Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Bayonets, Brainwashing, and Bathrooms: The Discourse of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Desegregation of Little Rock's Central High

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Bayonets, Brainwashing, and Bathrooms: The Discourse of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Desegregation of Little Rock's Central High

Article excerpt

OF THE EVENTS THAT OCCURRED in late September and early October 1957, after the deployment of federal troops to desegregate Little Rock's Central High, none were as perplexing as Gov. Orval Faubus's declarations that white schoolgirls were under attack, physically and psychologically. Riding the wave of popularity set off by his use of the National Guard to stop integration, Faubus took the lead in opposing the federal "occupation" of Little Rock. He spoke in a language that his chief constituency, Little Rock's working-class segregationists, well understood-a racialized language with powerful sexual overtones.

Faubus, who would be elected governor of Arkansas six times, was clearly not without political acumen. When Faubus, claiming violence was imminent, surrounded Central High with the National Guard, he ensured his support from the increasingly vocal and organized white supremacist minority. Previously reluctant to take a position with regard to integration, Faubus finally transformed himself in the eyes of segregationists from a southern moderate- "Awful Faubus"-to a segregationist hero- "Orval Fabulous."1 Yet it was not until President Dwight Elsenhower's deployment of federal troops to Little Rock that Faubus was assured ample potent material to maintain his popularity. The presence of federal troops in Little Rock became a symbolic re-enactment of the Civil War, leaving little room for whites to hold moderate positions.2 At that point, Faubus could shift the public's focus from his questionable claims about violence squarely onto the actions of the federal government.

Instrumental to this shift in focus were three incidents in which Faubus framed himself as protector of white schoolgirls and, more specifically, of white female sexuality. In these incidents, Faubus spoke not of the threat posed by the black male students integrating Central as much as by federal troops. He cast federal soldiers and the FBI in the role of the sexualized male predator. Yet, as Faubus must have recognized, each incident he brought to the attention of the press spoke more generally to white supremacist "scripts" about the supposed sexual dangers of integration.3 The segregationist message touted since Reconstruction and certainly since the proposal in 1956 to integrate Central High was that white females were endangered by the presence of black males in particular and "blackness" in general. The presence of federal troops on Arkansas soil certainly carried its own historically potent message that southern statehood had been violated. The specifically sexual connotations in Faubus's claims, however, can be linked to a historically rooted and sexually potent image of great currency at the time-that of miscegenation.4 By linking the mythic threats of the black male and the Yankee "invader," Faubus combined two familiar themes into one potent message-that Little Rock's white schoolgirls were essentially in danger of being sexually violated.5

Orval Faubus clearly seems to have been attuned to many white parents' understanding of integration as violation. On Monday, September 23, 1957, the first school day after Governor Faubus was ordered to remove the National Guard, nine black students finally entered previously all-white Central High. In response to their entrance, almost as if on cue, mothers in the crowd that had gathered outside became "hysterical," shouting "the niggers are in the school!" and "the niggers are in our school."6 Like the one-drop rule that defined racial status, even one or two or nine black students could, through "penetrating" a school of over 2,000 whites, transform its color, its identity, and, more importantly, its value.7 Central High was no longer "white," hence it could no longer be claimed by the white crowd as "our" school, a status that for Little Rock's working-class whites had been, up until this point, guaranteed by segregation.8

Vehemently instrumental in leading the mob by her emotional responses to integration was Mrs. …

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