To a small child in 1957 Brooklyn, Little Rock was a faraway place. The only thing I knew about it was that Governor Faubus was blocking the Supreme Court mandate to integrate the public schools. In the invincible innocence of childhood, I took for granted President Eisenhower’s decision to call out the National Guard to enforce the law. Many years later I learned that Ike’s response was not at all inevitable. I also learned that the influential philosopher Hannah Arendt, in “Reflections on Little Rock,” surprisingly questioned whether imposing racial integration in Southern public schools was required by political justice.
Arendt’s article had been commissioned by Commentary, then a journal on the left. It was withdrawn after protracted negotiations, the painful details of which have fueled memoirs, histories, and biographies. It only saw the light of day in a 1959 issue of Dissent, where it was preceded by an editorial apology stating that it was being published due to the eminence of the author and the principle of open debate. For good measure, the article was followed by two critiques.
“Reflections on Little Rock” was not reprinted in collections of Arendt’s essays that appeared in her lifetime. Some of her admirers thought that the essay was misunderstood because it presupposed philosophical categories elaborated in Arendt’s Human Condition and On Revolution, both published after the article was submitted for publication. Others held that her inadequate knowledge of the American scene—in particular, the role of racial discrimination and prejudice—vitiated her insights; to some degree, Arendt was willing to recognize some aspects of this line of criticism. Arendt’s political philosophy continues to attract attention, and some recent scholarship (for example, Kathryn T. Gines’s Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question) argues that her blind spots and “Eurocentric” perspective reflect fundamental flaws in her work.
In her “Little Rock” essay, Arendt relies heavily on distinctions between the political and the social and between those two and the realm of privacy, distinctions central to her later work. In politics, she insists, equality must reign, and each individual must be allowed to participate—hence the universal right to vote and to otherwise engage in the res publica. Privacy, by contrast, has nothing to do with the political: Privacy is exclusive and should be free of unwanted intrusion. The difficult sphere is the social dimension. The social is not private; it pertains to relations beyond the family. But neither is it public in the political sense of that term. Individuals and groups discriminate and associate as they choose, and Arendt regarded that inevitable fact about our sociality as unobjectionable and even necessary in order for the social dimension to flourish in ways distinct from the private and the political. In her writing on revolution, she contrasts the American experience, which, in her view, concentrated on political rights without promising radical social and economic results, with the French and the Russian revolutions, which promised social change. Because the European revolutions aimed at social transformation, she argued, they inevitably degenerated into violence.
Arendt, in her essay, judged public education a social rather than a political affair. This led her to uphold the right of white parents to send their children to segregated schools. Moreover, she thought the federal nature of the American polity defended state rights against the central government. She seemed to think that black parents fighting for integration were, in effect, “social climbers” pushing their children into social relations where they were not welcome. Perceiving, correctly, that prejudicial feelings and attitudes cannot be changed by law and coercion alone, she inferred that an integrated, tolerant society must be forged through the efforts of individuals rather than government force.
Arendt later admitted that she had underestimated the reality of perennial, systematic, state-supported racism in the United States. And she allowed that she had misunderstood the role of the public schools in American society as civic organs rather than simply social entities. Her philosophical detractors argued, and continue to argue, that her attempt to assign the social and the political to distinct, airtight compartments made her vulnerable to these errors.
For these reasons, the now “infamous” article remains an interesting test case for Arendt’s general political theory and a warning to philosophers tempted to venture into local controversies outside their expertise. On rereading Arendt and her critics, however, my thoughts went elsewhere. I am arrested by one of her personal judgments. Hannah Arendt was unhappy about the fact that the integration of Little Rock schools required the suffering of Negro children, who had to walk through jeering mobs in the streets and face an atmosphere of intimidation and sabotage within the schools. The situation reminded her of progressive education run riot, in which adults abdicate their responsibility, asking their children to fight in the schoolyards the injustices their elders have failed to remedy on their own. Neither white children nor black children were equipped to handle serious conflicts between home and school; therefore, she said, they should not be exposed to them.
To this perhaps too pat depiction, Ralph Ellison offered a trenchant response. The parents, he observed,
are aware of the overtones of a rite of initiation which such events actually constitute for the child, a confrontation of the terrors of social life with all the mysteries stripped away. And in the outlook of many of these parents . . . the child is expected to face the terror and contain his fear and anger precisely because he is a Negro American. Thus he’s required to master the inner tensions created by his racial situation, and if he gets hurt—then his is one more sacrifice. It is a harsh requirement, but if he fails this basic test, his life will be even harsher.
In a subsequent letter to Ellison, Arendt admitted she had failed to recognize the value of sacrifice.
Ellison’s idea of sacrifice is more than simply a matter of parents risking potential harm to their children. Parents and educators who adhere to an unpopular community of faith or a despised ethnic identity cannot avoid exposing their children to hatred unless they emigrate and self-segregate. The challenge can be deferred, but not indefinitely. Ellison means more by sacrifice than the possibility of suffering or harm or violence. The test of sacrifice requires not only absorbing persecution but responding to it with dignity. For Ellison, it is a test of self-mastery in the face of injustice. Arendt, by contrast, saw the confrontations in terms of our ability to overcome hatred and prejudice, to help resolve conflicts that society has failed to master. Sacrifice is meaningful insofar as it promotes justice, but it should not impose psychic burdens that children, in her opinion, are not ready to bear.
The Birmingham Children’s March of 1963 illustrates the difference between these two ideas of sacrifice. Integrating high schools could only be done by students in their teens. In Birmingham, lacking sufficient adult volunteers, Martin Luther King Jr. reluctantly opted to allow children to practice passive resistance, children who were attacked with high-power hoses and ferocious police dogs. Some of King’s closest associates opposed him on this decision. Even the early Christian martyrs, one argued, did not send children to face the lions.
I can imagine someone sympathetic with Arendt’s views about the limited ability of teenagers to solve social problems who might nonetheless support King’s difficult decision in Birmingham. The difference is this: The Children’s March “only” demanded enormous spiritual endurance and the capacity to withstand physical pain and vicious abuse. This is something that children can do, if imbued with the spirit of sacrifice and restraint, even if they are not equipped with the diplomatic skills needed to function, day after day, month after month, in a hostile environment. Little Rock meant precisely that—going to school where one must cultivate social intercourse even while being subjected to chronic harassment by some of one’s peers amid the conformism and indifference of the many. Integrating a school (and affecting the society behind the school) requires not only fortitude, but the extraordinary social skills and maturity that we cannot expect even of idealistic teenagers.
It has been said that Martin Luther King’s message was less about the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, who bears his burden and is dragged like a lamb to the slaughter, than it was about the promise of the Exodus and the conviction that God was acting, at long last, for the liberation of his people. As much as it is natural, for both the Arendts and the Ellisons among us, to shelter children from “the terrors of social life with all the mysteries stripped away,” it is even more natural (contrary to Arendt) that we value the opportunity for young people to participate in and contribute to their liberation. The hope of success may not make the decision easier, but the prospect of looking back in celebration may make the burden easier to bear.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.