A lot of reminiscing, a little bit of law and a few tears, plus some words of concern and calls for activism, were elements of Saturday's events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School.
On Sept. 25, 1957, nine black teenagers attended their first full day of classes at the previously all-white Central High under the protection of federal troops. Then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower had called in those troops to enforce federal court orders for school desegregation and to protect the nine students from the angry mob of segregationists outside the school.
Earlier in the month, the nine students had been blocked from entering Central by the National Guard on orders from then-Gov. Orval Faubus, who said he feared that the desegregation of the school would result in violence.
On Saturday, at the Reflection of Progress Education Symposium at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, some of the nine former students spent the morning with their siblings, childhood friends and others -- including an Arkansas author/historian and a Pulaski County circuit judge -- assessing the 60 years of fits and starts in the pursuit of education and civil rights for black Arkansans and Americans since the Central High desegregation.
Carlotta Walls LaNier of Denver, one of the eight surviving former students, told the audience that she and the now-deceased Jefferson Thomas graduated from Central in 1960.
"The very next day I caught the first thing smokin' out of Little Rock," vowing never to return to the city where she and the others had endured so much verbal and physical harassment.
"I did six years later and, since then, I've come back to Little Rock," LaNier said. "I have seen a lot of changes. I see some progress going on. I see progress going on in our country. I also see that there is a necessity for us to be vigilant about what is going on in our country. Speak up. Vote. Help change what is going on. As you know, there are people who are trying to reverse all of the progress we have made."
After the city-run symposium Saturday, two of the eight surviving members of the Little Rock Nine -- Elizabeth Eckford and Thelma Mothershed Wair -- moved over to the state Capitol, where Grassroots Arkansas and Save Our Schools held an alternative set of events for the day with the theme "Sixty Years: Still Fighting."
Both groups are fighting for the state-controlled Little Rock School District to be returned into local hands. The district, with state Education Commissioner Johnny Key acting in place of its school board, closed three schools earlier this year, which the groups said affected minority-group students disproportionately. Part of Saturday's events included a "movement assembly," where groups of people strategized about ways to bolster public education in Little Rock.
More than 50 people gathered in the Old Supreme Court room at the Capitol to hear Eckford and Wair, who both live in Little Rock.
Addressing the students in the room, Eckford implored them to understand the power of language and to understand they could aid someone who is hurting or being harassed.
"Your voice can be an important change for people who are being hurt," she said. "I say that you can help someone live another day. That really is not an exaggeration, because you may be the only person, the only kind voice they hear in school."
The symposium at the Clinton Center and Sixty Years: Still Fighting were part of four days of events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Central High desegregation. The adult children of some of the Little Rock Nine are to speak as part of a panel today. There also will be an interfaith service at 5 p.m. today at the Robinson Center in Little Rock. Former President Bill Clinton will speak at the culminating event Monday in the Central High auditorium.
Melba Pattillo Beals, another of the surviving black former students -- all of whom are now in their 70s -- left Arkansas after the 1957-58 school year for California. There, she told the symposium Saturday, she was taken in by a white Quaker family who helped her heal and defended her to the hilt -- to the point that when someone threw rocks at their house because of her presence, the man of the home threw rocks right back.
"It is you who decides what happens in the future," Beals said. "Don't forget where you come from. I never forget. Don't tell me we haven't made some progress, people," she said, recalling her childhood when she was made to sit at the back of the bus and directed to drink at water fountains designated for black people.
She said she believes "an orchestration of a higher power" put the nine black students together with their different but complementary character traits to support one another in desegregating Central High. The students just wanted a high-quality education, she said.
"It ain't perfect, but it's better," she said of the progress in civil and education rights since then. "It's not as perfect as I thought it would be, but it's OK. I'm going to keep moving on. What are you going to do?" she asked the crowd.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wiley Branton Jr., told of growing up in Pine Bluff and how his father was an attorney and assistant to the NAACP's chief legal strategist and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the lawsuit to accelerate the Little Rock School District's plan for gradual school desegregation.
The Supreme Court decided in the 1954 landmark Brown v. Topeka, Kan., Board of Education case that state laws requiring separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.
Branton, who has presided in juvenile court cases since 1993, choked back tears and wiped his eyes as he read quotes from the 1954 decision that said education is likely the most important function of government, that it was unreasonable to expect any child to be successful without an education, and that separating students based solely on race generates a feeling of inferiority that affects the hearts and minds of people and their ability to learn.
Branton praised the "extraordinary courage" of the Little Rock Nine. The students, and the organizations and people that supported them, contributed to the advancement of civil and human rights, and ultimately to the passage of civil-rights laws in the mid-1960s, he said. Those laws led to substantial progress in voting rights, fair housing, public accommodations and equal employment opportunities, he said.
"But all is not well," he said. "Take Little Rock as an example of what has happened in a number of cities around the nation. The Little Rock School District is overwhelmingly populated by black students in a city where we have a majority-white population. If as Brown tells us that segregation harms black students, are our students now being harmed by a re-segregated school system, which has been caused in some measure by white flight and some governmental policies?"
He questioned the effects of independently operated public charter schools and school-choice initiatives, as well as the state control of the Little Rock district, which has left the district without an elected School Board. On a national level, he said, "overt racism has gained new respectability."
"We are at another major crossroads in our history, with issues that challenge the very core of our democracy and freedom," Branton said.
Grif Stockley, an Arkansas author of five books on the state's racial history, said so much of the state's history regarding race was obscured or inaccurately reported. He is heartened, he said, by the fact that a number of institutions are trying now to tell the truth about what occurred.
It was the recollections of the Little Rock Nine members and their siblings that best held the attention of the symposium audience, which included Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore and city government leaders, and of the audience at the 60 Years: Still Fighting event at the Capitol.
As a teenager, Eckford recalled, she was very shy and submissive. Yet her sixth-period speech class was her favorite of all of her classes. It was the only class, she said, where two students talked to her "ordinarily, as they did other students."
Only later did Eckford learn the price one of those students, Ann Williams, paid for that. In a 1996 reunion, Eckford learned that Williams' family, who lived on a farm outside the city, had to hire armed guards to protect them. On Saturday, Eckford said others received threatening phone calls at night. Some even lost their jobs.
"The attacks on us were tolerated. Some people said they didn't see what they saw. They certainly didn't respond to what they heard," she said. "And the principal said that he wouldn't act on anything if it was not witnessed by an adult. So we not only combated violence but also passive indifference. When you're indifferent, you're giving the impression that you're going along with what is happening. Let your voice be the change."
Anika Whitfield, a leader in Grassroots Arkansas and Save Our Schools, said the groups reached out to Eckford and Wair about how the women best wanted to be honored. Both of the "living legends," she said, wanted to talk with children in the Little Rock School District.
In August, the two had talked with students at the Little Rock Central High Historic Site, Whitfield said, adding that Dunbar Magnet Middle School, Horace Mann Arts and Science Magnet Middle School, and Hall High School also will open their doors to the two. Whitfield also is working on including the remaining three Little Rock high schools -- J.A. Fair, McClellan and Parkview.
Gloria Ray Karlmark, one of the black former students who now lives in Stockholm, recalled for the symposium audience the events of Sept. 4, 1957, the day the black students slipped into the school for a half day of classes.
Karlmark could hear the angry mob outside through the classroom's open window. A trip to the pencil sharpener enabled her to see outdoors.
"I had never seen hate like that, and it was aimed at me," she said of the contorted faces of the crowd.
Shortly afterward, the decision was made to remove the nine students from the campus for their safety. A police officer told Karlmark to lie on the floor of a car and not raise up as the officer drove her through the shouting crowd. She said she came to realize that the white officer had risked his life to protect her.
During her time at Central, Karlmark willed herself to never let students see how they hurt her with their projectiles and insults. She said there was one white girl who would chat with her in an English class, though they couldn't talk in the hallway without causing the girl to also become a victim of harassment.
"It helped me stay at Central," she said of those classroom encounters.
Others presenting during the symposium, including former Little Rock Mayor Lottie Shackelford and Pulaski County Justice of the Peace Judy Green, spoke about being students at Dunbar High School and later at the Horace Mann High School for black students, while the Little Rock Nine were at Central.
Green was a senior in 1958-59, the so-called Lost Year when the city's four high schools were closed in an effort to block desegregation. She was able to attain her high school credits as one of six students accepted at Philander Smith College in Little Rock.
She is forever grateful to Philander Smith College, she said, but noted that many seniors that year were unable to complete high school. She, and they, were deprived of such rites of passage as a senior prom, class rings and a yearbook. The students of the class did receive diplomas at their 20-year reunion, she said.
Tiffany Swiney holds her sister, Khalea, 3, as Little Rock Nine members Elizabeth Eckford and Thelma Mothershed Wair speak Saturday in the Old Supreme Court Room at the state Capitol.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wiley Branton Jr. fights tears Saturday while recalling the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. While praising the “extraordinary courage” of the Little Rock Nine and progress in civil rights, he warned that “all is not well” with the rise of “a re-segregated school system.”
Toney Orr speaks out about the Little Rock School District during the 60 Years: Still fighting rally Saturday at the state Capitol.
"Our youth today take so much for granted," Green said. "We have come a long way since I was a youth. There is still a long way to go."
Metro on 09/24/2017
Print Headline: LR Nine advice: Speak up