Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Musings: Little Rock Girl 1957

Little Rock Central High School photo
Little Rock Girl 1957 is a very short book - only about 65 pages long - about the power of the photograph on the left to bring the Civil Rights movement to the world's attention.

The photo is one of the most powerful ones of the 20th century and certainly in American history, describing a time when segregation reigned throughout the country and African-Americans were beginning to fight in an organized way against it.  It was snapped on the first day of school, 1957, after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ruling that separate was not the same as equal and that the education system had to be integrated beginning in the fall.  This decision caused a huge backlash, and it all came to a head in Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine African-American students attempted to go to school, only to be denied admittance by Arkansas state National Guardsmen and a mob-like atmosphere of hate by fellow students and residents.

I thought the book would be very informative about the people in the Little Rock Nine and those intimately connected with all the drama.  I wanted quotes and flashbacks and updates on people's lives.  I wanted to know about the news coverage and political responses.  However, as the book is so short (and much of it is taken up with brief biographies of the nine and a Civil Rights timeline), none of that was available to me.

The more I learn about the Civil Rights movement, the more it fascinates me, particularly the role of women.  After reading When Everything Changed and its detailed chapter on the Civil Rights movement, I was inspired to learn more and thought that this book (pamphlet?) would be a great way to do so.  But it didn't quite hit the spot.

I think this book is written for a much younger audience.  It is very skimpy on details, just being a really brief overview on the Little Rock Central High School event, and focusing just as much on the photographer as on Elizabeth Eckford (the African-American girl in the photo above).  It read much more like a brief textbook mention than anything else.  It also was very, very poorly edited.  Each chapter had titles with odd capitalization issues (LiKe tHiS, wHiCh ReAlLy AnNoYeD Me).  It made the book seem more like a teeny-bopper yearbook than a non-fictional account of a very important moment in US history.  There were also photos with captions that were nowhere near the photos and a lot of spacing problems between words.  Clearly, this book is meant as an introduction for teenagers to the subject, not a fully-immersed story for adults.

That said, there were some things I learned from here that I didn't know before.  For example, many people make a big deal about the friendship that developed later in life bewteen Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Massery, the two most prominent and striking figures in the photo above.  However, many people were skeptical of that friendship, thinking that Massery was just in it for the publicity and that she was still a racist.  Eckford seems to have believed this, too, because the friendship ended very shortly after it began.

I also didn't know much about the Arkansas state governor, the one who called out the National Guard to ensure that the nine African-American students would not be allowed into the school, and who also managed to get schools in Little Rock shut down (by majority vote) rather than be forced to integrate.  Governor Orval Faubus (wow, what a name) could easily be dismissed as a complete racist... except that he later endorsed Jesse Jackson in the 1984 Presidential primary.  Granted, many people think this was a political move, but it's still interesting to note.

I also learned that Little Rock's mayor, Woodrow Nelson Mann, was pro-integration and fought hard against Faubus for the integration of Little Rock's schools, but no one seems to know or acknowledge that, sadly.  And that's one of the negatives about history as told through really dramatic images like the one above - one moment can define an entire situation to people that never consider digging deeper to learn about the gray areas.

So there were lots of great nuggets in this book that I appreciated, but I think I expected too much from it.  It was more about how the photograph above symbolized a very divided America than about the Little Rock issue itself.  It did, however, come with a list of recommended further reading, so I'll be going into that list for sure!  If any of you have further reading recommendations, please let me know!

Note:  I received a free e-book to review.


  1. *cough* I'll just mention Freedom's Daughters again. ;) Maybe we can read it together after our Netgalley read? (Just let me know what timeframe works for you for that, btw!)

    I didn't know Little Rock's mayor was pro-integration: how fascinating. I think this book's slimness would frustrate me, but then the book I tried to read about the person behind a famous photo (the Vietnam napalm one, Chong's The Girl in the Photograph) was too long and full of unnecessary detail. LOL There's got to be some kind of middle ground!

  2. Yes, a happy medium MUST exist! We just have not found it yet.

    I shall email you about the Netgalley read! And if I can find Freedom's Daughters, that sounds excellent, too!

  3. I also find this subject fascinating, and would love to read a really comprehensive book on it. The problem with this book, I think, it that from the way you describe the punctuation and capitalization, and the other pertinent parts of the book, it seems that this book was not written with respect and attention to detail. Aside from that, it seems like it was skimpy on the information. I do think that some of the things you learned are interesting though. Particularly the bit about the friendship between Elizabeth and Hazel. This was a really interesting review, Aarti!

  4. That picture is just one of the grossest ever! I admit I too would have found the punctuation thing IRriTaTinG!

  5. Ugh! The odd capitalization kills any chance of me reading this. :-(

  6. Read Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Pattilo Beals. She was one of the Little Rock Nine. It was pretty harsh to read - she was very straightforward but the way everyone acted! Oh, it was hard to read.

  7. Thanks for the tip, Carrie! It's on my wish list now.

  8. The photographs I've seen of this event both horrify and fascinate me. I be on the lookout for other books about it.

  9. I second the recommendation of Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Patillo Beals. I met the author a few years back at a speech and book signing -- I have an blog post recalling that incident on my blog somewhere.

  10. If you're interested in a more in-depth look at the same story, I recommend A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School
    by Carlotta Walls LaNier. I thought it was a good personal account and one that didn't record only negative thoughts—excitement as well as anxiety, fear as well as joy.

  11. I will look into Warriors Don't Cry and A Mighty Long Way- both sound excellent. Thanks for the recommendations, everyone!

  12. I am adding Warriors Don't Cry and A Mighty Long Way to my tbr. Thank you.


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