USA Government

September 9, 1957 – Civil Rights Triumph and Tragedy

Crowd in the street after Hattie Cotton School bombing, September, 1957.

On September 9, 1957, two earth-shaking events occurred in the history of American civil rights.

In Washington, DC, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, an important milestone on the road to equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or religion.

In Nashville, Tennessee, following the first day of school in which 13 six-year-old African-American children entered first grade, a bomb exploded and completely destroyed a wing of Hattie Cotton Elementary School.

The Nashville school system was slowly, grudgingly complying with Brown vs. Board of Education, a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1954 which declared racial segregation in public schools a violation of the United States Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.  Nashville’s plan called for a “stairstep” road to integration, allowing admission of 13 African-American first-graders into previously all-white schools.  Gradually, each year, another grade would be integrated so that at the end of 12 years, African-American students would receive high school diplomas along with privileged whites.  In 1954, there were four separate school systems in Nashville, two overlapping districts in the central city, and two in the suburbs.  One of each pair was tacitly designated for whites, the other for African-Americans.  These districts were by no stretch of the imagination equal; facilities were grossly unequal by almost every measure.

Three tortuous years later, parents of white students were boycotting the first day of school in protest of even the barest beginnings of desegregation.  Angry, vicious words were spoken by visitor John Kasper of New Jersey, who was jailed and charged with incitement to riot.  Mayor Ben West and school officials stood by their decision to admit the new students.  Following the explosion and destruction at Hattie Cotton, one school official told Time Magazine, “This is no longer a matter of segregation or desegregation.  This is a matter of sheer lawlessness.  We’re up against thugs.”

Repairs were made to Hattie Cotton Elementary School and it reopened in January, 1958.  It remains open to this day.

Image Credit: Nashville Public Library and Emory University Libraries

September 4, 1957 – The Crisis in Little Rock

The Little Rock Nine, with Daisy Bates, Arkansas State Press and Arkansas State Conference of NAACP, back row second from left.

 

On September 4, 1957, nine high school students got up, got dressed, ate breakfast, and headed off to their first day at a new high school.  Men in uniform, holding guns, were waiting for them.  Hostile crowds yelled, threatened, and spat on them.  Unable to enter the building, they turned around and headed home.

But the nation was watching.  The Little Rock Nine, as they came to be called, became a galvanizing image in the African-American Civil Rights Movement.  Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Beals were only fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds, but their courage earned them an enduring place in the history of our country and the history of freedom.

The United States Supreme Court, in Brown vs. Board of Education, declared in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional and ordered all schools to develop desegregation plans.  The school board of Little Rock, Arkansas decided to comply with the ruling and created a plan to gradually integrate the district schools, beginning in the fall of 1957.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been spearheading the drive to register African-American students across the South, enrolled the Little Rock Nine in previously all-white Little Rock Central High School.  With classes scheduled to start on September 4th, and segregationist councils agitating, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard on September 3rd to block access to the school for any non-white students.  They carried out their job.

On September 5th, Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann called on President Eisenhower for help.  Eisenhower responded and on September 24th the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army was posted to Little Rock, the President federalized and took control of the Arkansas National Guard, and Ernest, Elizabeth, Jefferson, Terrence, Carlotta, Minnijean, Gloria, Thelma, and Melba started classes on September 25, 1957.

Their troubles and difficulties were far from over.  They were subjected to verbal and physical abuse in which school authorities were less than willing to intervene.  Integration of the school continued, and more African-American students were enrolled at Central High.

The heroic Little Rock Nine were unanimous in their declaration of who the real heroes were that September, and that school year.  They credited their parents, “who supported them and kept the faith that the process was right and that what they endured would give them opportunities they deserved”.  Each of the nine students has gone on to live extraordinary lives and leave a legacy of courage for others to follow.

The Little Rock Nine at the dedication of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site’s new visitor center, 2007, with National Park Service Director Mary Bomar, US Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, and US Representative John Lewis.

Image Credits: Library of Congress; Tami Heilemann/National Park Service

August 31, 1957 – Plumbbob’s “Smoky” Leaves a Troubled Legacy

On August 31, 1957, Operation Plumbob’s “Smoky” test flamed into the sky over busy Yucca Flat, 65 miles north of Las Vegas.  Area 8 of the Nevada Test Site played host that day to the third test of the UCRL TX-41 –  a three-stage, thermonuclear weapon design.  After two previous tests of 3.5 and 5.0 megatons (Redwing Zuni and Tewa), “Smoky” was probably a partial, two-stage test with a decreased yield of 45-50 kilotons.  The MK-41 nuclear device eventually developed from the TX-41 test series became the largest-yield nuclear weapon ever developed or deployed by the United States.  Its yield of 25 megatons was also the highest yield-to-weight ratio for a US nuclear weapon, at about 6 kilotons per kilogram.

Smoky became famous – notorious, even – for its tragic consequences.   Over three thousand servicemen had been in the vicinity of ground zero shortly after the blast, practicing maneuvers as part of the Desert Rock exercise.  Their exposure to radiation from the test eventually became the subject of a Congressional investigation and epidemiological evaluation.  A 1980 study found statistically significant increases in leukemia cases among the 3224 participants.  Instead of the expected four cases, ten were found.

August 29, 1957 – The Senate Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1957

United States Senate Chambers

On August 29, 1957, the United States Senate passed the final version of what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  The first civil rights legislation enacted since the Reconstruction period, the amended act replaced an initial version first proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on March 11, 1956.  The initial act went through torturous proceedings and changes before it was approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President on September 9th.

The final five-part act was primarily a voting rights act.  It did not create new voting rights, but initiated a greater federal role in protecting existing voting rights of African-Americans and other minorities.  Part I provided for the creation of a six-member bipartisan Commission of Civil Rights who were empowered, among other duties, to investigate any allegations that “certain citizens of the United States are being deprived of their right to vote and have that vote counted by reason of their color, race, religion, or national origin”.  Part II created the position of a new assistant attorney general and led in December 1957 to the formation of the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice.  Part III conferred federal court jurisdiction over civil suits that could address and remedy civil rights violations.

Part IV provided significant federal enforcement powers to prohibit actions by any person designed to “intimidate, threaten, [or] coerce . . . for the purpose of interfering with the right [of any person] to vote as he may choose”.  Part IV also authorized the attorney general to initiate civil lawsuits to provide permanent or temporary injunctions or restraining orders to enforce the ban on racially discriminatory denials of the right to vote.  Part V, which had caused so much dissent in the Senate, allowed for enforcement of Part IV by trial in federal court.  Original versions of the act had only provided for trial by a federal judge; the Southern senators forced a compromise which allowed trial by jury on request.  They wanted to ensure the right for white southerners to verdicts from a jury of their white peers.

Compromises and amendments allowed the 1957 Civil Rights Act to pass, but stripped it of real power.  Actual registration and voting by African-Americans did not increase substantially after its passage.  The act did, however, pave the way to more effective legislation in 1964 and 1965 to secure African-American voting rights, housing rights, and an end to legal segregation.

Image Credit: Architect of the Capitol website

August 28, 1957 – Senator Strom Thurmond’s Famous Filibuster

Sen. Strom Thurmond addresses the Senate, August 28, 1957.

On August 28, 1957, Senator Strom Thurmond, D-SC, began the longest filibuster in Senate history in an attempt to prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  His one-man act lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes.  Cots were brought in for sleepy fellow legislators as Thurmond read from the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and President George Washington’s Farewell Address.  The clock ticked as Strom pontificated on random issues, shared his grandmother’s biscuit recipe, and recited entries from the phone book.

The final version of the civil rights legislation awaiting vote by the Senate was the result of sustained conflict and compromise, both between the Democratic and Republican parties, and within the Democratic party itself.  Senate President Lyndon Johnson, recognizing the mood of the country – even in the South – had paved the way to a version of the bill palatable to most of his fellow Southern senators.  On the day of Thurmond’s last ditch oratory attempt to stop the inevitable, most Southern senators were embarrassed and upset by Thurmond’s actions, which they felt would make them look bad to their constituents.  They had agreed, as part of the final compromise, not to filibuster the bill.

Thurmond, as usual, went his own way.  He was a highly decorated veteran of World War II, serving in the US Army and taking part in the Normandy invasion.  He was opinionated and vocal on numerous issues throughout his life and career.  In 1964 he switched party alliances and supported Republicans Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.  He later moderated his views and voted in favor of increased rights for African-Americans, but defended his earlier segregationist leanings as support for states’ rights.  He is the only senator to reach 100 years of age while still in office and was the Senate’s second-longest serving senator in its history.

Image Credit: AP

August 27, 1957 – Underground Nuclear Test Launches Giant “Manhole Cover”

On August 27, 1957, a four-inch-thick steel plate weighing several hundred pounds shot into the stratosphere over the Nevada Test Site, never to be seen again.  Operation Plumbbob’s Pascal-B was an underground test of a nuclear safety device designed to limit the amount of destructive energy released by a bomb in the event of an accidental detonation.  Buried at the bottom of a 500-foot shaft and sealed with an over-2-ton plug of cement, Pascal-B generated sufficient energy – the equivalent of a few hundred tons of dynamite – to vaporize the concrete plug.  The concrete vapor expanded and raced up the shaft, propelling a massive steel plate sealing the shaft opening into the sky.

According to the February 1992 issue of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine, astrophysicist Bob Brownlee was in charge of designing the Pascal-B test.  “He knew the lid [steel plate] would be blown off; he didn’t know exactly how fast.  High-speed cameras caught the giant manhole cover as it began its unscheduled flight into history.  Based on his calculations and the evidence from the cameras, Brownlee estimated that the steel plate was traveling at a velocity six times that needed to escape Earth’s gravity when it soared into the flawless blue Nevada sky.  ‘We never found it.  It was gone,’ Brownlee says, a touch of awe in his voice almost 35 years later”.

Even though the eventual whereabouts of the steel plate forever remained a mystery, it’s unlikely, according to the laws of physics and the character of the Earth’s atmosphere, that the plate headed into outer space.  Unable to maintain escape velocity on its own (not being equipped with mini-rocket engines), it would not retain sufficient speed to pass completely through the layers of nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases surrounding our planet.  Most likely it either vaporized in the explosion, disintegrated in the atmosphere, or landed somewhere far from the Nevada Test Site.  It’s also possible it became some innocent person’s “close encounter”, or enormous fish story.

August 22, 1957 – Two Americans Tried in Cuban Court

Who was Russell Masker?

On August 22, 1957, two American men were put on trial in Cuba for carrying unlicensed arms, resisting arrest, and attempting to join the resistance movement of Fidel Castro.  The proceedings were held in the Urgency Court in Santiago, created in the 1930s to try terrorists.  Russell F. Masker and Thomas M. Miller of Miami, Florida had been arrested on August 9th in the town of San Luis, about thirty miles from Santiago in Cuba’s southeastern Oriente Province, the locus of Castro’s M-26-7 activities.  Masker and Miller denied the charges, asserting they had come to Cuba as tourists, had carried no weapons and had not resisted arrest.  The New York Times reported that the Urgency Court could sentence the Americans to as much as five years in prison, with no guaranteed right of appeal.

Little is known about Russell Masker and Thomas Miller, either before or after their arrest and trial.  Russell Masker makes an intriguing appearance in a Cuban Secret Service (G-2 MINFAR) document dated January 12, 1961.  In a report to the secret service department chief, Commander Ramiro Valdes Menedez, about “yanki” (United States) mercenary camps in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Florida, the following statement appears on page 25:

“Last November 22, the ‘Diario de las Americas’ reported the death of North American Russell F. Masker, victim of a stray shot from Cuban Rolando Martinez Capaneria during military instruction in a camp located in ‘Cayo Sin Nombre’, thirty miles from Cayo Hueso [Key West].”

The American-led Bay of Pigs Invasion against the Castro regime took place in April of 1961.  Whose side was Masker on?