"Tears are often the telescope by which men see far into heaven"
Henry Ward Beecher
Before I was born, my mother taught in Little Rock, at Central High School. During the school year I have in mind, soldiers came to keep children from attending, and soldiers came to usher children in. These children were African-American. They called them "the Little Rock Nine".
My mother and my father were young marrieds, younger by some years than even my "baby" sister is now. My father was in medical school. My mother taught home economics. My mother taught at Central High School.
The 1957-1958 school year marked the racial integration of Central High School, less than half a dozen years after the United States Supreme Court ruled that the old system of "separate but equal" apartheid was impermissible.
Little Rock elected to follow a plan of "gradual desegregation". Nine kids were chosen to be the first African-Americans in Central High School. In the Summer of 1957, prior to the school year, the "Mother's League of Central High School" was formed to oppose desegregation. They went to state court to seek an injunction, citing fears of violence. The state judge granted the injunction. A federal judge soon nullified it.
Three days later, Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard. Five days later, the National Guard blocked the nine kids from attending Central High School. The Council of Church Women issued a statement which deplored this action, and deplored segregation. A federal judge ordered Governor Faubus to remove the troops, and Faubus complied. Little Rock police replaced the troops.
A mob of one thousand people opposed to desegregation gathered outside the school when the Little Rock Nine, as they came to be called, first entered the building. The kids entered through a side door. When the mob realized that they were in the building, it became unruly. The kids were not permitted to register.
The Mayor of Little Rock asked President Eisenhower to assist. The president sent in the 101st Airborne. The 101st Airborne's rich history included the parachute drop onto Omaha beach during D-Day.
Now 1,000 of these soldiers were required in order for nine children to attend school.
My mother advises that while the National Guard called out by Faubus were "kids", the 101st Airborne soldiers "meant business". On September 25, 1957, they escorted the nine school kids into Central High School. The crowd jeered as the kids passed through their "gauntlet". A month later, the "Mother's League" went to court to try to cause the soldiers to be removed. Their petition failed.
In December 1957, Minnijean Brown, tired of being taunted by white kids, dumped a bowl of chili on another student's head. This is the first altercation in a series of events which ultimately lead to her suspension. She finished school in New York, and later became a writer and social worker in Ontario.
My father, a medical student, was interviewed by Japanese television. He told them that the medical school was already integrated.
The United States Supreme Court called a special session in order to issue a decision to uphold the desegregation of the Little Rock schools.
In May, 1958, Ernest Green became the first African-American to graduate from Central High School. He later serves as an assistant Secretary for HUD.
The Arkansas legislature, at the urging of Governor Faubus in special session, passes a bill to permit the Little Rock schools to close for the 1958 school year. The high school closes rather than integrate. A special election to reopen the schools fails by the vote of 7500 for, and 129,000 against.
Finally, in 1959, segregationist members of the Little Rock School Board are recalled by a narrow margin. A federal court declares the school closing unconstitutional. All grades in Little Rock were not fully integrated until 1972.
Orval Faubus ran an unsuccessful states rights presidential campaign in 1960. He had been raised by racially tolerant socialists in the rural Ozarks. He served six terms as Governor, but was defeated in 1966, 1970, 1974 and 1986. He was reduced late in life to working as a bank teller. Originally elected as a populist liberal, he managed in the moment of crisis to be a reactionary racist.
Central High School now has 2,000 students, and does not suffer from the ills that haunted it in 1957 and 1958.
Sometimes I ask my mother what those days were like. She recounts mobs of people who sprang up from "literally nowhere", extremists from the country, shouting epithets. I am troubled by this, but more troubled that 129,000 of 138,000 Little Rock voters preferred closed schools to desegregation.
I was born in 1959. Our schools did not fully integrate until I was in fifth grade. Our town had segregated Little League and Pee Wee League. Boy Scouts were segregated. The movie theater until my teens required African-Americans to enter through a side door, and proceed upstairs to the balcony. The concession stand had a crude hole cut in the back of its wall for filling orders from African-Americans.
Daisy Bates edited a Little Rock newspaper during the crisis. She also helped advise and guide the Little Rock Nine. She said "No man or woman who tries to pursue an ideal in his or her own way is without enemies". I wonder, sometimes, if our current national situation requires pursuit of a few ideals, even at the cost of rocking the boat a bit. Racism and sexism are alive and well in this country, and the apologists for these institutions roam AM radio every day. Civil rights denials based on sexual orientation are commonplace.
Forty six years. Not an eternity. It's easy to forget that the freedoms people have come lately, and are still incomplete.