On February 21, Princeton history professor Kevin M. Kruse took to Twitter to remind America that it had seen these types of tactics before. His viral tweet shared a 1957 clipping from the New York Times about the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of black students integrating an all-white high school in Arkansas.
In the article, the NAACP repudiated false stories that it said had been circulating about the students. These included “that the Negro children were being paid to attend classes at the newly integrated school,” and “that the children had been ‘imported’ from the North.”
As with the Parkland students, the assumption underlying these accusations against the Little Rock Nine was that someone was manipulating them— they couldn’t possibly have wanted to do what they were doing.
Raymond Arsenault, a civil rights historian and author of Freedom Riders, says that in 1960, white supremacists started to lean into this technique of discrediting student activists by linking their actions to Northern interference. That year, black students held sit-ins across the South.
“Part of the reaction among white supremacists and the mainstream media in the South was that somebody must be putting these kids up to this,” he says of the sit-ins. “There was the myth that blacks were content as long as outside agitators from the North didn’t get to them.”
White supremacists also pointed to a conspiracy after terrorists murdered Freedom Riders Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney in 1964. When their bodies weren’t discovered for a month and a half, “the line from the white supremacists was that they had not been killed, they had just disappeared of their own volition, and the whole thing was a hoax,” Arsenault says.This Isn’t the First Time Conspiracy Theorists Have Accused Student Activists of Being ‘Paid Actors’ | History.com