LOST REVOLUTIONS: The South in the 1950s

LOST REVOLUTIONS: The South in the 1950s

Patricia Sullivan

LOST REVOLUTIONS: The South in the 1950s.

By Pete Daniel. Univ. of North Carolina Press. 392 pp. $45 hardcover, $19.95 paper

A LIFE IS MORE THAN A MOMENT: The Desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High.

Text and photos by Will Counts. Introduction by Will Campbell. Essays by Ernest Dumas and Robert S. McCord. Indiana Univ. Press. 96 pp. $29.95

Read Time:
2m 37sec

On September 25, 1957, federal troops armed with rifles and bayonets escorted nine black students into Little Rock’s Central High School. White resistance to school desegregation, which had mounted in the three years since Brown v. Board of Education, suffered its first defeat. The Eisenhower administration, however reluctantly, was enforcing federal law.

Two months later, the entire student body of Wake Forest College, a Baptist-supported institution in Raleigh, North Carolina, marched out of chapel services to protest the school’s ban on dancing. At a local snack shop, the students spent an hour "protest dancing" to "Wake Up Little Susie" and other hits of the day. Later, some students bunny-hopped across campus while others burned in effigy the church official responsible for the dance ban.

The South of the 1950s combined the civil rights struggle, teenage rebellion, and all the other forces that were transforming the nation. It was a place of rigid racial divisions and oppression, of white supremacy and antiblack violence. But it was also a place where black and white cultures intermingled and cross-fertilized, from the countryside to the city, producing an explosion of musical talent and creativity that became known as rock ’n’ roll. The music in turn was part of a larger youth rebellion, expressed in language, clothing, dance, and attitudes, that blurred racial lines and thereby threatened the traditional structures of social control.

In Lost Revolutions, Daniel, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, brilliantly depicts the people who shaped southern life in the 1950s: the civil rights leaders such as Alice Wright Spearman, an organizer of South Carolina’s interracial movement; Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and the other founders of rock ’n’ roll; the reckless and powerful bureaucrats of agribusiness; the freespirited stock car racers whose passions would later become enshrined in highly commercialized NASCAR races. Daniel sketches gay life in the South too, as well as the pioneering allwomen Memphis radio station WHER. A chapter on the crisis at Central High offers a new reading of what he describes as the "strategic realignment of segregationist forces" that united white ministers, women, and high school students under the banner of massive resistance.

A Life Is More than a Moment shows just how deep and unyielding the racial divide was. A young photographer for the Arkansas Democrat at the time (he is now professor emeritus of journalism at Indiana University), Counts was there with his 35-millimeter camera when the black students entered Central High. The courage written on the faces of the Little Rock Nine, surrounded by enraged whites and grim National Guardsmen, stands out in the annals of the civil rights movement. The white Arkansans in the photos were not alone in their attitudes; Orval Faubus, the state’s prosegregation governor, made Gallup’s list of the 10 most admired Americans in 1958. With his exquisite pictures, Counts captures a key moment in the struggle that ultimately cracked the walls of segregation and, through federal legislation, brought revolutionary change that the South alone could not have completed.

—Patricia Sullivan


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