Today in 1957, nine African American students were escorted by federal troops through a screaming white crowd into Little Rock Central High School, the culmination of a bitter desegregation battle. Though of course the harassment and abuse of the students continued long afterward.
Boston Review, noting the anniversary, tweeted out a recent essay about a spate of books that dig into the precise organization of the various revolts against movements for equality in American society. Far from marginal, these efforts are more widespread and much more deeply rooted than many people want to recognize. Included is Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance, which provides important context on all the screaming, vicious white women you see in the background of photographs from events like the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. White women were crucial to the perpetuation of Jim Crow, and they played their part with relish:
Mothers of Massive Resistance shows how white women defined, refined, and defended a white supremacist social order. In the 1920s, they worked as investigators who policed eugenicist “racial integrity” laws. Later, McRae argues, they became “Jim Crow storytellers,” affirming in columns, textbooks, and speeches “the oft-repeated fiction of a content black population in need of white oversight.” Here and elsewhere, their work orbited around the vision of white women as the guardians of domestic life, which encompassed homes, children, and schools. They may not have been the most visible public faces of the Jim Crow order, but they were “segregation’s constant gardeners.”
And we continue to live with the fruits of their efforts today:
They forged coalitions with non-southerners who shared compatible values and outlooks. They learned to frame their opposition to desegregation in terms of ostensibly non-racial threats: federal power, communism, the United Nations, and especially the subversion of traditional family structures. Southern segregationist women helped cross-pollinate their movement with those of conservatives beyond the South, people for whom racial segregation was equally desirable if sometimes less existential. (Indeed, McRae wants us to abandon the shopworn regional distinction between southern “segregationists” and northern “conservatives.”) They learned to modulate their language to their audience and to build lasting bridges across regional lines.
The Guardian revisited the event on its sixtieth anniversary, last year, pointing out:
It will be a moment to reflect on how far the US has come in unravelling educational apartheid – and whether, in recent years, progress has stalled or even reversed.
The share of “intensely segregated” black schools has trebled over the past 25 years, according to research by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which warns of a “resegregation” taking hold. Trickey, who turned 76 earlier this month, asks bleakly: “What kind of country doesn’t see education for all children to be the primary value? I think the US has two values: segregation, which they do so well, and violence.”
Read an excerpt of McRae’s book here.