Not as Long Ago as We’d Like to Think

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?
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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.”

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17 thoughts on “Not as Long Ago as We’d Like to Think

  1. I wonder what the people in that one photograph think now, and what their children and grandchildren think. (Particularly that one woman who looks so angry and full of hate.) I wonder if they're ashamed of themselves or if they're proud that they stood up for what they thought was right. I'm afraid they're proud, but I hope they're not.
    And wow, that one student, with her books and her sunglasses–that's a remarkable example of grace.

  2. Great post, Steve. Very sobering and thought provoking. It's hard for me to imagine that level of racial hatred as well. I don't remember specifically either of my parents ever sitting down to discuss racism with me as a child in Georgia, but I knew it was wrong, and I was clear that they were not going to tolerate me judging anyone by anything other than the content of their character. I wish I had a time machine, sometimes! Were racist political machines so well-entrenched that they wielded influence and exerted control over larger territories than they otherwise would have been able to b/c of their numbers? Or were they truly so numerous? Either way, the answers are not pleasant….

  3. Hapa — I hadn't made that connection, but the parallels are clearly there. Good observation — and I bet (I hope) in a generation there's a group of young people shaking their collective heads about the nature of what this society "struggled" with.

  4. Kelly — I wondered about that too — what if you looked at that picture and said — hey, that's my Aunt So-and-so…. how would that make you feel? Especially the next time you went to see her. The one mantra I hear from that generation was that "that's just how things were" or "things were different back then" — as if that explains it all.

  5. Jim — thanks. It was strange for me because I grew up in a mostly black neighborhood and so when i was a child, most of my friends were black. We'd play street football and it'd be 5 black kids and me. But oddly, I never felt like a minority (or a majority) — we were just the kids in the neighborhood.

  6. Jim — thanks. It was strange for me because I grew up in a mostly black neighborhood and so when i was a child, most of my friends were black. We'd play street football and it'd be 5 black kids and me. But oddly, I never felt like a minority (or a majority) — we were just the kids in the neighborhood.

  7. Great post. I can remember my mom telling me how she was one of only two white children and two black children who went to class the day they desegregated her elementary school in Baltimore. I've always been proud of that heritage – that my grandmother sent my mom to school instead of picketing with the rest of the mothers/parents.

  8. Great post. I can remember my mom telling me how she was one of only two white children and two black children who went to class the day they desegregated her elementary school in Baltimore. I've always been proud of that heritage – that my grandmother sent my mom to school instead of picketing with the rest of the mothers/parents.

  9. I don't know. I mean, no matter how much I love someone, I think I'd have to think less of them if I saw them in a picture like that. It would be really jarring, for sure.

  10. I don't know. I mean, no matter how much I love someone, I think I'd have to think less of them if I saw them in a picture like that. It would be really jarring, for sure.

  11. Great post, Steve. Looking at the picture I can't help but feel like the school board were throwing those kids to the wolves. 9 African American kids against how many white kids? Sheesh. Even with protection you have to wonder what kind of grades kids get when they fear for their safety every day.
    Today racism has just become much more subtle. I wonder with the IAT and all that stuff, how much we've really progressed. If African Americans are no longer the target, I'd say that Arabs certainly are.

  12. Great post, Steve. Looking at the picture I can't help but feel like the school board were throwing those kids to the wolves. 9 African American kids against how many white kids? Sheesh. Even with protection you have to wonder what kind of grades kids get when they fear for their safety every day.
    Today racism has just become much more subtle. I wonder with the IAT and all that stuff, how much we've really progressed. If African Americans are no longer the target, I'd say that Arabs certainly are.

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