Monday, October 24, 2011

John Steinbeck on the New Orleans Desegregation Crisis

Observations of John Steinbeck on the New Orleans desegregation crisis

Esteemed American novelist John Steinbeck traveled through New Orleans in late 1960 and witnessed firsthand the resistance to school desegregation. Steinbeck described his experiences in his 1962 book, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (New York: Viking Press, 1962), 189, 193–95.

While I was still in Texas, late in 1960, the incident most reported and pictured in the newspapers was the matriculation of a couple of tiny Negro children in a New Orleans school. Behind these small dark mites were the law’s majesty and the law’s power to enforce—both the scales and the sword were allied with the infants—while against them were three hundred years of fear and anger and terror of change in a changing world. I had seen photographs in the papers every day and motion pictures on the television screen. What made the newsmen love the story was a group of stout middle-aged women who, by some curious definition of the word “mother,” gathered every day to scream invectives at children. Further, a small group of them had become so expert that they were known as the Cheerleaders, and a crowd gathered every day to enjoy and to applaud their performance. . . .

As I walked toward the school I was in a stream of people all white and all going in my direction. They walked intently like people going to a fire after it has been burning for some time. They beat their hands against their hips or hugged them under coats, and many men had scarves under their hats and covering their ears.

New Orleans School Desegregation

Across the street from the school the police had set up wooden barriers to keep the crowd back, and they paraded back and forth, ignoring the jokes called to them. The front of the school was deserted but along the curb United States marshals were spaced, not in uniform but wearing armbands to identify them. Their guns bulged decently under their coats but their eyes darted about nervously, inspecting faces. It seemed to me that they inspected me to see if I was a regular, and then abandoned me as unimportant.

It was apparent where the Cheerleaders were, because people shoved forward to try to get near them. They had a favored place at the barricade directly across from the school entrance, and in that area a concentration of police stamped their feet and slapped their hands together in unaccustomed gloves.

John Steinbeck

Suddenly I was pushed violently and a cry went up: “Here she comes. Let her through. . . . Come on, move back. Let her through. Where you been? You’re late for school. Where you been, Nellie?”

The name was not Nellie. I forget what it was. But she shoved through the dense crowd quite near enough to me so that I could see her coat of imitation fleece and her gold earrings. She was not tall, but her body was ample and full-busted. I judge she was about fifty. She was heavily powdered, which made the line of her double chin look very dark.

AP PHOTO ORIGINAL CUTLINE Women crowd the sidewalk and jeer as Mrs. James Gabrielle, with police escort, walks her daughter home after day in integrated William Frantz school in New Orleans, November 30, 1960. Few white children are in the school which one black girl attends. Crowd wants total white boycott.

She wore a ferocious smile and pushed her way through the milling people, holding a fistful of clippings high in her hand to keep them from being crushed. Since it was her left hand I looked particularly for a wedding ring, and saw that there was none. I slipped in behind her to get carried along by her wave, but the crush was dense and I was given a warning too. “Watch it, sailor. Everybody wants to hear.” Nellie was received with shouts of greeting. I don’t know how many Cheerleaders there were. There was no fixed line between the Cheerleaders and the crowd behind them. What I could see was that a group was passing newspaper clippings back and forth and reading them aloud with little squeals of delight.

Now the crowd grew restless, as an audience does when the clock goes past curtain time. Men all around me looked at their watches. I looked at mine. It was three minutes to nine.

Ruby Bridges entering school.

The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.

New Orleans School Desegregation

The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first skip the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.

Racist Cheerleaders

The papers had printed that the jibes and jeers were cruel and sometimes obscene, and so they were, but this was not the big show. The crowd was waiting for the white man who dared to bring his white child to school. And here he came along the guarded walk, a tall man dressed in light gray, leading his frightened child by the hand. His body was tensed as a strong leaf spring drawn to the breaking strain; his face was grave and gray, and his eyes were on the ground immediately ahead of him. The muscles of his cheeks stood out from clenched jaws, a man afraid who by his will held his fears in check as a great rider directs a panicked horse.

John Steinbeck

A shrill, grating voice rang out. The yelling was not in chorus. Each took a turn and at the end of each the crowd broke into howls and roars and whistles of applause. This is what they had come to see and hear. No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. On television the sound track was made to blur or had crowd noises cut in to cover. But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow? (source:


  1. I teach Of Mice and Men and have used this excerpt from Travels with Charley ever since I read the book. You did an awesome job conncecting original photos to the text. Hopefully, this will be used in classrooms throughout the country where students have a hard time understanding the language in Of Mice and Men and that Steinbeck was not racist, but just the opposite.

    1. I agree. I remember the first time I encountered the word "nigger" in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," I think it was on page 3. Yes, the language was strong, but so was the subject matter. The kids really do need some back-story as to the mood of the nation, to put the language into perspective. Thank you for using this blog as a teaching tool. The images on this blog are quite strong, but they are intended to be historically accurate. Sometimes it helps to augment historic storytelling with primary source data in pictures, drawings, or first-person accounts.

      John Steinbeck seemed to be genuinely concerned about oppression, regardless of race. If your students read more of his works they should get a sense of his righteous indignation.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog



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