Reading Response: Eyes on the Prize

book coverEyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1945-1965by Juan Williams (Fox News)

As I began reading Eyes on the Prize, I was particularly caught by the story of Kenneth Clark and how his Dolls Study was used as evidence in the Briggs v. Clarendon County case. I think this is a great example of the combination of legal strategy and action with the intent to change public opinion. From the quote on page 20, “It was highly unorthodox evidence to present in a courtroom, but the situation called for unusual legal ammunition.”, it is clear they were aware of the charged nature of this decision.

This choice must have had more impact in the legal and public spheres than is focused on in this book, as it is now relatively common for a court of law to seek the expert opinion of a mental health worker. Psychologists and others who work with the mentally ill are often tainted with a sort of stigma-by-association, yet in a high-stakes trial, they chose to highlight not only a psychological study, but a study done by a black psychologist.

It is clear why: Not only is the study itself sound, the ramifications are unsettling on an instinctual level. To prove the effect of discrimination on innocent young minds is an extremely effective way of inciting both sympathy and desire to act in the viewer — it draws on the innate human desire to protect our children from harm.

Segregated school in Georgia, 1941

Segregated school in Georgia, 1941

In many ways, both the legal strategy and the public action of the civil rights movement danced around this desire. Charles Houston drew on it when he focused his initial efforts of educational desegregation on the higher education levels, knowing that it would be less threatening to whites if it started in adult institutions rather than with children. He drew on this human instinct, too, whether consciously or not, when he filmed the contrasting situations of white and black children in their segregated learning environments. I suspect it is easier for a moderate white to be unconcerned about the plight of black children if they are not aware of the reality of that plight.

Who looks like the real danger here, Elizabeth Eckford or the angry white girls?

Who looks like the real danger here, Elizabeth Eckford or the angry white girls?

Clearly, hard-core racist segregationists didn’t particularly care if black children were in school, in the gutter, or dead. But it wasn’t the hard-core segregationists they needed to sway; it was the moderates and public opinion in general. I think Martin Luther King’s advocacy of nonviolent, passive resistance also appealed, in a sense, to the parent’s desire for their children’s safety. The nonviolent movement showed through both word and actions that blacks were not the threat segregationists were trying to paint them as. Indeed, as the movement progressed, the juxtaposition of dignified non-violent resistance of the blacks and their white allies to the lashing anger and rage of the of segregationists highlighted who the real danger to society was.

This is further alluded to on page 113, in an interview with a white student at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas:

“Other Whites, however, lost sympathy for the governor. ‘I began to change,’ remembers Craig Rains, a white senior at Central during the 1957-1958 school year, ‘from being . . . a moderate, who, if I had my way, would have said, ‘Let’s don’t integrate, because it’s the state’s right to decide.’ I changed to someone who felt a real sense of compassion for those students, and felt like they deserved something that I had, and I also developed a real dislike for the people that were out there causing problems.” (pg 113)

I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that the entire civil rights movement was predicated on the human urge to protect the children, but I do think that a sensitivity and awareness of this shared human instinct permeates the movement. It is present in the cases they choose to argue and the order they chose to pursue them in. It was a consideration in the way blacks and their white allies presented themselves to the public.

In the arena of national attention, they often focused on the violence done to black children. In the arena of legal cases, they chose defendants who were either children or adults who were not considered a threat to those who needed to be protected. They also chose to focus on litigation that either did not affect children and was therefore not perceived as a threat to white children, or that focused on the harm done to black children, which incited sympathy in moderate whites.

Demonstrators Facing Fire Hoses in BirminghamOn top of these choices was the decision to allow children to participate in many marches and boycotts, which both made for moving publicity and allowed their parents some potential level of protection from being arrested or fired for participating in the civil rights movement. Whether such decisions were conscious or subconscious, they positively impacted both the participants in and the observers of the freedom movement on a very instinctive level.

The impact of this was even evidenced by segregationists, who in the immediate wake of the Emmett Till murder were, “outraged at what happened,”(43) and promised justice would be done. As it turned out, justice was not done — but I do think it’s telling that in the immediate aftermath of the murder, the reported reaction of, “all ‘decent’ people,” was outrage and horror.

Emmett was 14 years old when he was murdered by an angry white mob.

Emmett was 14 years old when he was murdered by an angry white mob.

The Southerners did not initially respond with a meh, or (worse), glee: They reacted with the disgust any right-thinking person should feel upon learning of such an incident. As the media attention grew and swelled, the white community drew back on itself and became defensive and angry, but their first reaction to the murder of a child was one of horror.

It is appalling that the community reaction underwent the shift from horror to defensiveness, and even more horrific that we as a nation continue to defend the baseless stereotyping and murder of black youth today, despite the reality that whites are far more likely to commit horrific crimes. That we as a country apparently learned nothing from the unnecessary murder of Emmett Till is indefensible.

Today, many social activist groups say, “Think of the children,” when they try to defend or argue some stance or other. I suspect the segregationists said this phrase, too, or some 1950’s equivalent of it. It is interesting that a successful social movement is the one that does think of the children, and that considers the impact of their movement on all children, rather than just their children.

2 thoughts on “Reading Response: Eyes on the Prize

    • I only just saw this comment, in 2017; sorry for the late response (weird, it’s supposed to notify me by e-mail of comments). I am not using java–it’s just the basic free wordpress template with mobile device optimization. Sometimes I’ll do some html markup if I have to, but I try to avoid messing with the nuts and bolts of all that.

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