"Look! They're Going Into the School!"
By Jennifer Alicea

On Sept. 23, 1957, eight black students entered an all-white high school in Little Rock, Ark. This historic event was captured by Relman Morin, who wrote a detailed eyewitness account of the mob violence during the school integration crisis at Central High School in Little Rock. Morin was a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist during the U.S. civil rights movement. He won the prize for his report, which is entitled "Look! They’re Going Into the School!," on the Little Rock school integration crisis. According to John Hohenberg, former Pulitzer Prize official, Morin’s piece was "one of the most remarkable instances of on-the-spot reporting in current American journalism." It covered a turning point in the civil rights movement and the struggle for racial equality in schools. More than 50 years later, it is still worth reading.

Morin was born in Freeport, Ill., on Sept. 11, 1907. He began to take an interest in journalism in high school, and his journalism career started off at the Los Angeles Times at age 15. In 1934, he joined the Associated Press (AP) and became the chief of the AP bureau in Tokyo and a Far East correspondent until the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Morin was also a war correspondent stationed in Saigon but was imprisoned by the Japanese on espionage charges for seven months. He received his first Pulitzer Prize in 1951 for his coverage of the Korean War. In 1958, he received the second for his reporting on the Little Rock school integration crisis.

Little Rock was a top story in American journalism during September 1957. On the morning of Sept. 23, 1957, as Morin worked from a glass telephone booth across from Little Rock’s Central High School, the mob turned against the press. Apparently, the mob did not want the press to make them look bad and expose their cruelty toward black people. Morin stated that he witnessed the beatings of a black reporter and three white journalists (two photographers and a reporter) from Life magazine. He feared for his life but bravely remained in the middle of all the hysteria to report his alarming observations. He continued to dictate detailed information, even as his phone booth was rocked back and forth and a white youth tried to knock it over.

Morin described the event as a "drama-packed climax of three weeks of integration struggle in Little Rock." The initial date for integration was Sept. 3, the first day of the fall term. The night before, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ringed Central High School with National Guardsmen. Gov. Faubus claimed that he sent for the National Guardsmen because he wanted to protect citizens and property from violent protestors on their way to Little Rock. When one of the black students tried to enter the school on Sept. 2, she was stopped by a Guardsman and harassed by a white mob. John Kirk, author of Beyond Little Rock: The Origins and Legacies of the Central High Crisis, states that the "events raised not only a national but also an international outcry."

The uproar in Little Rock was the product of a policy of "minimal compliance" with integration. According to Kirk, school superintendent Virgil Blossom was the "architect of minimal compliance in Little Rock." Minimal compliance, a way to legally delay and limit school desegregation as long as possible, was a less severe form of massive resistance. As Kirk states, "[It] offered a less harmful way of frustrating the process of school desegregation but that actually wreaked chaos."

Only after negotiations between Gov. Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhower broke down did the president reluctantly federalize the National Guard. After two weeks of negotiation, nine black students were scheduled to enter Central High School with armed federal escorts on Sept. 23, 1957.

In his article, Morin described the chaotic event in vivid detail, making readers envision the scene as if they had experienced it themselves. He wrote with such specifics to expose the horrible situation and the cruelty of the white protestors. The title of the article, "Look! They’re Going Into the School!" was a direct quote from the crowd when the eight black students first entered the school. The mob was distracted by four black adults walking down the street toward the school. The crowd rushed toward them and beat them on the front lawn of a nearby home. Morin stated that it was clearly a diversion intended to lure the crowd away from the school so the students could slip in.

Morin used many direct quotes from the mob to explain the severity of the situation. "They’re gone in," a man roared. "Oh, God, the niggers are in the school!" The crowd was in a state of panic, and many women were screaming, crying and tearing at their hair. The parents of the white students were desperate to get their children out of the school. Morin stated that the first woman who broke out in tears told one of the reporters: "Why don’t you tell them we are peaceful people who won’t stand to have our kids sitting next to a nigger?"

Originally, there were supposed to be nine black students attending Central High School that day, but one did not show up. Morin described the eight black students as they entered the school and noted that they did not run or walk fast. The black students did not show any fear entering the school, and their bravery distinguished them from the violent mob. Morin included a description of the black students: "The girls were in bobby sox, and the boys were dressed in shirts open at the neck. All were carrying books."

Later in the article, Morin reported that the crowd cheered when three white students walked out of the high school. He stated the white students were carrying books and the girls were wearing bobby sox as well. Morin’s similar description of the black and white students implies that the black students were probably not very different from the white students. They were there for the same reason, which was to learn, and they even dressed the same as the white students.

Initially, Morin stated that the crowd forced the authorities to withdraw the black students from the school because of extreme violence inside and outside the school. However, in his contradictory closing paragraph he stated that "inside there was no sign that this was different from any other school day," and he quoted a student who claimed that in a class of 30 only one student remained when a black student entered the class. It is unclear why Morin contradicted himself in his closing paragraph. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that he was just a spectator; he included commentaries from the students because they were the only ones allowed inside the school.

Morin dramatically revealed the horrors of racism during the 1950s with his incisive report on the Little Rock school integration crisis. His article represents the struggles faced by black people and minorities during the civil rights movement; it has the same emotional impact today that it had in 1957. Morin put the message across that racial discrimination was a serious problem in the United States. His work reminds us of how the school integration crisis was an important step in desegregation and ultimately led to equal opportunity and racial acceptance in the United States.

 

Jennifer Alicea is a double major in biology and allied health technologies at Rutgers-Newark. Posted January 2008.