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Coming Full Circle in Civil Rights

By Meghan Laslocky | HUMANITIES, May/June 1997 | Volume 18, Number 3

"I tell my children today they don't know anything. . . . 'You haven't seen anything. You just don't know what it's all about. I don't know what it is you can't take.' And when I go back telling them some of my history, you know, they perk up their ears." (Mary Sanford)

Ask people on the street what events they associate with the Civil Rights Movement, and chances are they will say, "The bus boycott in Montgomery" or "The march on Washington." Ask people whom they think of first in association with the Civil Rights Movement, and chances are they will say, "Martin Luther King" or "Rosa Parks."

Now the names and voices of ordinary citizens who were the foot soldiers in the battle to dismantle the Jim Crow South are being heard. They are part of a radio documentary series called "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," which is currently airing on public radio stations across the nation. There is Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine young blacks to enter Central High School in Little Rock. There is Septima Clark, who pushed for equal pay for black teachers in South Carolina in the 1930s. There are other others: Jean Gordon, Johnnie Carr, William Townsend, Billie Fleming, Modjeska Simkins, Winson Hudson, Brownie Ledbetter, and hundreds more.

For those too young to remember, the series is an engrossing and sometimes shocking tour of the social and legal history of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. For those who are old enough, it is a potent refresher, an auditory voyage through moments in the history of five southern cities that played roles: Little Rock, Arkansas, where resistance to school desegregation fomented a constitutional crisis; Montgomery, Alabama, which saw the first sustained movement against Jim Crow laws with a bus boycott; Columbia, South Carolina, where the groundbreaking lawsuits were filed by the state branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Jackson, Mississippi, where the movement met the most flagrant and vicious resistance; and Atlanta, Georgia, which called itself the "city too busy to hate" and found footdragging a more useful gambit than confrontation.

Years in the making, the twenty-seven-part series was assembled from audiotape of hundreds of interviews with men and women, black and white. George King, the producer, and his colleagues sorted through tapes found in libraries, in shoe boxes, even under people's beds. The obstacles were many: Not only was the task of sorting through hours and hours of audiotape footage gargantuan, but in many cases the recordings were in such poor condition or so "feeble," as King calls them, that only the most advanced "no-noise" audio technology could restore them and make the recorded voices comprehensible. Even after restoration, some were too difficult to understand to be included in the final cut.

Reflecting all points of view was another difficulty. While there were plenty of recordings of people who supported the Civil Rights Movement and plenty of surviving activists to fill in the gaps, it was far tougher to find taped material of those who were in favor of maintaining the Jim Crow laws and customs of the day. In the course of the project, when the producers decided that the series would be strengthened by the incorporation of more of the segregationist viewpoint, their only option was to call upon living people. They expected that recollections of thirty or forty years ago would be difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct. Some declined to be interviewed; some had had religious conversions; some had failing memories.

Despite such challenges, seamless and multifaceted portraits of the five communities emerge. We come to understand that each community joined the Movement in its own way, at its own pace, depending upon the personalities involved, the particular injustices inflicted, and its own political and social climate.

For example, the five episodes devoted to Little Rock chronicle the battle that ignited when, in 1957, Governor Orval Faubus defied the 1954 U. S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard in defiance of the Federal government, saying he expected there to be "blood in the streets" if black students attended a traditionally white public high school. Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, recollects the September morning when she first tried to attend her new school and saw the National Guard lined up: "When I approached them the first time they closed ranks. I thought that they were there for my protection. The second time, he just pointed me away in the direction away from the area that I was attempting to enter...And I thought that he was directing me into another entrance, so I walked further down the street, and the mob fell in behind me." Another black student, Ernest Green, recalls watching Elizabeth's progress towards the school: "It had to be the most frightening thing because she had a crowd of a hundred, two hundred white people threatening to kill her. She had nobody. I mean there was not a black face in sight anywhere." They tried again the next day with the same results.

President Eisenhower responded to the mob by calling in the 101st Airborne to ensure that the students could attend. The following year, Governor Faubus approved a law that closed the public schools rather than integrate them, and for the next twelve months no public schools were open in Little Rock. In the meantime, the local battle accelerated and was fought between pro- integration forces such as the Women's Emergency Committee to Support the Public Schools and S. T. O. P. (Stop This Outrageous Purge) on the one side, and the segregationist organizations such as C.R.O.S.S. (The Committee to Retain Our Segregated Schools) and the White Citizens Council (modeled after those begun in Mississippi), on the other. The desegregationists ultimately prevailed, and the city maintained an uneasy truce into the sixties. Although the events of the sixties in Little Rock did not receive attention from the world press, activists did manage to abolish the poll tax, which had kept blacks from effectively participating in elections, and protests continued to promote the desegregation of every part of life in Little Rock.

Little Rock's story is told by dozens of people -- from Elizabeth Eckford, to Irene Samuel, one of the many women who organized the Committee to Support the Public Schools. The story has its crystallizing moments, as well, as when Craig Rains, a segregationist at the beginning of the fight over the public schools, reflects on his reaction to the mob and the National Guard:

"I had never seen that before...and I think it was at that point that I began to change from being a moderate, or somebody who said, 'I believe in states' rights and let's don't integrate because it's the state's right to decide whether to do so or not,' to someone who felt a real sense of compassion for these students. That maybe they had a right to the things I already had. I think at that point is when I really began to change my mind and realize that this was not a states' rights issue, it was a people issue."

In the other cities, the course of civil rights was different. Columbia's was played out in the courts. The litigation against Jim Crow began in 1938, when a young black lawyer named Thurgood Marshall prosecuted in Thompson & DeVault vs. State of South Carolina, which sought equal pay for black teachers. Even the famous Brown vs. Board lawsuit was the successor of an earlier South Carolina case, Briggs vs. Elliott, in which a black farmer with five school-aged children filed suit for bus transportation to school (white children had buses). While the original intent of the case was to make the State of South Carolina provide equal opportunities for black children, it evolved into the landmark federal case that demanded the elimination of segregation itself.

The third city in the series, Jackson, Mississippi, is emblematic of another phase: white resistance to desegregation in the fifties and sixties. Mississippi was the first state to organize a white citizen's council -- immediately following the 1954 Supreme Court decision to end segregation; the councils soon became the cornerstone of resistance throughout the South. Jackson's story is of the demonstrations and violent exchanges that transpired as black Mississippians pushed for political power.

The Montgomery, Alabama, sequence concentrates on the boycott by blacks wanting an end to preferential seating for whites on city buses. The episodes focus on three groups that galvanized the Montgomery movement: a group of black professional women, the local NAACP, and the city's black ministers. Listeners learn that although the Rosa Parks case was the first to reach federal court, several similar cases had been litigated in Montgomery and other parts of the South. It wasn't until 1955, with Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat on a bus and the subsequent boycott of Montgomery buses, that the NAACP had a case which was pristine -- meaning that Rosa Parks's character was so unimpeachable that she could become a symbol.

The fifth city, Atlanta, has a claim to fame as the home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; its freedom movement, however, began long before King came on the scene. For years the city's white politicians had maintained the modus operandi of presenting it as a civilized, courteous place for all, while moving as slowly as possible on desegregation. The radio series picks up at the point where Atlanta's black middle class had become sizable and students there increasingly vocal, insisting on a faster pace and creating a supportive climate for King.

While much of the series' poignancy comes from the intermingling of the voices that tell the many stories of the Movement, the music is equally compelling. Producer George King uses gospel, blues, jazz, and other music to set the moral mood of the Movement. He accompanies a segment in which blacks describe growing up in a world where the threat of lynching loomed with Billie Holliday's recording of "Strange Fruit." Music also acts as a precise and powerful time locater -- placing events where they fit in the midst of America's pop culture. For example, Martha Holmes-Jackson, one of the first black students to attend a white school in Atlanta, describes her prom:

"I did attend the prom, but I didn't stay very long. My escort and I hung around for a little while, but then they were playing music that we didn't dance to, so we went on our way." Spliced in at that moment is the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There," which was a hit that spring.

Throughout the series, the seamlessness of story and music nearly conveys the sense that these people were recorded at the same time, in the same room, sharing their stories. It comes as a surprise to remember that these recordings were made independently, at different times and by different people whose own objectives varied. And at moments, a very spiritual, almost religious mood pervades the episodes. The series offers a number of lessons -- in history, in biography, in moral courage -- and reminds the listener that the lessons must be learned if, as the title of the series suggests, the circle is to be unbroken.

About the Author

Meghan Laslocky is a freelance writer in San Francisco.