"Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"
Using Oral Histories to Tell the Story of the Civil Rights Movement

 

Ellen Spears and Marcia Klenbort

Listening to the voices of people recalling major historical events in which they took part is a special way of experiencing the past. Not only do these voices lend more reality to the events described; they also offer us unique perspectives shaped by the speaker’s own experience of an event’s legacy.

Recording the insights and recollections of people involved in the civil rights movement in the South was an extended project of the Southern Regional Council, a civil rights organization based in Atlanta. The project culminated in the audio documentary series “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, which uses the oral histories of more than 250 ordinary people to tell the story of one of America’s most powerful social movements. Of course, these stories are not ordinary at all, but describe acts of great conscience, courage, and endurance as individuals faced the choice of standing up for their principles or bowing under the weight of long-standing discrimination.

The series goes behind the headlines of the time to portray the emotional events that took place in the living rooms, courtrooms, church basements, and streets of five key cities in the South—Little Rock, Arkansas; Jackson, Mississippi; Montgomery, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; and Columbia, South Carolina—between 1940 and 1970. The stories told by people who witnessed, made, and sometimes tried to stop what was happening in these five cities reveal how different issues and strategies merged over this 30-year period to become the civil rights movement.

In Columbia, the voices tell of the legal route taken to social change as the state NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) led a series of challenges to Jim Crow laws and traditions. In Atlanta, the voices document the process of quiet behind-the-scenes negotiations between the city, representing the interests of the business leadership, and a shifting coalition of older black leaders and students who were themselves frequently trying to outmaneuver each other.

In Montgomery, the voices help to reveal how the phenomenon of a mass movement developed out of the initial small actions of ordinary people. In Jackson, the voices explain why and how an alternative course of violent resistance arose. And in Little Rock, the voices remember and reflect about how the issues of states’ rights and federal intervention were joined as a small group of black teenagers elected to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School.

Most of the interviews for this series were collected from civil rights veterans—both well known and unknown—during the 1990s. However, the process of collecting the oral histories began in the late 1970s. Recording these voices took on more urgency over the past decade, as series producer George King explains:

The reason that we were doing these oral histories originally was that we did not want to lose these voices. Of course, subsequently we have lost many more, Virginia Durr being the most recent example. Others, like Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, Mississippi, are not around any more.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” consists of 26 half-hour episodes. Within each episode, first person accounts are woven together with period music, rare archival recordings, and narration by Vertamae Grosvenor. The more than 300 songs chosen for the series reflect not only the movement but the popular culture of the times. The insights and anecdotes that make up the series speak to important and continuing issues of democratic values, social justice, community responsibilities, and non-violence.

A group of Atlanta teachers is currently working with the Southern Regional Council to create a teacher’s guide for the series, including lesson plans and creative activities that can be used to explore issues in U.S. history, civics, and other areas of the social studies and language arts at the middle and high school levels. The guide will focus on the important concepts explored in each episode, and provide teachers with units that can be integrated into the courses they teach.

Excerpts from “Episode 12: Nine for Justice,” which involves school integration in Little Rock in 1957, and a sample lesson to use with it follow in this article.

 

Ellen Spears is director of communications for the Southern Regional Council.

The Southern Regional Council (SRC) works to promote racial justice, protect democratic rights, and broaden civic participation. Founded as the Commission on Interracial Cooperation in response to race riots in 1919, SRC was instrumental in the campaign to repeal all-white primary elections in the 1940s and established the Voter Education Project, which registered two million African American voters during the 1960s and 1970s.

The oral history project that resulted in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” took shape in the late 1970s, with the original interviews conducted by Randall Williams and folklorist Worth Long. It expanded through the efforts of Executive Producer Steve Suitts (then executive director of the SRC), who obtained funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Public Radio International Program Fund, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The documentary was produced by SRC’s George King.

Among the scholars who advised on the series are historians Paul Gaston, University of Virginia; Barbara Woods, South Carolina State University; Grace Jordan McFadden, former director of African American Studies at the University of South Carolina; Raymond Gavins, Duke University; John Dittmer, DePauw University; Mills Thornton, University of Michigan; and Allen Tullos, of the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University. Movement veteran Julian Bond, now a history professor at the University of Virginia and chairman of the board of the NAACP, advised on the series and wrote its Prologue and Epilogue.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” aired on public radio stations in 1997 and 1998, and won a Peabody Award. The series is now available on CD or tape cassette, with a teacher’s guide to accompany it in the works. A special issue of the SRC journal, Southern Changes (Spring 1997), with oral histories is available with the series. The series also has its own website including historical background, audio transcripts, a forum for discussion, and suggestions for action to end racial discrimination.

To obtain more information or reserve a copy of the series, write or call the Southern Regional Council, 133 Carnegie Way, Suite 900, Atlanta, GA 30303-024 (404-522-8764) or visiting the series’ website at www.unbrokencircle.org.

Bringing It Home

 

The following is from an interview with George King that appeared in an article titled
“Completing the Circle” in the SRC journal,
Southern Changes (Spring 1997). King worked for six years as producer of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Here, he reflects on some strengths and weaknesses of making a series based on oral history.

 

As we put together the pilot programs on Little Rock, we had the idea to play them for focus groups made up of community leaders and movement participants. They could tell us whether we got everything right in both fact and emphasis and if we hadn’t, where we’d run off the rails.

Reconnecting the programs back to the local communities was so valuable; so many things came from that. They knew a lot of people in the communities so they could say, “You folks never talked to Betty? You’ve really got to go talk to Betty, and here’s her phone number.”

Sometimes I would arrogantly claim that we had been to every archive in this country and that I knew where every sound bite was. And then, the person I was talking to would say, “Well, I’ve got twenty interviews under my bed, actually.” So you were humbled by such things periodically, and the collection grew and grew.

When we took the first roughly-edited shows into Little Rock to the focus groups, one of the first comments was, “You don’t get a sense of what we opposed, of the people we faced. They’re not in these programs. People won’t understand or believe what we were up against.” That made a lot of sense, and we then went out and tried to interview segregationists, or find interview material from them. But it turned out to be no easy task to have those folks come forward and talk about their attitudes in an honest way. We found a few, but, boy, it’s been rare. What we’ve had to do is use the more sensational material we found in archives, which gives you a flavor of the conviction or sense of righteousness that segregationists had, but it doesn’t really explain much about the roots of prejudice.

However, just in the way that oral history can skew, there is a danger that in a small focus group of five people, one person can dominate and say, “This is all wrong. My grandfather is obviously the most important person, and you’ve ignored him.” I think we were very fortunate that this never happened. I don’t believe anybody in these groups put their ego in the way or were overly protective or defensive about individuals or their communities.

Still, I never know for sure if someone is remembering something accurately. In some of the many original interviews that I did, I couldn’t be sure if people were trying to reposition themselves in history so they would look better than they were. To offset these pitfalls of oral history, I introduced another layer into the feedback process: a scholar with local knowledge. We identified scholars in each city with specific local knowledge, people like Mills Thornton in Montgomery, Cliff Kuhn in Atlanta, and John Dittmer in Jackson. Involving the scholars was very useful indeed for fact-checking and for balancing what the community was giving us.

So out of these three methods—one of which is the scholar, one of which is the community, and the third of which is the material that we actually had—the scripts and then the programs evolved.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: A Personal History of the Civil Rights Movement in Five Southern Communities

Episode 12: Nine for Justice. Little Rock, Arkansas.

Written by George King with Vertamae Grosvenor

 

The following excerpts from Episode 12 include the voices of: Little Rock civil rights attorneys Wiley Branton, Sr., and Edwin Dunaway, and NAACP leader, Daisy Bates; newspaper editor Harry Ashmore and reporter Bob Douglas; African American teacher Sonny Walker; white segregationist Amis Guthridge; white Central High School student Craig Rains; members of the “Little Rock Nine” (the African American students who integrated Central High School) Ernest Green, Melba Patillo Beals, and Elizabeth Eckford; and narrator Vertamae Grosvenor.

 

AMIS GUTHRIDGE: Being a native of Arkansas and a southerner, I like the Negro people, always have, always will. But we are different.

 

SERIES THEME MUSIC: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” [Staple Singers]

 

NARRATOR: You are listening to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, a 26-part audio history of the civil rights movement in five Southern communities, with the music from those times. Today’s episode: Little Rock: Nine for Justice.

The rigid segregation of the Jim Crow South continued to govern black Arkansans’ lives throughout the first half of this century.

As World War II drew to a close, change was in the air. Civil rights attorney Wiley Branton, Sr.

 

WILEY BRANTON, SR.: I came back with a feeling that if I could go to the Pacific and fight to help make the world safe for democracy, that I could use that same spirit in fighting bigotry at home, to make home safe for democracy. And I immediately became active with the NAACP upon my discharge.

 

NARRATOR: Harry Ashmore was the former editor of the Arkansas Gazette.

 

HARRY ASHMORE: World War II had changed that whole pattern of people’s thinking, and I used to say that we’re coming to the point—and you could see it coming—where whites were not willing to accept blacks on a basis of equality, and blacks were no longer willing to accept anything else. So there was a collision coming.

 

MUSIC: “Straighten Up and Fly Right” [Andrews Sisters]

 

NARRATOR: After World War II, the NAACP identified education as the key issue to challenge segregation across the South…Again, Wiley Branton, Sr.

 

WILEY BRANTON, SR.: I was one of the moving forces in terms of trying to get the University of Arkansas to open up its doors. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with the fact that the University of Arkansas was the first Southern school to admit Negroes, and they did it largely under pressure and threat of a lawsuit, which I was prepared to bring.

 

...

 

EDWIN DUNAWAY: The first student who went was Silas Hunt.

 

NARRATOR: Attorney Edwin Dunaway.

 

EDWIN DUNAWAY: They had him have classes in a separate room in the basement. They would not let him go into the law library, and they had to take the books that he wanted to him. Then that got bad, so they let him come into the classroom, but they put a 2 x 2 railing around him! It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?

 

MUSIC: “Don’t Fence Me In” [Edward Nell & the Foursome Quartet]

 

...

 

NARRATOR: The 1954 United States Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board of Education labeled segregation in public schools an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment. Again, Wiley Branton, Sr.

 

WILEY BRANTON, SR.: Well, as soon as the Supreme Court decision was handed down in 1954, I was asked to work with the State Conference of Branches of NAACP. And in late 1955, we started meeting with some of the school boards, and Little Rock announced that they were going to voluntarily desegregate and they came up with a plan which the citizens didn’t like but they were willing to accept.

 

NARRATOR: Journalist Bob Douglas.

 

BOB DOUGLAS: There had been, what, at least a half-a-dozen or more schools integrated in Arkansas before Central High with no trouble. This was a plan that had been discussed for months and months and months. It was just assumed that things would go fairly smoothly, that the schools would be integrated and that there would be no trouble.

 

NARRATOR: Arkansas, an Upper South state, was considered more moderate on the issue of race than the Deep South states of Alabama and Mississippi. Nevertheless, most whites were hostile to the idea of school integration. Little Rock attorney Amis Guthridge was a leader of the segregationist Citizens Council.

 

AMIS GUTHRIDGE: I made this statement, that the first Negro child that crosses the threshold of a public school would sound the death knell of the public school system.

 

NARRATOR: Dunbar High School was one of the few high schools for blacks in the entire state. Named for poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the school was the pride of black Little Rock. Central High was the pride of the white community. Craig Rains:

 

CRAIG RAINS: The building where Little Rock Central High School is located now was built in 1928 as Little Rock High School. It was voted that year by the American Institute of Architects as the most beautiful high school in America. And I think it probably still is.

 

...

 

ERNEST GREEN: Little Rock Central represented symbolically all that white segregation meant in that town and all of the worst of the South.

 

MUSIC: “I’m Sittin’ On Top Of The World” [Les Paul & Mary Ford]

 

NARRATOR: The school board had formed a committee to select the first students who would integrate Central High School. The committee was chaired by Daisy Bates who, with her husband, L.C., published Little Rock’s black newspaper, the State Press.

...

 

SONNY WALKER: They were unique persons. They tried to get folks not to be afraid; to exercise their rights. Also put themselves at great risk, with bombs thrown at their homes. They were certainly at economic risk. They lost the paper, they had their home in hock—just because they believed.

 

NARRATOR: As the new school year approached, Mrs. Bates orchestrated a community wide effort to encourage black students to apply for Central High. Sonny Walker was a teacher in the black school system.

 

...

 

SONNY WALKER: They were good students, they were of good character, they came from good homes. They knew how to control themselves; they were not disciplinary problems. Their parents had the capacity to provide them with adequate clothing. You know, they just—they didn’t go with baggage…

 

NARRATOR: Melba Patillo Beals.

 

MELBA PATILLO BEALS: I wanted to go because they had more privileges. They had more equipment, they had five floors of opportunities. I understood education before I understood anything else. From the time I was two, my mother said, “You will go to college. Education is your key to survival.”

 

NARRATOR: The School Board committee finally selected twelve students from the several hundred that applied. By September, three had dropped out, leaving the group that would become known around the world as the “Little Rock Nine.” Craig Rains, a white student, was a senior attending Central.

 

CRAIG RAINS: We were disappointed that the school board gave in to the federal government. We felt like we had a good thing going in Little Rock. We thought that the blacks were happy with their fine, outstanding school at Horace Mann and, uh, and we, of course, we were happy at Central going to what we considered the best high school in the United States. And we couldn’t understand why they would want to come over to our school. We certainly didn’t want to go to theirs.

 

NARRATOR: Few whites supported integration and many actively opposed it. Orville Faubus, governor of the state of Arkansas, considered moderate on the issue of race, faced a political hurdle.

 

...

 

NARRATOR: Governor Faubus, the two-term incumbent, faced an election that would define his political future. Yet, despite a summer-long media campaign organized by the segregationist Citizens Council, few of Little Rock’s citizens anticipated any problems integrating the schools. NAACP leader Daisy Bates…

 

DAISY BATES: On September 1, on a Sunday evening, 1957, the reporters arrived for the opening of Central High School. They wanted to know what I expected, if I expected any trouble. I told them, “No, we didn’t expect any trouble because it had been thoroughly thrashed out in court and we felt that the community had been pretty much prepared for this day.”

 

MUSIC: “Could This Be Magic?” [The Dubs]

 

...

 

CRAIG RAINS: We were at school that night, sitting in the parking lot of the service station across the street from the school and we had the camera and everything. We were gonna take a picture of it, too, and then scoot on out. But as we sat there, we heard the, uh, a-a sound behind us that we were not familiar with. And we looked out and saw, coming down the street, a convoy of military vehicles—jeeps, trucks, uh, troops—and they began to surround the school. And it scared us to death.

 

...

 

DAISY BATES: That night, the television stations announced that Governor Faubus was to go on the air with a very, very important announcement.

 

EXCERPT FROM FAUBUS SPEECH: Units of the National Guard have been and are now being mobilized. The public peace will be preserved. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

 

...

 

NARRATOR: The next morning, the National Guard surrounded Central High as an angry mob of segregationists orchestrated by the Citizens Council gathered out front.

 

FX: CROWD NOISE

 

NARRATOR: Across town, Daisy Bates set out to escort the black students to their first day of school. One student, Elizabeth Eckford, was missing.

 

ELIZABETH ECKFORD: I got up that morning and I got ready for school as I would normally do on the first day of school. I rode the bus to within a block of the school and walked from there to school, alone.

 

DAISY BATES: We were en route to the meeting place and we were driving and I heard on the radio that they were mobbing a little girl and they described the little girl. And then it hit me. I said, “Oh my God.” I thought, “I forgot Elizabeth.”

 

NARRATOR: The 15-year old school girl, attempting to ignore the jeering mob, approached the National Guard lines.

 

ELIZABETH ECKFORD: When I approached them the first time, they closed ranks. The second time, they just pointed me in the direction away from the area that I was attempting to enter, the sidewalk to the school. And I thought that he was directing me to another entrance, so I walked further down the street. And the mob fell in behind me. I thought that they were there for my protection. [CRYING]

 

NARRATOR: Melba Patillo, one of the Little Rock Nine.

 

MELBA PATILLO BEALS: The school you must picture is this castle, so therefore, the front of it is a block long. And within that block parameter, it was filled with layers and layers and layers of red-faced, angry people. And I came up behind this group of people, just across the street from Central High School, to see Elizabeth Eckford walking across the street with the mob jeering at her.

 

ELIZABETH ECKFORD: [CRYING] I couldn’t turn around because they were right on my heels. I had to keep on walking.

 

MUSIC: “Jesus, Build A Fence All Around Me” [The Soul Stirrers]

 

CRAIG RAINS: I had my camera at the time. I took a picture of it and then I heard the taunts of the crowd as she went on and I thought, well, I really can’t believe people would actually treat other people this way. I’d never seen that before.

 

NARRATOR: Ernest Green was one of the nine students…

 

ERNEST GREEN: She had a crowd of a hundred, two hundred white people threatening to kill her. She had nobody. I mean, there was not a black face in sight anywhere. Nobody that she could turn to as a friend except ‘til this woman came out of the crowd and guided her through the mob and onto the bus and got her home safely.

 

CRAIG RAINS: I think it was at that point that I began to change from being a moderate or somebody who said, “Hey, I believe in state’s rights and let’s don’t integrate because it’s the state’s right to decide whether to do so or not,” to someone who felt a real sense of compassion for these students, that maybe they had a right to the things that I already had. I think at that point is when I really began to change my mind and realize that this was not a state’s rights issue, that it was a people issue.

 

Entire contents of this transcript copyright © Southern Regional Council. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced without written permission.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken? A Personal History of the Civil Rights Movement in Five Southern Communities

Teaching Activities for Episode 12: Nine for Justice

Marcia Klenbort

These activities are based on Episode 12: Nine for Justice. Little Rock, Arkansas. They are suggested for middle and high school students working as individuals, in small groups, and as an entire class. As teachers and students become more familiar with the spoken material, they will discover many approaches to, and extensions of, these activities. The teaching activities can be accomplished using the tape/CD of this episode and/or the excerpts from the script included in this article.

 

Resources Available for These Activities

> 30-minute tape/CD of Episode 12: Nine for Justice

> Script excerpts including speakers’ names

> Southern Changes (Spring 1997), the journal of the Southern Regional Council. This issue is devoted to the series and includes an essay by Julian Bond titled “Democracy Demands Memory,” seven interviews with “People Who Made the Movement,” the story of how “Circle” came to be made, and an annotated listing of the 26 programs in the series.

> Resources from the “Circle” website at www.unbrokencircle.org

Contact: Southern Regional Council, 133 Carnegie Way, NW, Suite 900, Atlanta GA 30303-1024 (404-522-8764)

 

Introduction to Episode 12

Whole Class Activity

Play the tape of this episode or ask students to take parts and read the excerpts from the script in class. Ask students to “free-write” their responses to the material. Then ask students to form small groups to share their thinking. Finally, ask the entire class to list the important questions they have about the events described in this episode.

 

Date It: A Timeline Activity

For a small group to make and present to the whole class

Create, on butcher or chart paper, an extended timeline that starts in 1940 and continues to the present.

 

1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s

 

Place such important events on the timeline as:

> international events

> national events

> local events in the community or school

> personal events (when most students in this class were born; parents; grandparents)

Invite all members of the class to add to the timeline now or as study of the civil rights movement progresses.

 

Map It: A Place Activity

For students working in small groups

All students should use a regional map of the United States to find and label the Southern states (as defined by membership in the Confederacy). Where is Arkansas in relation to the others? Working in small groups, students should then research the following about Arkansas and various other states during the 1950s. Use the 1950 U.S. Census for statistics.

> The Southern region of the United States is sometimes viewed in terms of political, geographical, or economic sub-regions. What states are generally referred to as: Old South? Deep South? Southwest? Border states? What are some of the features that states within these groupings have in common?

> What was the economy of Arkansas based on during the 1950s? How did it compare with that of other Southern states? (The group might choose sample states from different areas of the South.)

> What was the urban/rural breakdown in Arkansas in the 1950s? How did it compare with selected other Southern states?

> What was the demographic breakdown of whites to African Americans in Arkansas during the 1950s? In all other Southern states? How do you think these statistics might relate to segregation vs integration?

> How was going to school in your community the same as, or different from, going to school in Little Rock or a small Arkansas town during the 1950s? Be sure to cite your sources of information.

 

Discover It: Doing Historical Research

For individual students or small groups

The following questions are suitable for use with this episode in a unit on the civil rights movement.

> What rights did African Americans have in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957? Could they vote? Could they send their children to any public school in their neighborhood? Could they sit anywhere on a public bus? Could they go to any restaurant? What can you discover about the state of integration in Little Rock at this time?

> In what states besides Arkansas did similar patterns exist?

> What is the history of these patterns in your own community?

> What role did students play in the civil rights movement?

> What role did television play in the civil rights movement?

 

Name That Tune: A Musical Interview

For individual students or small groups

Find and interview someone who was in junior high or high school during the late 1940s or 1950s. Use the list of songs from Episode 12 to ask the following questions (or others of your choosing):

> Do you know any of the following songs? The performers?

> Would you say these songs are typical of the time? Why or why not?

> What other popular songs do you remember from that time? How would you describe them?

> Do you remember any songs that your school chorus sang?

> Can you name any songs associated with the civil rights movement? If so, do you remember when you first heard them?

> What do you remember about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957?

> Was school integration an issue in your own community at the time?

Take notes and share your findings with the class.

 

List of Songs and Performers

“Straighten Up and Fly Right” [Andrews Sisters]

“Don’t Fence Me In” [Edward Nell & the Foursome Quartet]

“I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” [Les Paul and Mary Ford]

“Could This be Magic?” [The Dubs]

 

Define It: Understanding Terms and Phrases

For students working in small groups

Listen to the tape or read the script excerpts. List any terms or phrases that are unfamiliar to you but which seem important to understanding the episode. Divide the list among your group for research on the meaning of various terms. Be sure to include the source(s) of your information. Share your findings with the whole class. Did other groups choose the same terms or phrases? What did they discover about their meanings? (Some examples follow.)

 

Term or Phrase It Means Sources(s)

NAACP

Citizens Council

Jim Crow

states’ rights

“make the world safe for democracy”

 

Imagine It: Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

I. A Dramatic Role Play (For a group of four students)

Ask students to adopt the roles of the four Little Rock school students (three African American and one white) who appear in the episode. After reviewing the episode—and possibly doing research on the character—each student will create a short monologue in which this character tells us something about

> what she/he did on the day before the school was integrated

> how he/she felt at the beginning of the day of integration

> what she/he thought at the end of that day

 

II. A Character Description (For individual students)

Think about the two persons in this episode that you would most and least like to be. Write a description of one of these persons that answers the following questions.

> Why would you like/not like to be this person?

> What do you think were the most important influences on this person?

> What do you think were the greatest challenges this person faced?

 

Right Now: A Reflection Activity

For individuals, small groups, and the whole class

This activity is designed to help students link the past to the present. Ask students to jot down answers to the questions that follow. Then ask students working in small groups to reflect on these questions. Finally, have a spokesperson for each group offer its best answers to these questions in a whole class discussion.

> Are there any examples of inequities, great or small, in your school community now? If so, what are they?

> What can an individual student do to remedy any inequities?

> What can students acting together do to remedy any inequities?

 

Marcia Klenbort, a former teacher, is director of education programs for the Southern Regional Council.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.