Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fifty Years Ago, Little Rock

Enrolling my six year old at our neighborhood public school didn't go as smoothly as I would have hoped. "We've been here over an hour," said one mom in the hall. The secretary kind of rolled her eyes when, hungry and without clear instructions about where to go and what to do, I asked in a voice that was a teensy too loud, "I don't understand. Do you want me to wait outside?" When I tried again after lunch, the registration ID number I was given didn't work for the online registration so I had to call an administrator who cleared up the number confusion later that afternoon.

And the school supply list is long, expensive and specific with brands our office supply store does not carry.

You know what? All this "trouble" is nothing. Nothing.

Within all these trivial concerns and the busy paperwork needed to sign my daughter up for school, her fundamental right to a free public education will remain so assumed and self-evident as to be nearly invisible.

We should not forget it has not always been so for all American children.

Today, Wednesday, August 12, 2009 is the 50th anniversary of the reopening of the four public high schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, an incremental victory in the slow and painful fight of the civil rights movement. For the entire 1958-59 school year, the schools had remained closed by order of the governor and in direct opposition to federal law, in reaction to the previous school year, the first difficult year of integration.

The summer of 1957 nine brave and committed African American teenagers registered to attend Little Rock Central High School, newly allowed to do so by the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education that repudiated the fallacy that a separate education would be an equal one.

To actually attend school, the nine students, three young men and six women, faced horrific obstacles. Governor Orval Faubus order the Arkansas National Guard to "protect order," a pretense for their barring the students from the school. Rowdy mobs that gathered daily to jeer and ridicule the students escalated to rioting.

On Monday, September 23, 1957, after the National Guard had been ordered to step down by court decree, four black journalists were brutally beaten in front of the school. Two days later, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Army Division to enforce the integration and protect the students from the mob. That morning, an Army convoy of combat-ready paratroopers accompanied the children to school where 350 armed soldiers had sealed off the area. Twenty-two federal troops surrounded the Little Rock Nine and escorted them up the front steps to the entrance of Central High.

Terrance Roberts, one of the students, remembers the day: "I was aware that something momentous was taking place that morning although years would pass before I would truly grasp the overall significance of what had happened. This was the first time since Reconstruction that federal troops had been ordered into the South to protect the rights of African Americans. On that morning, however, my primary thought was that maybe now I would not be killed for simply trying to go to school."

But even with army guards to protect them, the students' troubles were far from over. Once inside the high school, the children had to endure slaps, spitting, tripping, whispers, hostile name-calling, sabotage, bomb scares and vicious threats. Staff and faculty often responded with silence and turning away. On October 3, the Mothers League organized a walkout to protest the black students' presence. Over one hundred white students left school and gathered in an empty lot across the street where they hung an effigy of a black student, stabbed it and set it on fire.

Some white students did offer friendship and aid, inviting the new students to eat with them at lunch or offering science notes from the days they had been absent.

After a long and difficult year, Ernest Green, the only senior in the group, graduated from Little Rock Central High School on Tuesday, May 27, 1958. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the audience.

Over the summer break, Governor Faubus signed into law a bill allowing him to close any school in the state that was facing integration. A special election in September, 1958 had the people of Little Rock rejecting immediate integration and equal education for all by a vote of 19,470 to 7,561. Consequently, the city's four high schools were closed. The next year became known as "The Lost Year." Many city students, including three of the Little Rock Nine, moved out of state to complete their education. Some worked on correspondence courses; many white students attended private school; other young people had little to no school that year at all.

With the realization that opposition to integration was damaging business in Little Rock and with forced changes in the makeup of the school board, the stage was set for continuing the integration process and reopening the schools. Three black students returned to Central High after August 12 and three to Hall High School. However, it would take until 1972 for all Little Rock public schools to be integrated.

When we say or read the words "how far we have come" about the election of our first African American president, we should realized that this country's racial divide is not ancient history. The nine child-heroes of the battle of Little Rock still remember vividly the days when they were on the front lines against ingrained bigotry and ignorance.

Before integration we were not fully a land of freedom envisioned by the founders of this country. The democratic ideals they aspired to and promised were far from fully realized. This nation was still imperfect, and in the case of Little Rock, hideously imperfect.

Today let us appreciate our rights and feel grateful to these nine courageous American heroes who gave so much at so young an age, for us all: Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls.


anne said...

Great post Cindy - and a great time for a fantastic reminder of what school means. Thanks!

Nancy Remler said...

What a powerful opinion piece. I read it as I sat in my office at a state university in Savannah, GA, preparing for registration day and the first day of class. My two sons start tenth and fifth grade tomorrow. Your article hits home in a number of ways. It reminds me to be sensitive to the confused, wandering freshmen on my campus. Not only that, but I gives me some perspective, which I'll remember as I take my sons through registration in the morning. Finally, it reminds me of how much I take for granted and how much I have to be thankful for. I'm so glad I found your blog, and I look forward to reading more of your writing.

burt c said...

Thanks for the story Cindy. I graduated from Hall High School in Little Rock in 1984. I had teachers who had been there in the 1960s which was a difficult time. In 1984 Hall was 50% white and 50% black. At the time I didn't think anything of that fact.
Only after graduating did I come to understand the signifance of the events that had happened some 25 years prior to 1984. As you note, it really isn't that long ago.

northsidefour said...

Thank you! We've been suffering through the real madness of the Chicago public schools, frustrated and angry, and so needed this reminder. My girls will start school in three weeks in a very diverse classroom, thankfully.

Megan (FriedOkra) said...

Beautiful, chilling post. Really puts things into perspective, doesn't it? I'll be sending my own readers over today. Many thanks for the work and thought you put into this post.

I'm a NW Chicago suburbian, too, out in McHenry County. Nice to meet you! (I got here via Chicago Moms Blog.)

suesun said...

Thanks for that little bit of history. My class is reading Three Cups of Tea right now, and one of the things we keep coming around to in discussions is that we have so much that we take for granted. A free, public education for ALL students.... wow. Education can, and should, be the great equalizer in this country.