Enough about love. Let’s talk about hate.
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most shameful days in U.S. history, the day when 1200 members of the National Guard had to be called up to escort nine black teenagers past throngs of angry, jeering whites into their high school. It was September 25, 1957. The six female students and three male students would come to be known as “The Little Rock 9.” The high school was Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I don’t know if in my teens I had the courage of the Little Rock 9 to face racial hatred head-on. There were a handful of white kids in my high school, but I don’t remember them much. I’m sure there were black students who gave them hell, but I wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t because I was Christian and believed in loving everyone. There just weren’t enough whites in my high school to make me feel intimidated. It wasn’t until I stepped onto the predominantly white, Brahmin New England campus where I went to college that I came face to face with feelings of racial inferiority, insecurity, intimidation, and longing to escape.
For a long time I kept a 1957 news clip of one of the Little Rock 9, Elizabeth Eckford, on my desk. Her clothes and hair are typical of the way colored girls in the South dressed back then. Her tight black shiny curls were supposed to be proof of her acceptability. I imagine Elizabeth’s mother in the kitchen doing her daughter’s hair the night before, determined to show that her child was from a decent, respectable family deserving to attend all-white Central High. But how do you prepare a child emotionally and spiritually to face hatred?
Elizabeth Eckford wore dark shades on September 4th, the morning of the Little Rock 9’s first attempt to enroll in their new school. Tears must have been in her eyes as she made her solemn stride through the sea of hateful white faces gathering around her. She felt betrayed. She had arrived at Central High School alone. The Little Rock Nine were supposed to go together, but their meeting place was changed the previous night. But the Eckford family had no phone. Elizabeth didn’t know and found herself facing the cruel, jeering white crowd alone. By the time she met up with her 8 classmates on yesterday and mounted the platform to speak, she had done a lot of soul searching. She was no longer wearing dark shades.
Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Melba Patillo Beals, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown Trickey, and Thelma Mothershed Wair
For years none of them would speak of the trauma that happened to them at Central High. It hurt too much. The scalding in the girl’s shower, the regular body slams into the locker, being pushed down flights of stairs, the spittings, the nasty comments of teachers, getting doused with acid in the chemistry lab. “We were just nine scared kids,” said one of them on yesterday. No one is trying to be a hero when you are in high school. It’s enough just to get through World Civs.
For the first time in 50 years all members of the Little Rock 9 came together to immortalize that fateful date in civil rights history. It took some doing. It took a lot of forgiving to get there. Forgiving the past, forgiving their parents, forgiving each other, forgiving their communities, forgiving the city of Little Rock, forgiving the governor, forgiving the country. The Little Rock 9 came together to relive the memories and to remind a nation that would rather forget.
Fifty years later, take a look at the school district in your city and it’s probably obvious that issues of race, segregation and education remain unresolved in America.
Was it worth it?
I think back on the black students I’ve taught over the years, Xers and Yers, post-desegregation babies, and wonder. Was it really worth it? They don’t identify with being called black or African American – some of them. They don’t fit in the world of whites, they don’t fit in the world of blacks – some of them. They’ve read Shakespeare and the Bhagavad Gita and score off the chart on the ACT, but they don’t know who A. Phillip Randolph or Mrs. Daisy Bates were and resent Black History month celebrations– some of them. I think about the racial tensions that spilled over there in the high school in Jena, Louisiana, and wonder. Was it worth it?