Monday, October 5, 2020

John Steinbeck and the New Orleans School Desegregation Crisis

I recently finished reading Travels with Charley, the 1960 bestseller by Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck. Steinbeck took to the highways in order to see how much the U.S. had changed in the 25 years since he last travelled about the country. He felt he was a little out of touch with who and what America was. I myself read the book because it had been more than 25 years since I first read his account of this journey. 

To be frank, the only thing I remembered about the book was his eagerness to home after seeing the unconcealed racism in the Deep South. When I read this portion of the book I was as appalled as he was when he encountered it, and upon reading it again, the same emotions were stirred.

In the book he did not call it the New Orleans School Desegregation Crisis. Instead, the designation he gave this chapter was more ironic: The Cheerleaders. 

* * * * 

Steinbeck's journey took six weeks. He started at his home on Long Island, traveled north through New England, headed West through Buffalo, across all our Northern tier states, to the Northwest corner whereupon he turned South then back East through various places till he reached Texas, New Orleans and the Deep South.

His companion on the journey is Charley, a large poodle who adds a measure of interest to the story in various ways. 

The observations Steinbeck makes along the way are interesting, but mostly forgettable. Even so, it is interesting how surprised he is by how much of a role cheese plays in Wisconsin, and that he gets lost in Minneapolis. 

The year is 1960, six years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The extent to which this desegregation ruling continued to rankle the powers that be startled Steinbeck. Maybe sickened is a better word. (Last night I started watching The Best of Enemies, a film about this very same issue in Durham, North Carolina in 1971.)

When Steinbeck arrived in New Orleans, he'd read and heard enough about the goings-on that he needed to see first hand what the fuss was about. More than one person he met along the way, recognizing him to be from New York (by his license plate) commented, "Are you going to see the Cheerleaders?"

The first time I saw the word--the title of the chapter, actually--I thought it was going to be about football cheerleaders. This, naturally, came to mind because he'd just been in Texas where football is almost a religion.

Essentially, the cheerleaders were a small mob of white middle class racists who went to the two elementary schools each day to scream racial slurs and intimidate the four little girls who were being escorted into the desegregated schools by federal marshals. Three girls were enrolled in one school and six year old Ruby Bridges was enrolled in the other. There was later a riot at the school board meeting, but Steinbeck's chapter focuses on the ugliness of the scene where the Cheerleaders gathered each day. 

Steinbeck was so disturbed by what he saw that he couldn't wait to leave the South and get back home. 

As these ugly protests continued reporters began to write about what they saw. Eventually, the people of New Orleans began to realize how undesirable the image of their city was becoming to outsiders. This was the primary motivation for ending the Cheerleaders' reign.

You can read the full account here on Wikipedia.

It's eye-opening and it's sad. Or would "tragic" be a better word?

Photo: Public domain. Federal U.S. Marshalls escorted Ruby Bridges into the school each morning and home each evening. 

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