Freedom Song: Interviews from Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965

Students and Educators, Litigators and De-Segregators

Many of the southern civil rights movement's most important victories affirmed African Americans’ right to equality in education. These victories were hard-fought for and won by lawyers with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and state and federal legislators translated them into law. But it was Black students who made integration a reality, attending previously all-white schools despite political resistance and segregationist violence.

Beginning with Charles Hamilton Houston's pioneering work in the 1930s, the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) worked first to prove that Black and white schools were materially unequal.80 Building on the LDF’s earlier victories in the courts, the NAACP lawyers brought the case Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1954. They argued that segregated schooling was necessarily unequal, challenging the Court’s "separate but equal" ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In building their case, the prosecutors drew on social scientific evidence to argue that segregated schooling is psychologically damaging to Black students. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the LDF lawyers, finding segregated public education unconstitutional.

In response, segregationists mounted a campaign of massive resistance to efforts to implement the court’s ruling. In Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus defied the ruling by ordering the Arkansas National Guard to bar entry to Black students attempting to attend Little Rock Central High School. In Virginia, Prince Edward County closed its schools for five years, preferring to eliminate public education rather than integrate. Blackside interviewed principal James Bash of Farmville High School in Farmville, Virginia, and Vanessa Venable, a Black schoolteacher from Farmville on the closing of public schools in Prince Edward County. The school board chose to close the schools in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown II, which issued directives on how schools should desegregate.

Whites also developed other methods of resisting the Supreme Court’s decision. School districts became increasingly racially segregated due to "white flight," or whites leaving racially diverse urban neighborhoods for the suburbs. Discriminatory real estate agents, mortgage companies, and housing developers ensured that the suburbs remained mostly all-white spaces. This led to the rise of de facto segregation, or segregation resulting from private-sector practices. However, because federal, state, and local governments actively promoted so-called de facto segregation through their policies, segregation was legally enforced despite the Supreme Court's decision.81

In the face of this resistance, on-the-ground activism was critical. For the so-called "Little Rock Nine," simply going to school was a political act. Blackside interviewed Melba Beals and Ernest Green, two of the first nine students admitted to Little Rock Central High School. This group also included Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Thelma Mothershed, Jefferson Thomas, and Terrance Roberts.

The Arkansas National Guard prevented the students’ initial attempt to attend Little Rock Central High School. After the governor withdrew the National Guard, the students went to school for part of the day but left when the angry mob of white protesters outside the school threatened to break through policed barricades. "We stayed out a day and a half after that," Green recalls. "And then the morning after, Eisenhower sent a thousand paratroopers to Little Rock, and the next morning we went to school with the assistance of the 101st Airborne Division."

Fig. 16. Ernest Green during his interview for America, They Loved You Madly, the precursor to Eyes on the Prize.
Image of Ernest Green during his interview for America, They Loved You Madly.

School desegregation was key to the dismantling of Jim Crow, even if, as Constance Baker Motley observes, resistance to integration resulted in the perpetuation of segregated and unequal schooling. For Motley, one of the most significant results of the Brown ruling was that it inspired Black Americans to fight for equality in other areas of public life. In her interview, Linda Brown Smith, whose father brought the class-action lawsuit that became Brown v. Board of Education, expresses a similar opinion of the decision’s impact. As she told Llewelyn Smith, "I really think of [Brown] in terms of what it has done for our young people in taking away that feeling of second-class citizenship. I think it has made the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of our young people greater today."

Kenneth Clark and the Effects of Segregation

The NAACP lawyers who brought Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court based their argument on social scientific evidence. They maintained that segregated schooling is inherently unequal because it causes irreparable psychological damage to Black children. As Chief Justice Earl Warren stated in the Court’s opinion, "To separate [African American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."82

One of the social scientists whose work most influenced the NAACP’s case was Kenneth Clark. Along with other social scientists, Clark delivered testimony in lower court cases that subsequently became a part of Brown v. Board. He also co-authored a summary of the social science testimony provided during the trials.83

In his interview, Clark reflects on his work with his wife, Mamie Clark, to demonstrate the harmfulness of segregation on Black youth. The so-called "doll test" was one of several methods the Clarks used. They presented Black children with two dolls, one white and one Black, and asked them which doll they liked better. Most of the children preferred the white doll. "We then asked as the final question, now show me the doll that's most like you." How the subjects responded deeply troubled Clark. "Many of the children were emotionally upset at having to identify with the doll that they had rejected," Clark says. "Some of them would walk out of the room or refuse to answer that question. And this, we interpreted, as indicating that color in a racist society was very disturbing and traumatic."

The Clarks used the doll test and other study techniques developed more than a decade earlier to assess the effects of segregation on children whose cases came to be a part of Brown v. Board. "And I went in and used the same methods and techniques that I had used in the earlier studies," Clark says in his interview, "and the results were the same. I mean, these children saw themselves as inferior, and they accepted the inferiority as part of reality."

Some scholars have criticized the NAACP lawyers’ reliance on social scientific evidence. Daryl Michael Scott has argued that the attorneys’ focus on the intangible effects of segregation on Black children led them to downplay its social and economic costs. Scott also contends that by not addressing the psychology of white racism, the ruling contributed to Black youth's stigmatization as psychologically damaged.84 Clark himself regretted that the Court emphasized the harm segregation causes to Black children's self-esteem but failed to acknowledge that it also damages the psychology of whites.85

The Interviews

The interviews below are divided into three groups. The first group features students and parents who integrated schools and universities, the second names educators and school administrators, and the third identifies legal professionals.

This section also includes lawyers and educators who were not involved in school desegregation, but who are as much a part of the legal and educational history of the civil rights era as those that were. Among them are activists like Victoria Gray Adams, a school teacher who also taught literacy and voter registration classes. Individuals who opposed the movement are also listed, like J. W. Kellum, the defense attorney who represented Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam in the Emmett Till murder trial. Kenneth Clark also appears in this section because of his role in the Brown v. Board decision.

Students and Parents:

James Armstrong: One of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that led to the desegregation of Graymont Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963

Melba Beals: One of the "Little Rock Nine" who integrated Little Rock Central High School

Eliza and Harry Briggs, Sr.: Plaintiffs whose case against the school board in Summerton, South Carolina, was combined with other suits in Brown v. Board of Education

Harry Briggs, Jr.: Son of Eliza and Harry Briggs, Sr., whose case against the school board in Summerton, South Carolina, was combined with other suits in Brown v. Board of Education

Darrell Evers: One of the plaintiffs in a 1962 lawsuit challenging segregation in the Mississippi state school system; son of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers

Ernest Green: One of the "Little Rock Nine" who integrated Little Rock Central High School

Marcia Webb Lecky: Little Rock Central High School student

Leola (Brown) Montgomery: Mother of Linda Brown and wife of Oliver Brown, one of thirteen plaintiffs in the case of Brown v. Board of Education

Craig Rains: Little Rock Central High School student

Jan Robertson: University of Mississippi student who witnessed the riots that broke out in response to James Meredith’s attempts to enroll

Linda Brown Smith: One of thirteen plaintiffs in the case of Brown v. Board of Education

Educators and Administrators:

Victoria Gray Adams: School teacher and voter education class instructor

James Bash: Principal of Farmville High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia

Will D. Campbell: Not an educator; one of the four adults who accompanied the Little Rock Nine on the first attempt to attend Little Rock Central High School

Robert Ellis: Director of Registration at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith applied for admission

Harold Engstrom: President of the Little Rock School Board in 1957

Rufus Lewis: Alabama State Teacher’s College faculty; voter education instructor

Vanessa Venable: Farmville, Virginia, schoolteacher during the five years when public schools in the county were closed as part of a massive resistance campaign against integration

Herbert Brownell: Lawyer and U.S. Attorney General

Robert Carter: Litigator in the case of Brown v. Board of Education

Charles Clark: Represented the Board of Trustees of the University of Mississippi in the lawsuit over James Meredith’s admission to the university

Kenneth Clark: Submitted an amicus curiae Social Science Statement that informed the Supreme Court’s verdict in the case of Brown v. Board of Education

William Coleman: Lawyer who worked with the NAACP on several cases that led to the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education and wrote a brief for that case

J. W. Kellum (with Amzie Moore): Defense attorney for Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam in the Emmett Till murder trial

Joseph Rauh: Lawyer and lobbyist on civil rights issues; served as legal advisor to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

Arthur Shores: One of the first African American lawyers in Alabama; worked with the NAACP on several desegregation cases

Paul Wilson: Lawyer representing the state of Kansas in Brown v. Board of Education

John Minor Wisdom: Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judge known for his landmark decisions ordering and implementing Brown v. Board; wrote the decision that led to the integration of the University of Mississippi

Interviews Not Listed

Two interviews do not appear in Eyes I and do not fit neatly into the categories in A People’s History: Interview Subjects. Tom Hayden founded Students for a Democratic Society. Hayden participated in the Freedom Ride from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia, on December 10, 1961.

William Dinkins was one of two African American doctors at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, Alabama in 1965. He attended to Jimmie Lee Jackson after an Alabama state trooper fatally shot him during a protest.

Next: Notes