James Baldwin and the Little Rock Nine

In his essays on the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin routinely comments on scenes from the era such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott (“The Dangerous Road Before MLK”) or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination (“Take Me to the Water”). However, one of the scenes he continues to employ is the integration of schools in the South. In his presentation on Wednesday, David provided a helpful description of Baldwin’s rhetoric on the child and the effects of such an approach. For this blog post, I want to look specifically at Baldwin’s comments on the integration of Little Rock Central High School by the Little Rock Nine in “Take Me to the Water.”

Prior to describing the scenes at Little Rock, Baldwin refers to Little Rock’s Southern identity, saying “It was Southern, therefore, to put it brutally, because of the history of America–the United States of America: and small black boys and girls were now paying for this holocaust” (Baldwin 389). Baldwin would have associated the word “holocaust” with the events of Nazi Germany; he compares the Little Rock Nine again to Jewish boys and girls in Hitler’s Germany just a few lines later. However, his use of the word here is different. Seemingly, the holocaust in this instance has already occurred although its results still effect Black students. Baldwin, here, seems to refer to “holocaust” in its older sense where it means “a complete sacrifice.” The white residents of Little Rock, in choosing to be Southern, i.e. white, completely sacrifice their humanity. The destruction was not physical but more spiritual. Black students are not victims of the holocaust directly but rather indirectly. In light of his use of this word, Baldwin’s analogies for the situation come into focus.

First, Baldwin evokes Nazi Germany to describe the Little Rock Nine, saying, “It was rather as though small Jewish boys and girls, in Hitler’s Germany, insisted on getting a German education in order to overthrow the Third Reich” (Baldwin 389). On one hand, Baldwin critiques a “national” education as a solution to oppression. He questions the ability of challenging a system with the system’s tools. On the other hand, Baldwin uses this image to show the impossibility of the task placed on the shoulders of these students. Already targeted, the young students want to dismantle a group whose existence rests on their destruction. In each of the analogies, Baldwin emphasizes the magnitude of the task facing the Little Rock Nine.

In his second analogy, Baldwin describes the Little Rock Nine as “small soldiers, armed with stiff, white dresses, and long or short dark blue pants, entering a leper colony, and young enough to believe that the colony could be healed, and saved” (Baldwin 390). By describing Little Rock as a leper colony, Baldwin emphasizes that the white people in the South are ill due to their decision to be white. Yet, unlike other diseases, they will not be healed: Baldwin associates the hope for their healing and salvation with childlike idealism. He lacks this hope because he understands these people as having endured a sacrificial holocaust in choosing to be white. The Black students cannot heal their white oppressors on their own; rather, the white oppressors must choose to reject “the South” and their whiteness in order to cure themselves of this illness and regain their humanity.

Little Rock Nine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oodolEmUg2g