In the summer of 1957, the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, made plans to desegregate its public schools. Within a week of a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954 to strike down racial segregation in public schools, Arkansas had immediately announced it would begin to take steps to comply with the new “law of the land”.
Arkansas had previously desegregated all public facilities. In 1957 its School Board voted unanimously to start desegregation in its high schools, followed by junior highs and then elementary schools. But before schooling that year could resume, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the state National Guard to surround Little Rock Central High School in order to prevent any black students from entering. When school started on 23 September, police escorted nine black students – Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Beals – to a side-door where they peacefully entered the building. Crowds outside loudly protested, threatening violence.
Little Rock’s Mayor, Wooden Mann, sent a telegram to President Eisenhower requesting troops. They were dispatched that day and the President also placed the entire Arkansas National Guard under federal jurisdiction. On 26 September, the Little Rock Nine again entered the school, this time under the protection of the 101st airborne division of the U.S. Army. The school was finally integrated, although that did not prevent several later incidents. The crisis is considered to be one of the most important events in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
In 1997, President Clinton participated in a 40th anniversary celebration during which he met the Little Rock Nine. Two years later, each one received a Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony at the White House. And when Jefferson Thomas, one of the Nine, died on 5 September 2010, President Clinton issued a statement which read in part:
“I am deeply saddened at the passing of Jefferson Thomas, a true hero, a fine public servant, and profoundly good man, just fifty years after his graduation from Central High School. Along with his fellow Little Rock Nine, Jefferson paid the price for his courage to bring an end to racial segregation, and I always admired his humble nature and good humor despite all that he endured… America is a stronger, more diverse, and more tolerant nation because of the life he lived and the sacrifices he made.”
This story and its history stand in stark contrast to the claims made in a new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, written by lawyer Michelle Alexander. She argues that racism in America has not ended, merely taken on a new form. The U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary means of racial oppression, even as it formally adheres to principles of equality. Alexander’s book challenges the civil rights community to work towards a radical overhaul of the penal justice system in America.
Alexander offers a well argued and insightful picture of how the resources of the U.S. legal system have been brought to bear on the mass imprisonment of Black people, especially young Black men. Among other things, she details how the so-called war on drugs was co-opted as part of this process and how it continues to play a key role today. This has led to systematic dehumanization, keeping millions of Black people on the lowest rung of society because they are former felons, relegating them to a permanent second-class status, denying them the right to vote, automatically excluding them from juries, and legally discriminating against them in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy. It seems that the lessons of Little Rock have been forgotten in an attempt to erode the civil rights gains of the past 50 years. President Obama is doubtless aware of the problem, but he needs to act swiftly, decisively, and courageously. In fact, as Jefferson Thomas would have expected him to.