Monday, January 18, 2010

"Our Cause was Just: Remember Little Rock: The Time, The People, the Stories by Paul Robert Walker

As Elizabeth Eckford ironed the black and white dress she had made for her first day of school, her little brother turned on the television set. The TV announcer spoke of a large crowd in front of Central High School, just two miles from Elizabeth's house. It was about 7 A.M on Wednesday, September 4, 1957, and the crowd has gathered because Elizabeth and eight other black students were scheduled to enter Central High that morning--one of the great tests of school integration in the South.

"Turn that TV off!" snapped Elizabeth's mother.

Despite that brief glimpse of what awaited her, student Elizabeth Eckford had been mostly worried about the finishing touches on the full-skirted white and black-checked dress she had sewed for her first day as a junior at Little Rock's prestigious Central High. As one of the students chosen to begin the integration of Little Rock schools, she felt reassured that the National Guard called up by Governor Faubus would protect them. Thus, Elizabeth was initially calm as she stepped off the city bus for her final two-block walk, not suspecting that outside the school she would encounter a hostile crowd who would scream insults at her and spit on that carefully ironed homemade dress.

It is now just fifty-two years since the "Little Rock Nine" walked into history on September 4, 1957, the day when the appearance of these students would eventually bring Federal troops into the city to allow nine hand-picked black students to attend Central High School.

Although one white woman came forth to help Elizabeth escape unharmed and scramble aboard a city bus for home that morning, others faced even more frightening resistance. As Melba Patillo writes of that day,

"Ever so slowly we eased our way backward through the crowd. But a white man clawed at me, grabbing my sleeve and yelling, 'We got us a nigger right here!' Somehow I managed to scramble away.

The men chasing us were joined by another carrying a rope.... One of the men closest to me swung at me with a large tree branch but missed. As I turned the corner, our car came into sight. I ran hard--faster than every before--unlocked the door and jumped inside."

With her mother, who had come along to protect her, Melba made it safely back home. For three weeks the Nine met together for special tutoring while Governor Faubus and President Eisenhower sparred over their protection. On September 23, the group again braved the crowd, this time escorted by soldiers from the 101st Airborne, activated by the president to guard the students' passage into the building. Once inside, each had different experiences. Senior Ernest Green was quicky befriended by two fellow physics students, who offered notes for the missed three weeks of classes and guided him through his first lab experiments. Melba Patillo's first encounter inside was with an angry mother, who slapped her and spat in her face as she yelled obscenities, ending with "Next thing you'll want to marry one of our children!"--undoubtedly the last thing on Patillo's mind at that moment.

Paul Robert Walker's Remember Little Rock: The Time, the People, the Stories (National Geographic, 2009) recounts, in the words of the participants and other eyewitnesses, the events of the three tumultuous years that eventually resulted in the full integration of Little Rock's premier school. Despite the help of some white students who invited the group to sit with them at lunch and walked them down the halls to class, they were often punched, even shoved down stairs, had glue and tacks placed in their seats, their books stolen, and food dumped on them in the cafeteria.

But as Walker recounts, Green did well academically and graduated without conflict, the first to receive a Central High diploma, going on to serve in President Carter's cabinet. All of the nine went on to college, and most earned advanced degrees and distinguished careers. Looking back now, it seems almost impossible that American schools ever had to be integrated literally at the point of bayonets, but despite their hardships, these brave pioneers got the job done and courageously walked into American history that day in September.

As member of the Nine Terrence Roberts writes in the foreword to the text,

"First we were in the right; our cause was just.... Second, we were aware that hundreds before us had given their lives for the cause of equality. Saying no to this opportunity would have been the same as spitting on their graves. Third, we were able to make the daily decisions to return to the battlefield that Central became because we had the backing of the "village" of most black people and of those white people who were willing to face the social and economic sanctions imposed by their less charitable brethren."

The appendix to this scholarly and moving book includes an epilogue tracing the full history of Little Rock's school integration, a timeline of historic civil rights events, selected postscripts which recount the academic and life achievements of the Little Rock Nine, and a detailed index.



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