Boxes In Basements
**The following contains graphic racial slurs. I struggled with whether or not to include them. But, I wanted to be authentic and not sugarcoat what happened. These words are not meant to be offensive.**
I’m rummaging through some old boxes in my Mom’s basement and come across all kinds of mementos from when she was in school. Everything from autograph books and play programs from elementary school to her high school report cards and annuals. (My grandmother saved everything!) And, of course, there are pictures, pictures, and more pictures to commemorate it all. She still has her diploma, too. West Fulton High School Class of 1957. Over 60 years since she donned the cap and gown. I got a kick out of seeing all the souvenirs and getting a glimpse at what she was like growing up.
In 1957, public education was a hot topic in the southern United States. School segregation had been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the south did not want to comply with the new rule. While lawmakers scrambled to find a legal exemption for their state, their white constituents staged protests, many of which turned violent. Acts of resistance were taking place in eight different states. But, it was the battle waged by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus that made the world take notice. Over 300 journalists from across the country converged on the town of Little Rock to report on the conflict, making it the first civil rights story to gain national media coverage.
One of the photographs taken in Little Rock has since become an icon of the civil rights movement. Chances are, you’ve seen it. It’s been viewed and shared by millions. Most people probably find the famous picture disturbing; I certainly did. And, afterward, I couldn’t seem to get it off my mind. Even though the gist of what was happening was clear, I wanted to know more. And, that’s what led me to the story now known as the “Little Rock Nine”. I’d like to share a little bit of it with you.
It was the summer of 1957, and the denizens of the Arkansas capitol had one thing on their minds. In a few weeks, nine black students were set to integrate the city’s biggest school, Central High. Arkansas Governor Faubus was busy signing bills he hoped would prevent the desegregation. The Board of Education meetings were filled to capacity with those wanting to voice their opposition. And, the nine prospective students and their families were dealing with harassing late-night phone calls and rocks with threatening notes attached thrown through the windows of their homes. Scare tactics meant to frighten them back to the all-black school.
Chosen because they excelled in academics and attendance, the nine were ambitious. They wanted to pursue a college education, aspired to do something important with their lives. Central High would provide enhanced educational opportunities and increased chances for college scholarships. Opportunities that weren’t available at black schools. Ones they couldn’t turn down. Changing their mind wasn’t an option. They could only hope that, in the end, it would turn out okay.
August turned to September, and the situation in Little Rock hadn’t improved. Black community leaders decided it would be safer if the nine black students arrived together on their first day. Arrangements were made for two local ministers to accompany the group. One girl, however, never received word of those plans.
Elizabeth Eckford was up early. She put on her new dress and went to join her family for breakfast. Her mother was busy making sure everyone looked presentable and had their notebooks and lunch money; her normal school day routine. Her father, who worked at night and normally slept at this time of the morning, was awake. Chewing on an unlit cigar, Mr. Eckford paced the floor while his children ate. When they were done, he and asked his family to join hands as he led them in prayer. Shortly afterward, Elizabeth left to catch the city bus for the commute to her new school.
Elizabeth was more excited than nervous. The previous evening, Governor Faubus announced on television that he’d deployed the National Guard to keep peace at Central High. So, as the bus came to a stop two blocks from her new campus, she wasn’t very worried about what lay ahead. Stepping off the bus, Elizabeth first noticed the unusual number of cars parked along the street. Then, as the sound of the engine became distant, she began to hear the murmur of a crowd.
Up ahead, several hundred infuriated parents had gathered to protest and stop the integration of Central High. The group, feeding off each other’s anger, had grown into a fury-filled mob. As Elizabeth walked up the sidewalk, she heard someone yell, “Here comes one of the niggers now.” Within a matter of seconds, the wrath of that mob was focused on her. “Go back to Africa”. “No nigger bitch is coming to our school.” “No baboons allowed.” “Our kids don’t want your diseases.” The hate rang in the high school freshman’s ears. But, she kept her eyes on the troops just ahead. Thinking they were there for her safety, she kept moving toward them.
Ms. Eckford approached the soldier’s line at the place she’d seen other kids allowed through. But, when she tried to pass, the armed guard raised his bayonet. She went a little further and tried again. Once again, raised bayonets and cold, mean stares. That’s when she realized the men she thought would protect her only wanted to block and prevent her from entering the building. With nowhere else to go, she needed to get back to the bus stop. As she began to walk away, her tormenters stepped in behind her.
Right on her heels, the hate-filled throng screamed, “Lynch her”, “Send the nigger back to the jungle”. Unsure of what to do, she tried to find a friendly face, anyone who might help her. One lady stood out because she was much older than the others, probably her grandmother’s age. But, when she made eye contact, the senior citizen spat on the front of the 15-year-old’s dress.
One of the out-of-town journalists finally intervened. “For God’s sake, she’s just a child”, she cried. “What is wrong with you?” With this, the vitriol began to subside. Claiming her retreat as their victory, her tormenters began to taunt her for running away. The reporters managed to separate her from her attackers and guide her to where the bus could pick her up. Even though they berated her with questions she wouldn’t answer, they did stay by her until she was able to leave.
I look at the photo and see my Mother’s teenage face in Elizabeth Eckford’s place. I think about the boxes. I try to imagine what it would be like if, in my Mom’s keepsakes, I found an old yellowed newspaper clipping like the one above. But, I can’t. Not really. I will never know how it feels to have parents or grandparents who were held back, left out, or abused because of their race. All I can do is acknowledge and respect those who have experienced that struggle.
It would be three weeks before the nine students were able to attend class at Central High. President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and put the Arkansas National Guard under federal command. The soldiers who had blocked their entrance were now under orders to act as bodyguards for the black students. Unfortunately, their access was limited to the hallways. In class, gym, and restrooms, the nine were still subjected to physical and verbal abuse from white students. Teachers looked the other way. When one of the black girls retaliated, spilling soup on one of her tormenters, she was expelled. Afterward, signs saying “One Down, Eight to Go” could be seen all over the campus.
On Sept.12, 1958, Gov. Orval Faubus closed all Little Rock, Arkansas public high schools for one year rather than allow integration to continue, leaving 3,665 Black and white students without access to public education.
The Little Rock nine didn’t accept the offer to attend Central High to start trouble. They didn’t have a hidden agenda. And, they did nothing to provoke the rage directed at them. Their only objective; a better education.
Their only sin; the color of their skin.