Justice  /  Oral History

The Defiant Ones

As young girls, they fought the fierce battle to integrate America’s schools half a century ago.
Will Counts/Arkansas Democrat/Wikimedia

On the morning of September 3, 1963, Millicent Brown put on the pleated skirt, blouse and new shoes she had picked out for her first day of tenth grade. Her older sister had helped set her hair with Dippity-do the day before, and it emerged as a neat bob after they took out the rollers—one point of anxiety relieved, at least.

Teenagers have always agonized over first impressions, but for Brown there was much more at stake than vanity. As a successful plaintiff in a school desegregation lawsuit, she would be one of two African-American students to attend formerly all-white Rivers High School in Charleston, South Carolina. Their own community was counting on them, but white racists were praying for them to fail. The school received three bomb threats that first day. It never got easier.

“I’d walk down the hallway and the students would part like the Red Sea,” Brown remembers. “They would make noises, make monkey sounds, act like I was a leper.” Believing she had to “represent the race,” she didn’t return their taunts.

It was a pressure felt by all of the African-American children who volunteered—or were drafted—to be “firsts” in the years before and after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation with its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. (Millicent Brown, who shares a last name with the plaintiff, was not part of that case.) Not by coincidence, the vast majority of these pioneers were girls and young women, a phenomenon that Rachel Devlin documents in her groundbreaking new work of recovered history, A Girl Stands at the Door (Basic Books). “The first thing you need to have for a desegregation lawsuit is total commitment,” Devlin says. “The second is skill in dealing with white adults. Girls had both.” Among other things, Devlin says, parents and lawyers were aware that girls tended to receive more instruction than boys in the unwritten rules of decorum.

Devlin, a Rutgers University historian, spent ten years tracking down and interviewing dozens of women who endured harassment and abuse to desegregate schools, whether or not their lawsuits prevailed. (Pre-1960s efforts often met unyielding resistance.)

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