originally published December 19, 2013
Every so often I like to remind my readers that we used to live in a world that was, by all modern standards of logic and sanity, ridiculous. Perhaps it’s my subversive way of suggesting that some of the issues we face today will be looked upon as ludicrous and/or moronic by the next generation. Or maybe I’m not quite that crafty. I suppose it depends on my mood.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States dropped the checkered flag on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, the landmark ruling that declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional and backwards. But the transition from ignorance to stable integration was about as murky and clumsy as you’d expect. Racism was alive and thriving, particularly in some parts of the country which have spent generations making obliviousness into an entrenched lifestyle.
Amid the thick, almost tactile fog of racial disgruntlement in Little Rock, Arkansas, a group of nine unfathomably brave young men and women volunteered to honor the Supreme Court’s ruling by marching unblinkingly into the den of hate. These nine kids were to be the first black students at Little Rock’s Central High School, and there was no way the white folk were going to make it easy on them. They are the Little Rock Nine, and a greater display of teenage badassery you will likely never find.
Virgil Blossom, Little Rock’s superintendent, had a plan to gradually unravel the segregated school system. The NAACP was, not surprisingly, displeased with this idea, as it was so vague and open-ended, the schools might still be partially segregated a decade down the road. Led by Daisy Bates, they orchestrated a search for a handful of bold youths who were willing to kick off the 1957 school year in uncharted territory.
They found the Little Rock Nine.
These nine kids, age 15 through 17, were not so much chosen for their bravery as their commitment to academics and their desire to make something out of their lives. These were nine average-raising kids who simply wanted an education. Instead, on the morning of September 4, 1957, they found themselves facing the stern faces and rifles of the Arkansas National Guard, along with hundreds of angry, yelling, spitting segregationists. They were refused entry to the school, and it was all thanks to this guy:
Governor Orval Faubus, an anti-integrationist who claimed there would be violence and riots if the students entered the school, had ordered the National Guard to keep them out. Under the command of Major General Sherman T. Clinger (yes, M*A*S*H fans, I find that name odd also), the Guard denied the students entry until September 20, when the Little Rock police took over.
Not pleased that the highest court in the land was being usurped in this town, President Dwight Eisenhower flipped the tables on Governor Faubus. He nationalized the Arkansas National Guard, then deployed them to protect the students and ensure they had access to the education the law said they could have. With the guns on their side now, the kids made it into the school. But their troubles didn’t end there.
It’s one thing for a kid to fear the humiliation of a forthright zit or a bike-rack bully at school. These nine kids were taunted, yelled at, and spit upon by heaps of their fellow students. Melba Pattillo Beals had acid thrown in her eyes in an attempt (fortunately a failed attempt) to blind her. Minnijean Brown-Trickey dropped a bowl of chili that splashed on two boys in the cafeteria, netting her a suspension. When she called one of her abusers “white trash” a few months later, she was expelled, despite the likely accuracy of her statement.
Elizabeth Eckford, pictured above, didn’t have a phone at home, so when the plan was put in place for the nine kids to meet and walk to school together, she wasn’t informed. She showed up on that first day and faced the angry mob alone. The Army and National Guard remained posted at the school throughout the entire year, though members of the Little Rock Nine have since remarked that the military presence – who were not necessarily personally supportive of the integration policy – would occasionally stand aside and allow the children to be beaten by their classmates. The torment didn’t let up.
Once the year had ended, Governor Faubus decided the best course of action, since he could not refuse integration of the schools in the state capital, was to shut down all four city high schools for the 1958-59 year. His plan was to have them re-opened as private schools, which could be as segregated as a Hungry-Man frozen dinner. That initiative was denied, which led the white community of Little Rock to unleash a torrent of hate-crimes on the local black population. After all, it was their fault the schools were closed. Even though the schools were closed by a white governor. And a white government. Because white people couldn’t handle sharing the label of ‘human’ with someone of a different color. Yeah, blame the black folks. Well done, Little Rock.
The following year the schools reopened and once again a portion of the black populace took their seats in Central High and the other formerly-white-only schools in town. They were still subjected to hellish racism by ass-backward chuckleheads, but over the years the tension subsided. Not completely, but to the level of relative harmony the area enjoys today.
And what about those nine rebels? I remember being shorts-curdlingly horrified to go to school after a bad haircut; I can’t even imagine the metaphorical cajones these kids possessed.
- Melba Pattillo Beals earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
- Ernest Green was the Assistant Secretary of Labor in Jimmy Carter’s administration.
- Minnijean Brown-Trickey, who had been expelled during that year, has spent her life as an advocate for minority rights.
- Elizabeth Eckford has been a teacher, a welfare worker, and a probation officer.
- Gloria Ray Karlmark received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics.
- Carlotta Walls LaNier attended Michigan State University and has been a real estate broker for more than three decades.
- Thelma Mothershed-Wair has a master’s degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and worked as a teacher.
- Terrance Roberts earned a PhD in psychology.
- Jefferson Thomas earned a bachelor’s degree and became an engineer. He is the only one of the Little Rock Nine who has passed away.
That’s it. These are the ‘degenerates’ that Governor Faubus didn’t want attending Central High.
Bill Clinton honored the Little Rock Nine with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award Congress can hand out. In 2009, they were all invited to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration. I’m not a strong believer in karma, but there must be something to be taken from the fact that only one of these heroes died before their seventieth birthday. They took shovel-fuls of hate and abuse and each of them cultivated an impressive life story in the end.
Part of me would like to applaud the leaps in universal acceptance and collective sanity we have achieved since 1957. But that part of me is naïve and Canadian, and the rest of me is well aware we still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to overcoming racial tension south of the border. I’m just glad we have the legacy of these nine kids to remind us what is possible.