Hannah Arendt's reflections on little rock, 1957-59: Echoing academic critiques of brown, and (somewhat unwillingly) legitimizing segregationist claims for state sovereignty [Book Review]
In its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education opinion, the United States Supreme Court held that segregated public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal constitution. That same year, segregated school districts in the South asked themselves how they could satisfy minimum compliance with the Court's decision. In 1955, when the Court returned with Brown II, explaining that to satisfy the constitution, school boards needed to integrate their schools with all deliberate speed, the litigated debates among the schools boards and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] shifted to one of defining with all deliberate speed. In the months preceding September 1957, when the federal courts ordered Little Rock, Arkansas's Central High School to integrate, the debate in the community turned to one of preserving the peace: Segregationist groups, among them the Mother's League and the Citizens' Council, suggested that because school integration would instigate violence inside and outside the schools, the only way to prevent violence in Little Rock was to prevent the integration of its schools. This view won the support of Arkansas' Governor Orval Faubus, who called out troops to prevent black students from entering Little Rock's Central High School on the first day of school in September 1957. The Governor could have prevented violence and preserved the peace by protecting the black students, and by doing so, enforcing the federal court order to integrate Central High School. Instead, he chose to prevent violence by preventing integration. By doing so, he necessarily defied a federal court order. At this point, the federal government became implicated in the Little Rock debate, and in late September, the federal government moved into Little Rock to defend the supremacy of its own laws and court decisions. Against this backdrop, Hannah Arendt wrote her "Reflections on Little Rock" in the fall of 1957. Inspired by a photograph of one of the young black female students surrounded by a screaming mob of segregationists, Arendt criticizes the Supreme Court's decision in Brown and the federal government's use of troops to enforce the integration of Central High in Little Rock. Wondering how a photograph of a victimized black student would lead Arendt to side with segregationists' claims in favor of states' rights, I have compared Arendt's discussion of Little Rock with the debates between and among legal scholars and political actors of the late 1950s. Like other political and legal scholars of the late 1950s in the United States, Arendt feared that Brown threatened the structure of the Republic. Arendt writes in her "Reflections on Little Rock," that neither the federal nor state government should interfere with an individual's right to free association in the social realm. With this neutral principle in mind, she dips into the political debate of the time between the federal government and state-level political leaders - between federal supremacy and state sovereignty - and sides with those parents who were protecting their rights to free association by fighting against federal intrusion in Little Rock. Arendt seeks to explain how, by yielding to segregationist parents' rights to free association, the structure of the Republic can be preserved, and how the violent episode exposed in the picture could have been avoided.
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