Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Easing a Country's Conscience: Little Rock's Central High School in Film

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Easing a Country's Conscience: Little Rock's Central High School in Film

Article excerpt

The most well-known event in Arkansas civil rights movement activism (and arguably the most-well known event in Arkansas history) is the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. In order to prevent federally mandated integration of the school, Governor Orval E. Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to surround Central High on its opening day of classes, 3 September 1957. Faubus's defiance fueled segregationist resistance in Little Rock and throughout the South. When ensuing legal challenges upheld the constitutional validity of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Faubus removed the guard and left an inadequate city police force to maintain control of segregationist crowds. The resulting mob violence impelled President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send federal troops to Little Rock to establish order outside the school and offer protection to the nine black students inside the school. The relatively new medium of television beamed vivid footage of the conflict into homes across the country, and the images of antagonistic crowds and armed guards surrounding a public school defined Little Rock in the national consciousness for decades.

The television news footage and print photographs of Little Rock in 1957 remain some of the most indelible and iconic images from the civil rights movement. The images of Central High School besieged by screaming mobs offer stunning but primarily external views of the site of the conflict. In 1981, however, television revisited the story in Crisis at Central High, taking viewers inside the school walls through a narrative dramatization adapted from the memoir of Elizabeth Huckaby, vice principal of girls during the crisis. The made-for-TV docudrama was the first public version of the story told from an insider's perspective, and it covered the events of the year from the chaos of opening day through the graduation of Ernest Green, the only senior in the Little Rock Nine. A second film version appeared in 1993, covering the same ground and again from an insider's perspective. This time, however, the film followed the path of that history-making senior in the made-for-cable Disney movie, The Ernest Green Story.

Crisis at Central High offers the perspective of a white school official, and as the title suggests, focuses especially on the institutional disruption caused by the court-mandated integration of Little Rock's largest and best high school. The Ernest Green Story appeared over a decade later and offers the perspective of one of the integrating students, focusing especially on the individual perseverance of the oldest of the black students who entered Central High in the fall of 1957. In addition to the contrasting viewpoints that are inflected by gender and race, the films also offer ostensibly competing ideologies, each specific to its historical, cultural, and political moment.

Marked by their specific historical moments, both films are also shaped by attention to their intended audience. The first film was two dozen years removed from its subject matter. In those twenty-four years, the reality of legally segregated schools faded into the collective memory of past injustice. The 1960s saw the death of Jim Crow and the passage of laws guaranteeing civil rights and equal opportunities for African Americans. Visual representations of inequality such as drinking fountains labeled "colored" and "white" disappeared. Affirmative action laws brought blacks and whites together in me workplace. And in 1977, twenty years after Central High's integration battle, 80 million viewers had turned on their televisions every night for a week and watched Alex Haley's Roots.1 The time was right for television to tell the Central High story.

The second film was even further removed from the historical moment. The Ernest Green Story appeared 36 years after the event. A rise in the black middle-class as well as the visible presence of African Americans in the entertainment industries helped prepare a mainstream audience to revisit the Little Rock story. …

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