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 went up 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.