In the iconic photograph of Elizabeth Eckford entering Little Rock's Central High School on the day it integrated in September of 1957, Sammie Dean Parker is not facing the camera. All you can see is her swoop of blonde hair and fitted black dress. In the foreground, Elizabeth, wearing a crisp white blouse, stands serious and dignified. Behind her, Hazel Bryan's face is ugly and contorted, her mouth open mid slur.
If Sammie Dean hadn't turned her head the moment the picture was taken, the sixteen-year old segregationist ringleader may have amounted to more than an historical footnote.
The typical narrative of 1950s school integration tends to focus on the white parents who resisted "race-mixing," and while adults were certainly responsible for behind-the-scenes political machinations, it was teen bullies like Sammie Dean who brutally enforced segregation and enacted white supremacy every day on high school campuses.
The small pony-tailed eleventh grader gleefully staged dramatic spectacles meant to trigger Southern anxiety about miscegenation. Then she let the adults handle the fallout. In the annals of hate, Sammie Dean is part of the long tradition of pretty white women (Anita Bryant, Christine Maggiore, and the daughters of the Westboro Baptist Church) using their vaulted position in society to retard its progress.
In 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional—a decision that is long considered to be one of the great moments in 20th century enlightenment that galvanized the civil rights movement. In Arkansas, it took several years of negotiation to settle on an integration plan that wouldn't be too polarizing for either the black or white community. Much to the chagrin of civil rights activists, the Arkansas school board settled on a slow trickle of black students in just one high school. When it was announced that nine black students would start classes at Little Rock Central High in the fall of 1957, segregationists began to organize protests and blockades to keep the students from entering. On the first day of classes, the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus sent in the Arkansas National Guard to support the segregationist blockades. The students were turned away.
In response, President Dwight Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas guard, sent them back to their armory and deployed in members of the Air Force to protect the nine students as they entered the school gates. Meanwhile a group of a thousand whites rioted outside. On that long walk to school, student Elizabeth Eckford recalled:
"They moved closer and closer. … Somebody started yelling. … I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me."
Right behind Eckford was Sammie Dean and she did what the Gov. Faubus, the segregationists, and the Arkansas state troopers couldn't: terrorize the Little Rock Nine inside the walls of their own school.
Sammie Dean, a former student body president and soon to be secretary of the student council, jumped out of a school window in protest the day the Little Rock Nine entered the school, while screaming out that the other students should leave. A police officer tried to get Sammie Dean to stop yelling and she spat on him. The officer then dragged her kicking and cursing into a paddy wagon while the cameras on the school lawn flashed. It's rumored that Sammie Dean's newfound fame got her a direct line to Orval who would offer support in return for inside information about the goings-on at the school.
When Sammie Dean returned to Central High, she quickly joined a cadre of students who bullied and physically tortured the Nine. One student in particular, Minnijean Brown, was targeted mercilessly. She was followed by young boys who chanted, "nigger, nigger, nigger" under their breaths while they walked behind her. One day Minnijean snapped and called the boy "white trash," which landed her in trouble. In the cafeteria one afternoon, Minnijean held her lunch tray up high while trying to snake past other students who wouldn't make room for her. One student pushed a chair in front of Minnijean, causing her to drop her tray and sending her chilli flying onto nearby students. Pandemonium broke out and the students started to attack Minnijean. Minnijean was expelled for the incident.
Shortly thereafter, Sammie Dean handed out cards to students that read: "One Down…Eight to go."
When Sammie Dean couldn't target the Nine directly, she tapped into pervasive cultural fears about the danger of black male sexuality, handing out cards at school that read:
"Little Nigger at Central High
Has Got Mighty Free with His Eye
Winks at White Girls
Grabs Their Blonde Curls
Little Nigger Sure is Anxious to Die."
Eventually, Central High's administration banned the segregationist propaganda so Sammie Dean resorted to more direct tactics. She accused one of the Nine, Ernest Green, of brushing up against her, making "familiar remarks" and targeting her with obscene phone calls. But historical accounts suggest that Sammie went out of her way to court illicit attention. She attached "Remember Little Rock" stickers to her panties and lifted her skirt in the hallway to reveal her message. According to one teacher, Sammie also enjoyed "parading to and fro past Ernest Green" in the cafeteria, "staring at him hard each of the eight times she passed his table." And after doing a radio interview with the Little Rock Nine, the New York Post reported, Sammie "plopped herself almost on the lap of one Negro Boy."
The parents of the Nine, (now eight, after Minnijean) met with the school to demand better protection for their children and stricter enforcement of school rules. In response, the administration suspended Sammie Dean in February of 1958 for two weeks for wearing a "One Down – Eight to Go" button. At a parent-teacher conference with Vice Principal Elizabeth Huckaby to discuss Sammie Dean's readmission, Huckaby put forth the proviso that Sammie Dean had to stop all her segregationist activity. What happened next is disputed but according to later-published diaries Huckaby kept at the time, Sammie Dean started sobbing and angrily insisted there was no reason for her to change her behavior since she was the one who was being persecuted. When Huckaby gathered her things to signal the meeting was over, she recalled that, "As [Sammie Dean] snatched the umbrella out of my hand, her mother reached out and took off my glasses, saying, 'I'm going to hit you for what you have done to my daughter.'" Sammie's suspension was increased by one school year.
With this punishment, Sammie became a full-fledged martyr and poster girl for the segregationist cause. She gave a thirty minute tear-streaked interviewed where she admitted to wearing the button but insisted that three-fourths of the school were also wearing the button. When asked about her plans for the future, Sammie sobbed that she just wanted to go back to her beloved high school.
After her suspension, Sammie booked television appearances and speaking engagements at White Citizens Council meetings to spread her anti-integration message. Her theatrical personality suited her newfound status as a local celebrity, and she knew how to exploit her audience. Again fashioning herself as a victim of black lust, she spread a rumor that Ebony magazine asked her to pose in the nude.
At the same time, Sammie Dean's father, Mr. Parker, took legal action against Central High.
He arranged for the pro-segregationist attorney Amis Guthridge to sue the school board and contest his daughter's suspension. Among other things, the lawsuit claimed that Sammie's absence would cause the other students at Central to suffer "irreparable damages." In just a few days, she was allowed back without having to admit wrongdoing. Her adoring fans circled the school parking lot honking, with signs on their cars that read "Sammie Dean."
The historical record offers few details on what became of Sammie after the Little Rock crisis subsided. It seems she retreated from the spotlight after getting married at age eighteen. She never apologized for her actions, unlike the other white girl in the photo – Hazel Bryan Massery, who ultimately reconciled and forged something of a friendship with Eckford. The two appeared together on Oprah in 1999. Instead, Sammie complained to interviewers that, because of troubles at Central High, she lost her chance at becoming Miss Little Rock.
We don't hear much about the Sammie Dean Parkers of the past because women's historians have, understandably, preferred to focus on those who have made positive contributions to politics and culture—the empowering role models your niece can dress up as for Halloween. But ignoring history's shameful villainesses like Sammie Dean blots out the ways that women have wielded their limited social power to oppress others. Little Rock authorities may have downplayed Sammie's role in the crisis, unwilling to admit that a teenage girl could generate such chaos, but anyone who went to school with someone like her knows better than to underestimate the potential of such a creature.