Writing for, or rather re-blogging for, the Huffington Post, Michael J. Klarman writes about “Why Little Rock was Important.” He is a well-respected legal scholar on the civil rights movement and provides a thorough review of the events of fifty years ago in the post linked above. In his last paragraph, Klarman offers the following analysis about why Little Rock was important:
“When such violence erupted — in places like Birmingham and Selma, Alabama — it outraged national television audiences. Newspapers called the violence ‘a national disgrace.’ Citizens voiced their ‘sense of unutterable outrage and shame’ and demanded that Congress take action to suppress such ‘barbarism and savagery.’ President John F. Kennedy went on national television to announce that civil rights were a ‘moral issue as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution,’ and his administration introduced landmark civil rights legislation. It was the violence inspired by confrontations like the one in Little Rock that made such legislation possible. Ironically, the harder southern whites fought to maintain white supremacy, the more they seemed to accelerate its demise.”
I have to agree with the commentor there that goes by “SouthHouse” on HP who remarks on the “unintended irony” of Klarman’s assessment about the demise of white supremacy. And, indeed, there are some important elements of the story left out of Klarman’s account, like the fact that white supremacy didn’t end at Little Rock, but continues in forms that are both overt and institutionalized, as well as subtle and covert. I find it deeply ironic that given the current controversy Klarman didn’t address the issue in Jena. And, he also fails to mention the research which shows not only are schools more segregated now than they were fifty years ago, but that racial segregation is increasing.
I do think Klarman is right, however, when he says that the images from Little Rock, and later the images from Birmingham and Selma “outraged national television audiences.” This is true, people (and here, “national” is a euphemism for “white”) were outraged. This outrage, along with grief over President Kennedy’s death, is part of what made it possible to get the Civil Rights Act passed. Yet, there’s a disconnect in the collective consciousness of the nation. Somehow, this level of outrage at the images on the television screen rarely translates into steps that would effectively dismantle institutionalized white supremacy.