Fifty years ago today, paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division escorted nine black students the the doors of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. As Shelby Steele points out on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal today, the events in Little Rock in 1957 had a dramatic impact on the way the nation thought about segregation, integration and civil rights, in part because of the effect of television. The events were broadcast live across the nation, and watched by something like 100 million viewers.
It was, for instance, the first time that our military leaders had ever looked directly at troops in action over a field commander's shoulder nearly a thousand miles away. And, for many on Wall Street, it seemed to bring them into direct contact with the realities of segregation for the first time. “People on all sides of the civil rights issues in 1957 were shocked by the sight of white mobs and the Arkansas National Guard, under orders from Governor Orval Faubus, blocking nine black children from entering the city's Central High School,” Juan Williams writes in Time Magazine.
“But the deeper historical importance of the Little Rock crisis follows from the simple fact that it was televised,” Steele writes. “So Americans watched by the millions and, in this watching, saw something that would change the country fundamentally. Everyday for weeks they saw white people so consumed with racial hatred that they looked bestial and subhuman. When white racism was a confident power, it could look like propriety itself, like good manners. But here, in its insecurity, it was grotesque and shocking. Worse, it was there for the entire world to see, and so it broke through the national denial. The Little Rock crisis revealed the evil at the core of segregation, and it launched the stigmatization of white Americans as racists that persists to this day. After Little Rock whites stood permanently accused. They would have to prove a negative -- that they were not racist -- in order to claim decency. And this need to forever beg one's innocence is the very essence of white guilt.”
The phrase “white guilt” has become a common way of describing white reactions to confrontations with white racism. Often it’s been used as a pejorative, a way of describing the motivations for certain political positions—support for affirmative action, for instance—as psychological reaction to white racism rather than a legitimate, rational policy.
But an informal survey—really, a series of brief interviews—of whites who lived in the North during the era in which segregationists clashed openly with integrationists paints a quite different picture. We spoke to quite a few people who lived in the North at the time, some of whom were working on Wall Street in the late fifties and early sixties, who told us their reaction wasn’t to feel guilty as whites but to feel contempt for Southern white segregationists.
“When we saw the images, what we saw was proof that those people were uneducated, uncivilized backward rednecks,” one person whose father was working for one of the New York large insurance houses at the time told us.
“We weren’t the most diverse work place in the world, I guess. But we also knew we weren’t on the side of Orval Faubus. We liked Ike. He was Wall Street’s candidate. Those weren’t our people screaming racism in Little Rock,” said a man who was in 1957 just beginning his career on Wall Street after graduating from Yale.
The images on television from Little Rock and subsequent events confirmed in the minds of many their impression of Southern whites as morally inferior. And, of course, it confirmed their impression of themselves as morally superior.
In the great status competition between Northern industrial and financial culture and Southern rural aristocracy, the aristocracy was shown to have no clothes at Little Rock. It was simply a genteel illusion covering up brutal, reactionary oppression. That, at least, seems to have been how the images were received in the North.
Gallup’s polls at the time showed a regional division on the question of President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to send in the paratroopers. In the South, 53% viewed the decision as wrong. Only 36% supported Ike. In the North and West, however, 74% agreed with the decision and only 16% thought it was wrong. The monolithic white reaction to Little Rock didn’t exist. The immediate effect seems to have been to reify white division about us and them and to affirm in the minds of many white Northerners their superior status to white Southerners.
Those who were working on Wall Street at the time said this feeling was widely shared inside the major investment banks and brokerages.
“The South had always claimed to be offering some more noble alternative to the money culture of Wall Street. In Little Rock, we saw that there was nothing noble about their alternative. We weren’t the uncouth savages, the rednecks were,” one old time Wall Street professional, who has since retired, tells us.
It’s far from clear that Wall Streeters were entirely entitled to the feelings of moral superiority they felt when watching the events in Little Rock unfold. They might not have been hurling racial epithets at black youngsters or barring doors to schoolhouses, but Wall Street was hardly a model of racial integration at the time. There were few enough blacks working in finance that in the late 1950s one black stockbroker is said to have joked to another “The only Negroes on Wall Street before us we either sweeping the street or shining shoes on it.” Merrill Lynch would hire its first black stockbroker in 1965. It was not until 1970 that the New York Stock Exchange had a black member.
It seems a bit odd, perhaps, to focus so much on white status competition on the fiftieth anniversary of Little Rock. What about the nine students who were accompanied inside Central High School on that day in 1957? The Washington Post today profiles Ernest G. Green Jr, managing director of public finance for Lehman Brothers, where he has worked since 1987. His experiences in Little Rock, he says, toughened him up for a life in finance.
"It made me a tougher negotiator, able to control my emotions and able to handle the ups and down of business and life," he tells the Washington Post.
The Legacy of Little Rock [Wall Street Journal]
The Legacy of Little Rock [Time.com]
The Legacy Of Little Rock [Washington Post]