking their time to respond, moving toward me in slow motion.