November 9, 2018
I am very glad we made this stop because it was a real eye opener. What made it especially valuable was our tour guide. He personally knew several of the black students who went to that school when it was forcibly desegregated in 1957. The courage and endurance of those nine students was amazing.
The visitor center was very good with plenty of exhibits describing life during segregation, the truth about “separate but equal”, and the fight for racial equality. We also watched two movies, one a government “propaganda” film produced during the Cold War to counter Soviet claims of American hypocrisy regarding freedom and human rights. We also “toured” the school, which is still in operation, although we just walked through the front doors and into the auditorium where our tour guide talked to us about what went on once the black students finally made it through the door. (If you want a tour, call ahead so you can get on their schedule.)
When you think about “We the people” who does that include? When the Constitution was ratified in 1789 it meant white men who owned property and paid taxes. Over the next 230 years the meaning of that clause was expanded to include most of us.
The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional. In 1955 states were ordered to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.” Sure. The South continued to drag its feet. Very few school districts complied. It wasn’t until 1957 that Little Rock Central High School was desegregated.
When Little Rock Central High School opened in 1927 at a cost of $2 million it was considered “America’s Most Beautiful High School”. Four statues above the main entrance were labeled Ambition, Personality, Opportunity, and Preparation. But the school district spent all its money on this school for whites and “forgot” to create an “equal” school for blacks. As was often the case, black schools were anything but equal to white schools. Everything from classrooms, auditoriums, laboratories, libraries, gymnasiums, textbooks, materials, and staff was substandard or nonexistent.
The real story about the “Little Rock Nine” starts with how the city responded when it was forced to open Little Rock Central High School to blacks. They sent letters to “eligible” black students asking them if they wanted to attend the school. Officials were surprised when 200 students responded with “YES”. That would not do. So officials started adding conditions. You had to have perfect attendance. That trimmed a few. You had to have perfect grades. That trimmed a few more. You would not be permitted to participate in any extracurricular activities – sports, band, etc. More dropped out. Transportation would not be provided. There went a few more. The students’ parents were threatened with loss of their jobs if their children enrolled. More were gone. The names, addresses, and phone numbers of the remaining families were published in the newspaper. The Klan visited them. Windows were broken. They received crank phone calls at all hours of the day and night. One home was even bombed. The threats and intimidation went on and on, until the list was whittled down to ten of which nine eventually attended the school. Officials were hoping for zero. Then they could have said they “tried” but no one was interested.
Those nine were given additional restrictions under threat of expulsion. They could not respond in any way to any verbal or physical abuse. They simply had to take it.
Before the school opened in the fall Arkansas Governor Faubus said he was concerned for the safety and welfare of the students so he called out the National Guard to keep order. On the first day of school, hundreds of angry white protesters gathered in front of the school. Civil rights leaders tried to coordinate the arrival of the black students but two of the students didn’t get the message. They showed up alone with the sidewalk around the school lined with National Guardsmen. One black student saw white students duck into a side entrance and thought she could do the same. (See photo below.) She was refused and forced to “walk the gauntlet.” She could not even use the sidewalk. She had to walk in the street past hundreds of angry, screaming, spitting whites. When she returned home that day her mother made her throw out the dress she wore (and had made for this “special” occasion) because it was dripping with spit.
President Eisenhower ended the standoff by nationalizing the Arkansas National Guard and returning them to their bases. He called out the 101st Airborne to provide protection for the black students. It was only then, on September 25, that they entered the school for the first time. But their trials had only just begun.
News coverage of the standoff was extensive and the reporters’ “communications center” was this Mobile station across the street from the high school. Reporters would stand in line for hours to use the only pay phone in the area to file their reports. We’ve come a long way, huh?
For the first few months Army troops guarded the students but with restrictions. They couldn’t enter classrooms, the auditorium, the gymnasium, the cafeteria, bathrooms, or locker rooms. Guess what happened when “no one was looking?”
Each black student was assigned designated “tormentors.” There were about 50 tormentors out of about 2,000 students. The other 1,900 students kept silent either out of support or fear. One white girl walked on the heels of a black girl until her heels bled. Some girls were dragged down the hall with their dresses pulled up over their heads. Others had snot blown in their faces. Urine was thrown in their lockers. One black boy was in the shower (showering was required after gym class) when the lights went out. Fearing for his life, he hurried to finish. Then he heard glass breaking. White boys had shattered soda bottles on the shower room floor. The black boy had to walk barefoot across the broken glass in the dark. Blacks were constantly being pushed, shoved, and tripped. Being in a classroom wasn’t even safe. If a teacher left the room the white students could do pretty much anything they wanted because there was no one in authority to witness it… and it was said the teachers left any time an incident started so they could say “I didn’t see anything” or “nothing happened when I was in there”.
Only one of the black students was a senior. The school staff did not want him “walking down the aisle” at graduation with the other seniors. So as graduation approached, teachers started failing him. But his mother was a teacher, so she took his papers to other teachers to have them regraded. He was passing all his courses. Thurgood Marshall, future Supreme Court Justice, got involved. The student graduated with his class.
This went on all year, every year. Yet they persisted. They all eventually graduated. To get a good education was so important they endured daily emotional and physical humiliations.
If you want a definition of courage, this is it.
So who are the Little Rock Nine?
- Minnijean Brown (junior)
- Elizabeth Eckford (junior)
- Ernest Green (senior)
- Thelma Mothershed (junior)
- Melba Patillo (junior)
- Gloria Ray (junior)
- Terrence Roberts (junior)
- Jefferson Thomas (sophomore)
- Carlotta Walls (sophomore)
I especially liked this painting of the Little Rock Nine that shows how they look today with their reflections in the water showing how they looked then.
As often happens, my visits to these sites spark my interest to lean more. So I bought this book: American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow by Jerrold M. Packard.
We ran out for a quick lunch while waiting for our tour time and lucked into The Root Café. The food was locally sourced, very good and not overpriced. SCORE! It was also packed with locals with a line out the door just minutes after we arrived. We love finding good local restaurants AND getting in ahead of the rush.