Propaganda in Little Rock


schoolintegration5  06 Sep 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA --- Elizabeth Eckford ignores the hostile screams and stares of fellow students on her first day of school.  She was one of the nine negro students whose integration into Little Rock's Central High School was ordered by a Federal Court following legal action by NAACP. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

I was stunned after more than an hour in the Little Rock Central High School Historic Site and Visitor Center. It gave me a history lesson I never fully got in school about the integration in 1957 of an all-white high school by nine African American students three years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Listening to the stories of the Little Rock Nine, I was both inspired by the students and horrified by the inhumane behavior of white people.

However, something deeply disturbing happened as we watched the hourly film showing of Nine from Little Rock just before we left the center.

Before the film begin, a park ranger explained that the 1964 short documentary, which won an Academy Award, was commissioned by the United States Information Agency (USIA) as propaganda during the Cold War. I’ve since learned that the USIA, established in 1953, became a critical part of foreign policy during the Cold War using propaganda and diplomacy to positively showcase the United States.

Here’s where it gets problematic. If you just see the film and don’t know all of the history, you’d think the integration of Central High happened fairly easily with the wonderful support of federal troops on September 25th. What it completely leaves out of the telling is the horrendous days from the first attempt to integrate on September 4th. It doesn’t show Governor Faubus having the Arkansas National Guard bar the entry of the students. It doesn’t tell about the threatening mobs every day, injuries to reporters, and the protestors spitting, shoving, and name-calling of the students. It gave the impression that, yes, we had a bit of a challenge in America, but we handled it so well. It erases the reality of the challenge of fighting oppression.

As we went to leave the museum, the same ranger asked us what we thought about the center. I hesitated, “The center information was great. However, I found the film disturbing.” I explained how people who didn’t know the full history would get a very sanitized version of a horrific time. It didn’t seem right to me to show this film at the center. He asked if his explanation at the beginning of the film was helpful. I acknowledged it was helpful to know how the film came to be made but shared my concern that it continues to whitewash the reality and miseducation people.

“Well, I’m glad to hear you say that,” he said, cautiously. He was a Black man. I said I was concerned it contributes to people believing we live in a post-racial world.

He told us how a white woman earlier in the day had apologized to him for what happened. I said, in jest, “because you represent all Black people”. He nodded and continued, “She also said that things were so much better now.” I responded sarcastically, “because we are in a post-racial world?” and my husband added, “because we have a Black President.”

He then said, “People like you make my day.” I was reminded of the daily cost of whitewashing on people of color.

I’m going to write a letter to the National Park Service expressing my concerns.

And I’m going to remember the Black park ranger who, day after day, is subject to ignorant and painful remarks from people who look like me, and like me, were never were taught the true history of our country. We were taught propaganda about Native Americans, Black people, Chinese people, Japanese Americans, Mexicans, and more people who were not white.

The antidote to propaganda is to ask critical question about information we are given. Who is framing the information? Who does it benefit? Slavko Martinov, producer of a documentary, Propaganda, advises, “Question everything. . . Taking apart what you are sold, information, is the antidote to propaganda: you take everything apart, and start asking questions about it.”



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