In the South These Children Prophesy

How do the pressures of desegregation affect schoolchildren? DR. ROBERT COLES, a child psychiatrist now living in Vinings, Georgia, has spent two years getting to know Southern children, their parents, and teachers during the initial desegregation of schools in the Deep South. He has talked with both white and Negro children of different ages, backgrounds, and opinions. His study has been sponsored by the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta.

CHILDREN in the South today carry more than their books to school. I have spent two years with some of these children, trying to find out how they manage before mobs and in quiet classrooms, I have been interested in how children begin to learn about skin color, and what lessons they grasp in this regard at the different ages of childhood. I have wanted to know what a child psychiatrist can learn about the feelings, the fears and hopes of youth in the actual situations of desegregation.

I have heard and seen some surprises. Crowds gathered daily for an entire year around two elementary schools in New Orleans. In one of them three Negro girls learned to read and write in an empty building, more abandoned than desegregated. During that first year federal marshals escorted them to school. Their parents were threatened by phone and mail. On the street the girls were cursed, and in their homes they heard worried discussions about jobs and violence. The next year, like drops in a transfusion, a few white children returned and the boycott of the school was broken. By spring there were eighteen white and five Negro children in the school, and the three Negro girls finished the second grade in an obscurity which felt strange after their international notoriety of the previous year. “I don’t get any more letters from people, and my picture doesn’t show in the paper anymore,” one lamented.

The lone Negro girl in the other school, Ruby Bridges, had always had several white children with her, sometimes as few as seven, but in the second year more than a hundred. One of the first children to return, a girl of six with blonde curls, approached Ruby, and, loyal to her mother’s words, she told Ruby that she was not supposed to play with her. A few minutes later their teacher watched them busily jumping rope together.

The white children and their families received the attention of enraged and disorderly mobs. They suffered threats, damage to their homes, isolation, and the condemnation of their governor and state legislature. Ruby’s father, who won the Purple Heart in Korea, lost his job, and his parents, living in a small Mississippi town, feared lynching. Yet all the while these children, both Negro and white, lived, played, and learned.

Unlike many children who need psychiatric help for a variety of difficulties, these young boys and girls show little evidence of illness. They have few temper tantrums or troubles in learning. They usually eat and sleep well. During the worst heckling of the crowds which surrounded the schools and intimidated many of their classmates, they had the quiet support of the school routine and they were closer than ever before to their parents.

Of course, no child can ignore the cries of persistently mean people or continual tension at home or school. However, so long as their parents and teachers survive these trials, the children will usually be no less sturdy. The threats and abuse become part of the many problems which would normally confront them as they develop emotionally, When they are six, children’s concern about right and wrong or the reasons for punishment is real. They wonder how things happen, are curious about God, how He affects them, and about what is His good and the devil’s bad.

Ruby, for instance, was irritated anyway with her four younger brothers and sisters and frightened by her normal urge to remove them and alone possess her parents. Now she would feel contrite as she walked through the shabby press of accusing adults. “Am I bad?” she asked her mother often. “Does God want to punish me and nobody else? Will I be the only one in the family?” Several anxieties are joined in a few brief words. She takes the world around her and uses it to express conflict in herself, worried not only about her singular school experience but by how real her fantasies can become. Will she be the only one in the family to endure this stress, but, also, will she be left alone in the family, without her brothers and sisters? if so, will she be punished, perhaps at the hands of these strangers as well as by her parents? In her thoughts the crowd could represent a set of reproving parents or the myriad voices of her unfolding conscience instead of a group of obviously disturbed people.

Her mother reassured her, taking her to school, telling her daily of her family’s support. She never denied Ruby’s observations that “They don’t like me” but told her that her family, all of them, loved her. Most important, her mother and father are strong and affectionate people, and it is this intimacy between basically sound parents and children which disperses the natural fears in the young. Under such family protection hard words and scowls are ineffective.

I SOON realized how little difference skin color makes in the way most children play and study with one another, how ironically well these battered schools held together on the inside while storms swirled without. A white mother said, “I never worried once my children actually were in school. They had a fine time together, and developed a real school spirit. The teachers were as nervous as we were, but soon the children sang songs like ‘Frantz School Will Survive,’ and the police guarding them joined in too. They were like a small family, and Ruby was a hero for the children. They really enjoyed the attention and excitement. Several times I was ready to take them out; the strain was just unbearable. You’d never know what those people would do next . . . practically none of them had any children at the school. Most of the mothers around here were more scared than bothered about Ruby. But the kids, they never seemed afraid, and they wouldn’t let us get too afraid either.”

It is clear that the prejudices of parents do not weigh heavily on the young child’s life in school. Even the strongest admonitions will often fail to dampen the natural inclination to see the other child as a playmate rather than as a racial antagonist. In a sense, the segregationists are right when they inveigh against children’s “mixing” in the schools. They do romp flagrantly together. It is not that they are unaware of race, as is sometimes asserted. Children notice skin colors, and at five a child can talk in many ways about racial identity, depending on what his parents have urged.

It is astonishing how many attitudes are fixed in the first few years. I have seen Negro children draw pictures expressing their sense of rejection, of their shame and worthlessness, and their wish to rid themselves of these problems by having white skin. While children often locate their Negro classmates in separate inches of the drawing paper, sometimes encircling them with heavy black lines. Yet, even after we learn that innocence is no longer the issue, children can be seen contradicting the very fears they sketch out in their drawings. Living in an immediate world where what matters most to them is freedom of motion and the satisfactions of the moment, they end up singing and playing together with ease.

Determined parents, afraid themselves, can either transmit this fear to their sons and daughters or by example show them how to conquer it. As with animals or heights, children can become scared of dark skin or be taught to avoid it. A boy of four can associate brown skin with dirt, with what is bad or harmful. A young girl can associate black skin with the strange and forbidden. White skin can mean a powerful enemy to a Negro child or an elusive cleanliness granted only to others. Many white Southerners have customs and attitudes toward the Negro which have developed from childhood and hardened in later life. In order for these to affect their young children, they must be pushed hard on them. The passion of a phobia, the fire of real fear must be transmitted daily in their encounters with their children. I doubt whether any region can claim a monopoly of the zealously hateful, and so the children survive, despite the voluble crowds or the quieter displeasure of the more moderate.

There is no emotional incompatibility that I have seen between these young Southerners and federal laws on desegregation.

WHEN children get older they flex thoughts and opinions as well as their newly awakened bodies. Regardless of race, in every high school there are lithe, confident athletes, awkward young ladies embarrassed by the changes within themselves, shy, tentative boys, and deliciously untouched girls. In such circumstances it is not hard to imagine what could have happened when nine Negro adolescents walked into Atlanta high schools. What did happen depended to a large extent upon who the particular boy or girl was and how the student responded to the stresses of close scrutiny, or subtle or even open resentment. Equally significant determinants were the individual school, its teachers, and its traditions; each school partakes of the character of its own neighborhood. Another variable is the common problems of children who are growing older. The young child draws primary strength for survival from his family. The older child begins to leave his family and grapple awkwardly with private thoughts and emotions. When a child is twelve, ideas, many of them acquired long ago, assume new strength; children start expressing in words the attitudes formerly submerged in play. As the importance of action and of immediate rewards wanes, the children begin to look around themselves and question who they are or what they will become in the future. In these older children, racial attitudes and adjustments posed by desegregation merge with the other struggles of their development.

When the Atlanta school board decided to take only a scattering of Negro children for the initial attempt at desegregation, it had to choose among many aspirants. Despite interviews and a host of psychological tests, it would be difficult for any group of educators or psychiatrists to predict the progress of many of these children. The outcome for one of the nine selected demonstrates this uncertainty. She attended the school considered most favorable for entry of Negroes; it was located in a rather elegant section and had a record of high scholastic achievement. She came from a middle-class family and was an intelligent and attractive girl. Her teachers were kindly, and of the three Negroes enrolled, she was probably their favorite. Her classmates accepted her with a nervous but friendly notice. Her first grades in November, 1961, were the highest of those of all the nine Negro children in the four desegregated schools — two A’s and three B’s, achieved in the toughest school program. Shortly thereafter she requested transfer back to her old high school, claiming emotional exhaustion and an inability to continue under what she felt to be trying conditions.

Her collapse created a stir in Atlanta. For some it confirmed the belief that Negroes are basically inferior and cannot last in white schools. Others were saddened and put the blame upon token desegregation, which isolates a handful of Negro children in a large white throng. The governor of Georgia expressed his sorrow for the child and pictured her an unfortunate victim of the N.A.A.C.P.

I had been talking with her every week as part of my study and had noticed signs of anxiety and moodiness. She was studying hard, sleeping very little. Her way of reacting to tension and possible disapproval was to work prodigiously and organize her living and thinking in great tightness and detail. She would dress neatly, smile appropriately, answer questions precisely. Being in a new and somewhat artificial situation, she and her two Negro friends were in many ways on a stage. Even with a friendly audience, this can be difficult. This girl took her role very seriously and could not turn a part of her energy to other concerns which might have made her less worried. She had never seen a psychiatrist before, and she certainly was not a disturbed or withdrawn child. But under this crisis a brittle personal and family history, hitherto balanced by a resourceful mind, became more oppressive in her daily life.

Others, perhaps less talented or gifted, often succeed because they are more flexible. You can see these children gird themselves, each in his own manner. One girl laughs away her anger. Another expresses her annoyance in sarcasm and her unfulfilled hopes in a kind of wistful, sad humor. A boy afflicted with severe headaches talks about dreams of revenge and victory. Lassitude hides tension, and fierce bursts of activity cover lurking despair. However, stubborn determination, bolstered by pride, is there too; these children are praised as well as scorned. One of them reminded me that “White folks don’t realize that we’re alway being insulted and treated badly. . . . This is a chance to do something even though you may get the same treatment as you get downtown in a store or in the park. . . . I’d rather go through it now, because I know it’s got some meaning to it. . . . I’m doing something about it by going through it this time.”

Their neighbors may approve and their parents take pride in them, but the adults are also afraid, and their fear is communicated particularly to the younger children. For a month before the desegregation of the Atlanta schools, these nine families were subjected to incredible threats and abuse. In several homes even the parents, knowing full well the penalties and fearing job loss, opposed the children’s wish to attend the white schools. Though these midnight callers, spewing desperate warnings, are only a small number, for the Negro families those few are a thousand, and the memory of accumulated suffering prevents calm detachment.

I HAVE spoken with white children who were glad to have Negroes with them in class and with others made uncomfortable by them. All these children are trying to juggle ancient traditions and new realities. Some are more artful than others, but not one is unaffected by this dramatic change in a way of living. A white girl recorded the following experiences on tape: “We were as nervous as they were at first. It’s strange, and you feel funny for a while. The rooms were dead silent at first. . . . I got to know them because we were together in most classes. . . . He’s a line boy, and it’s the first time I’ve ever known a Negro the way you know a white person, his personality, or him as a real individual. . . . I never could tell the difference between how Negroes look, but now I think maybe I can. . . . Something happens in the way you think after you get to know people. . . . I was never really a segregationist. I mean, I was never an integrationist, either. My parents are in favor of obeying the law. And you’ve got to change in this world. ... I could really feel for those two, sitting alone at lunch, and everyone afraid to talk with them. A few were nasty to them, but most of us needed time to get used to it — I mean, them. And we did, so it’s all more natural now.”

This girl has captured the quiet sympathy which many white students felt during those first stiff weeks. Sympathy means knowing what another suffers, and for many white children of this age it can be very painful to see another student ostracized. In a curious mixture of prejudicial ideas and kindness one boy said to me with great emphasis, “I didn’t want them to come here. I didn’t want them, the way I feel when I give my name or say I’m from Georgia. It’s the way I’ve grown up to feel. But when they came I felt sorry for them. . . . I’ve gone through things like that, feeling that no one cares or will speak to me.”

Few children are so instantly aware of their feelings. In Atlanta one Negro girl, having endured a year of loneliness and occasional insult, graduated with high honors but considerable relief. Toward the end of the year she gloomily said, “I can count on the fingers of one hand the friendly words said to me all year.” But her words were premature. As her last day of school ended, fifteen white students approached her for the first time, asking her permission to write in her yearbook :

“Please forgive me for not being friendlier this year. I am truly sorry for my silence, but I’m sure you can understand why.”

Another said, “I have enjoyed knowing you this year. I guess you know why I haven’t become better acquainted with you, but I personally think I’ve missed a great opportunity.”

A girl who once had glared at her wrote, “We have all had our problems in this year of great change, but I have come to respect you very much.”

The Negro girl had sensed many unrevealed friends, often catching a hasty furtive smile when a corridor was suitably empty, but she had never expected so direct a confrontation.

Another breed is the children who are committed, fervid segregationists. They deserve careful scrutiny, because they show us how fear can mark the white child as well as the Negro. These children can be differentiated from other white children by their stormy concern and involvement with the Negro. Several such children persuaded me of the strength of their emotions during our meetings:

“They’re dragging us all down,” a husky, handsome boy of considerable academic ability told me. “I’m against them because they’re not like us, and they don’t belong here. They’re like animals. They’re dirty, all of them. . . . It serves her right, what happened today in class was just a little of what she deserves. We never asked her to come here. Why don’t they stay with their own? She gives me the creeps, the way she sits there and smiles, I watch her, though, and I’ll bet she’s really uncomfortable. . . . Gives you something to do all day, keep your eye on the nigger. ... I almost touched one the other day on the bus, reminded me of school again. I try to keep away from them. ... It’s not only the way they look, it’s just the way they are, they’re not civilized.”

Recurrent themes appear. These white children are afraid of contamination, of savagery, of seduction, or annihilation by these dark, promiscuous carriers of disease. Talking of these threats with a strange urgency, they reveal that when a Negro is hurt they get angrier, become more excited and critical, and shout louder and longer. Also, more and more excuses for the episode must be found. One boy described the suffering of a Negro girl with evident approval, but added, “I wish she’d leave and go back to Africa or someplace.” I felt that his wish, always expressed at moments like this, meant that he was unconsciously touched by her plight and anxious to allow her some escape. Only with a show of denunciation and dismissal could he express his contradictory feelings of concern and guilt.

The teachers have shared this period of adjustment. One described the opening days as follows: “We were as nervous as the children. It was as new to us as to them, and it took getting used to, despite our preparations.” When together in groups they talk about how they can ease tension with a phrase here or a question there; how their own behavior will be imitated by those children more surprised than alarmed by integration. While many of the teachers hold private opinions against integration, most are more concerned with their work and eager to keep its professional integrity. This delicate balance between firmly held prejudices and their respect for their jobs may collapse, but I think so far they have acquitted themselves impressively. Most of the Negro children have relied heavily upon the teachers in moments of panic, and these same teachers have helped white children express their natural friendliness. Errors can be found, room for improvement located, but I feel the predominant judgment of Negro and white children would be highly favorable to their Southern schoolteachers.

Teachers anywhere are willing to listen to what children think of them but unwilling to allow children to determine their professional behavior. In Atlanta most teachers wisely resist letting decisions be made by plebiscite. They sense the uncertainty about desegregation among the children, and, aware that you cannot order children to love one another, they simply try to help them cooperate as a group of students. Whether or not the students get along depends to a certain extent on their teacher’s attitude. Once the momentum is established, the friendliness will persist without the teacher’s continuing initiative. In such cases Negro children have attended games or dances without the specific approval of nervous school officials, but had a fairly relaxed time because of the friendliness generated by certain teachers’ efforts.

THE first two years of desegregation in cities of the Deep South can hardly be easy for all. But young people in the South are growing up in a world which differs sharply from that of their parents. The distances between people and countries are shrinking; television brings swift news of Africa or Asia into almost every American home; and men are beginning to reach out for other planets even as they worry about the extinction of the human race. These events are very much part of the daily life of the child. Even the youngest schoolchild studies maps and draws spaceships. Parents may offer large doses of prejudice to their children, but children spot the contradictions in their parents’ thinking. Particularly as they grow up, they question and doubt, showing stubborn, even fierce independence as they strive to find themselves as individuals. They may come back to some of what they have disowned, but surely what the parent believes can never fully circumscribe what the child will do.

Despite the troubles in these desegregated schools, hopeful signs persist. After a year or two of classroom contact with a Negro boy or girl, a white child will say, “I feel differently toward them, I just do. It’s hard to explain, but you just get to know them.” It is harder for some than for others, but there are chain reactions in which friends influence friends where no adult could succeed. Two white students stated repeatedly that their opinions changed because of the influence of some of their friends rather than the Negro children. Such distinctions are important to the young.

Also important is a slow but significant increase in the number of those sensitive to the problems of others. Small changes in attitude over a period of months point out the difference between opinions reflecting social customs and hate rising from deep fears. We can clinically separate the fretful from the violent; the single-minded preoccupations of the violent contrast with the shifting annoyances of most people.

Brought together by history in a new light of equality, each of these Negro and white children must abandon old suspicions. The white children admit surprise as they describe an intelligent answer from a Negro in a class. A child who maintained his father’s militant segregationist opinions undermined them by his own observation, from a disapproving distance, of the real ability and poise of a Negro girl. The inaccuracy of many racial myths requires that they endure only with the conspiracy of the entire society. Though we cannot legislate affections or forbid hatreds, people can come to see the real world and be encouraged to give up the most blinding kinds of distortions. Often it is not just ignorance which corrupts basic reason, but the weight of social maneuver.

In many cases the white child has been reared and loved by a black maid. As he grows up he does not learn to hate her, but she remains part of his childhood, kept there because he is told that, unlike him, she is a child — full grown, often lovable and helpful, but always a child. However, today the white child finds that the black child of his own age is not necessarily dumb, silly, or backward, but is another schoolmate. Many white children see more than they may presently dare to say. They hear good replies in class, and they see good marks on homework or tests. Seeing Negro children dressed like themselves, reading the same books, using similar vocabularies, they find it harder and harder to believe that their fellow students are paid conspiratorial agents or some such nonsense.

Negro children have their own share of unhappy and sometimes untruthful notions to correct. Long years of subjugation cannot be readily blotted out by newly gained rights. The heritage of dispersed ancestors, held in bondage, lives on in suspicion or a hesitant aloofness which masks much more powerful hate. Many Negroes have learned only too well the white man’s sermon that they are worthless, suitable only for menial tasks. Others can only loathe a world which so scorns them. Whether they distrust themselves or others — or, more likely, both — these Negro children must learn to accept kindness from those who offer daily proof that old sins are not always carried on. Two weeks before the end of the school year a Negro boy said to me, “I’ve found that I’m not so self-conscious anymore. I didn’t trust them at first, even when they smiled or talked with me. I thought they were just being smart, or maybe fooling with one another at my expense. I decided to let them make the first move. But some of them are real nice. I guess I know that now. I remember when I first decided to walk over to a table on my own and sit with them. I knew the kids were friendly, but it’s hard to gauge how friendly. It was probably easier for them after I did, just like it was for me. We really got to know one another, just like you do outside of class.”

In the South today children are receiving more and more of this informal and ungraded education. Ruby’s mother in New Orleans told me how great the contrast is between the way she gets along with other mothers at school functions and her daughter gets along with their children in school. Parents in Atlanta sometimes sit back and reflect on how well things are going and how surprising it is to them when their children bring home not only their studies but stories of a whole new world of human contact. In a sense, we are seeing the slow attrition of colonialism within our own country. Out of the tragic accidents and sins of our history there developed a nation apart of proscribed people, who could pass on to their children little but the hardest of work and cheapest of pleasure. Their dreams of freedom are now becoming alive and real for their children.

A walk along the streets of Northern cities and even a cursory look at Northern schools inform us that the boundaries of segregation are not regional. Even though the South should not be defended for its habits and, worse, its laws, pride and smugness are not very attractive either, particularly when in some of our Northern slums live Negroes as lost and deprived of opportunity as those in the South. Negro children of the Northern slums often receive much less attention than the children I have mentioned here.

These children living in the South today, black and white alike, tell a psychiatrist much about young people under stress. But they show all of us that children can survive and flourish in spite of our many mistakes. Racial hatred may be the livelihood of some politicians, one of the few possessions of the poor and disinherited, the salve of the insecure, or the indulgence of the rich, but it is not part of the baggage of human inheritance. Southern children are being liberated in order to live a fuller life than ever before.