F for Effort

Brown v. Board of Education, a failure at fifty?

  1. On the morning of September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford set off for her first day of classes at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. When the black teenager arrived, a white mob, backed by the Arkansas National Guard, prevented her from entering. In the days that followed, photographs of eckford being cursed at and spat on by the good citizens of Little Rock were reprinted in magazines and newspapers around the world. Reactions to the photos varied: Liberals were shamed; southern racists steeled themselves for the "massive resistance" to integration they had promised after the Brown v. [the Topeka, KS] Board of Education decision three years before; America's cold-war foes used the images as proof that the capitalist system was riddled with racism.

    One of the most enigmatic responses came from the philosopher Hannah Arendt. "Reflections on Little Rock" was originally commissioned by the then-liberal Norman Podhoretz at the then-liberal Commentary magazine. While he judged the piece provocative and brilliant, the other editors were hostile to her thesis that educational integration was being mishandled, first delaying publication of the essay and then insisting on accompanying it with a scathing rebuttal by the philosopher Sidney Hook. Arendt eventually tired of Commentary's vacillations and withdrew the article. In the year after the Little Rock confrontation, Arkansas stalled its integration efforts, and in 1958, the governor, Orville Faubus, turned the public schoo...

Originally published in BookForum, November 2004