In September 1957, the nation was transfixed by nine black students attempting to integrate Central High School in Little Rock in the wake of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. Governor Orval Faubus had defied the city's integration plan by calling out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school. Newspapers across the nation ran front-page photographs of whites, both students and parents, screaming epithets at the quiet, well-dressed black children. President Eisenhower reluctantly deployed troops from the 101st Air-borne, both outside and inside the school.
Integration proceeded, but the turmoil of Little Rock had only just begun. Public schools were soon shut down for a full year. Black students endured outrageous provocation by white classmates. Governor Faubus's popularity skyrocketed, while the landmark case Cooper v. Aaron worked its way to the Supreme Court and eventually paved the way for the integration of the south.
Betsy Jacoway was a Little Rock student just two years younger than the youngest of the Little Rock Nine. Her "Uncle Virgil" was Superintendent of Schools Virgil Blossom. Congressman Brooks Hays was an old family friend, and her "Uncle Dick" was Richard Butler, the lawyer who argued Cooper v. Aaron before the Supreme Court. Yet, at the time, she was cocooned away from the controversy in a protective shell that was typical for white southern "good girls." Only in graduate school did she begin to question the foundations of her native world, and her own distance from the controversy.
Turn Away Thy Son is the product of thirty years of digging behind the conventional account of the crisis, interviewing whites and blacks, officials and students, activists and ordinary citizens. A tour de force of history and memory, it is also a brilliant, multifaceted mirror to hold up to America today. She knows what happened to the brave black students once they got inside the doors of the school. She knows how the whites' fear of "race mixing" drove many locals to extremes of anger, paranoia, and even violence. She knows that Orval Faubus was only a reluctant segregationist, and that her own cousin's timid tokenism precipitated the crisis.
Above all, Turn Away Thy Son shows in vivid detail why school desegregation was the hottest of hot-button issues in the Jim Crow south. In the deepest recesses of the southern psyche, Jacoway encounters the fear of giving black men sexual access to white women. The truth about Little Rock differs in many ways from the caricature that emerged in the press and in many histories -- but those differences pale in comparison to the fundamental driving force behind the story. Turn Away Thy Son is a riveting, heartbreaking, eye-opening book.
Although the ingredients for a groundbreaking account of the 1957 integration of Little Rock's Central High School are here, this account by the niece of the city's superintendent of schools falls short of its promise. A Little Rock native who went to a different school during the crisis, Jacoway draws on more than 50 interviews of her own, which include all the major players, along with dozens of interviews conducted by others, and private and public manuscripts. But the result is a numbing mass of detail that entombs the drama and its personae. The oral histories add verisimilitude, but the day-by-day, even hour-by-hour, detail is frequently tedious. The total effect is, curiously, a vindication of Gov. Orval Faubus and a reproach of journalist Harry Ashmore and the author's uncle, Superintendent Virgil Blossom. A daring subtext, that the root of the crisis was "a white fear of miscegenation," frames the book in preface and afterword. Jacoway's insight that "female questioning could somehow threaten the established order" also makes her particularly attentive to the roles women played in causing and calming the crisis. The result is an informative but dully written book.