A story I heard on the radio this morning relating to Black History Month reminded me of a stop on our trip across the country that I had forgotten that I’d wanted to post about.
During our trip out, we didn’t take too many detours but early one day we were passing through Little Rock, Arkansas we decided to go see the Central High School National Historic Site.
In 1957, in the wake of Brown v Board of Education, there was a mandate to begin desegregation across the country, particularly in the south. Little Rock had two high schools (one black, one white – you can guess which one was nationally ranked in education) and after several foot-dragging delays by the local school board, it was decided that a small number of black high school students (it started at 10, but dropped to nine when one family decided it wasn’t worth it) would begin attending the up til then all-white Central High School.
The resulting furor against desegregation sparked a polarizing national debate. The governor of Arkansas called out the state guard to block their entrance and in the end President Eisenhower trumped the governor and called in the National Guard to make sure that the nine were able to enter the school.
The site has a great interactive visitor’s center than chronicles the Civil Rights Movement up to that point and then many eyewitness testimonies of those involved. One of the things that became clear was the impact that the then-new medium of television had on nationalizing the issue. Live pictures of whites threatening and spitting on teenage blacks probably did more to drive home the wrongness of what was happening than any number of newspaper articles that can easily be glanced away from. In many ways, the “Little Rock Nine” was the first modern media frenzy and several of the students said that on occasions the only thing keeping them from physical harm was a buffering layer of reporters and photographers.
During my time at the visitor’s center, I felt like I was punched in the gut observing the demonstration of fear and hate from people that were of my parents and grandparents generation. This was not slavery more than a century and half ago, these were people that you could go talk to today or sit next to at any restaurant.
We'd taken the tour with a large youth group of kids and teens (seemed to be an African-American church or youth group). And I couldn't help wonder what they would think of this. I'd find it hard to believe that they encounter such blatant racism in their lives anymore, but I don't know. Does this seem like ancient history to them, or is it something they live with everyday?
As I walked out, I stopped to talk to the rangers manning the information booth (a middle aged white woman and a young black man) and they asked me what I thought. I said that I was both proud of those that stood up for human rights in the face of such overwhelming hatred and that I was physically moved and nearly nauseous thinking about such hate and bigotry and having a hard time reconciling that both were being “American”.
The young man looked up and smiled, “I guess we did our jobs, then.”