The landmark Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1954 prohibited racial segregation of public schools in the USA concluding that ‘in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’ So began the formal process of educational desegregation that would eventually lead to the broader Civil Rights Acts in the mid-1960s outlawing segregation and discrimination across a range of spheres. These victories were won not only in the courts, but also on the streets.
‘Little Rock: An American Play’ depicts events that came to be emblematic of the struggle for civil rights in this period and shows both the human cost involved and the political progress achieved. It is a docu-play that presents the events of the time – when nine African-American students, in 1957, desegregated Little Rock Central High School, a previously whites-only school – as well as the trajectories of the lives of the ‘Little Rock Nine’ subsequent to this period.
The play opens with Elizabeth Eckford walking alone to Little Rock Central High, braving the jeering, tormenting crowd of white segregationists who sought to prevent her from entering the school building. This moment, powerfully captured by photographer Will Counts, is also the basis of the opening third of Danielle Allen’s Talking to Strangers.
In this book, Allen uses the iconic picture of ‘the Battle of Little Rock’ to illuminate her argument that inter-racial distrust is a political problem that distorts the very possibility of a functioning democracy. The public sphere, she suggests, is structured by habits of interaction and what is captured in this photograph is the way in which the public sphere, in 1957, was structured by the tropes of acquiescence and domination. In making visible the unspoken mores of US society and their incipient disruption, the broader public was asked, albeit implicitly, what sort of public they wanted to be.
As Allen argues, their responses could only come from the positions they had occupied and those positions were divided on racial grounds. White Americans were asked to accept a re-structuring of society that would lead to a loss of their socially inherited privileges and Black Americans were asked to accept that society (and polity) as their own despite their historically constituted positions of marginality within it.
At the same time as providing an image of the state of the public sphere in 1957, this photograph, Allen goes on to argue, also provides glimpses of the incipient possibilities for change. As Holmwood also suggests, ‘the moment is one of a seismic shift in the habits of citizenship, where practices based upon the domination of one group and the acquiescence of another, begin to break down as a formerly excluded group states their presence as constituent members of the public.’
Elizabeth Eckford’s position (and that of the other members of the ‘Little Rock Nine’) was no longer to be one of acquiescence; it was also one of challenging the social and political situation she found herself in (she was on her way to desegregate a high school in her neighbourhood), and of presenting the possibilities for reconstituting that situation (she was wearing a black and white checked dress she had made herself for the occasion). Allen suggests that Eckford’s choice of a fabric of black and white checks symbolised the very reformulation of the social fabric – of the relations between black and white – that would precisely be necessary if desegregation was to be successful.
The play takes us through the school year and the variety of interactions that constitute the children’s experiences: from the first day that they actually enter the school building, spending most of it in the boiler room in the basement being protected from the lynch mobs hunting them down, to the end of the year when Ernest Green graduates, to silence, as the first African American to do so from Little Rock Central High. While there is humour, solidarity, and pathos among the nine, there is also apprehension, fear, and terror marked by the possibility, always, of what might happen and having to deal with what does happen.
Bullying doesn’t even get close as a description of what it is that they have go through on a daily basis – try systematic psychological and physical violence, from beatings to name-calling to acid being thrown in their faces. Violence enacted upon children, by children, largely with the knowing or unseeing acquiescence of supervisory adults, and violence by adults waiting outside. The unremitting horror of daily existence was broken by a couple of episodes of human interaction across the colour line, but these were as infrequent as they were exceptional for their time. For the most part, the play presents a bleak depiction of the solidity of that colour line.
Interspersed throughout the play are commentaries by public figures – the segregationist governor, Faubus, the then President, Eisenhower, as well as activists such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. The pivotal role of local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) organisers, Daisy Bates and her husband L. C. Bates, who were subjected to the same vehement hostility with burning crosses regularly placed on their front lawn by KKK members, is also acknowledged.
The bravery, fortitude, and determination of ‘the Nine’ deserves to be remembered and celebrated as part of the broader processes of human emancipation that make the world, generally, and the US, specifically, a better place. Through their actions, they expanded our very understandings of freedom and equality – and their inextricably linked character. The reconstitution of US society during the decade 1954-65 can be seen, in part at least, as a response to the tensions played out in Little Rock. This is not to suggest that everything changed in that decade, nor that the change that did occur was sufficient. Rather, as Allen argues, US history has been marked by a series of constitutive, or re-constitutive moments, and this decade can be seen as such a founding moment in the making of the nation.
There are echoes of the American Declaration of Independence throughout the play, about which Danielle Allen has also recently written. The Declaration set out the self-evident truths that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights notwithstanding that they were denied to African Americans and Native Americans. But, as Allen says, the Declaration also calls on the opinion of mankind in the face of the tyrannies to which the American colonists believed themselves to be subject.
The ‘opinion of mankind’ is also called forth in the case of Little Rock. The Cold War division of the world meant that ‘Communist’ criticism of structural racism within the US had purchase with the American public outside the South and with its legislators and Supreme Court justices. In the face of an ‘undivided’ world and a hegemonic politics that ignores inequality and suffering, where is the ‘opinion of mankind’ as witness to the Little Rocks of the twenty-first century?
The play is written and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and is based on extensive research, including six years of interviews with the ‘Little Rock Nine’. It is powerfully dramatized and brilliantly acted by a superb cast. It was produced by the Passage Theatre Company in association with Rebel Theatrical Management, LLC and performed at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton, New Jersey, 2nd to 26th October – NOW EXTENDED to 2nd November 2014.
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Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. For the academic year 2014-15 she is also Visiting Fellow at Princeton University. You can find her on Twitter at @gkbhambra
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.