“If not us, then who?
“If not now, then when?”
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a former Freedom Rider
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Gloria Ray remembered the night FBI agents knocked at the door of her home to take her fingerprints so they could identify her body when they found it later. Can you imagine sending your 15-year-old off to school with that specter haunting your thoughts?
Sending her to a new school, where she’d have to pass hostile crowds to enter – and be confronted by strangers in the hallways and classrooms?
I don’t think I could have done it. But nine families did on Sept. 25, 1957. They sent their nine teenagers to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School under the guard of federal troops.
The splendid, sprawling school looked peaceful and inviting last week when I walked its grounds in the late afternoon with colleagues attending the National Conference of Editorial Writers annual convention.
A trio of girls wearing gold paper crowns practiced their balance standing on posts near a corner. At the adjacent stadium, an inflated yellow tiger stood ready for that evening’s football game.
Central today has 2,400 students and strong academic programs. It’s also known as the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, part of the National Park Service.
But from a visitor center catty-corner from campus, you can look across South Park Street and listen by telephone receiver to the story of that chaotic September when Gov. Orval Faubus called out the state’s National Guard, ostensibly to “prevent violence.” The troops prevented African-Americans Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls from entering the all-white school.
After members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division arrived to shield the teens from unhappy residents gathered outside the school, the nine finally enrolled. It was three years after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that racially separate public schools denied students their constitutional right to equal educational opportunity.
Opened last year, the visitor center draws travelers from around the world. A video shows footage outside the high school during those tumultuous times. A touch-screen panel provides background on each of the Little Rock Nine and other major figures in the 1957 events. There, you can learn where life took each of the students.
Ray, for instance, became a patent attorney and eventually retired in Europe.
Green, the first African-American graduate of Central High, worked four years as assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Carter administration and became an executive at Lehman Brothers. His son, University of Chicago history professor Adam Green, told NCEW members that the Little Rock events helped people understand “the inherent dignity of fighting for social change.”
During a panel discussion at the NCEW convention, author Elizabeth Jacoway offered a historian’s analysis: that Arkansas Gazette editor Harry Ashmore’s editorializing pushed Faubus more toward resistance than he otherwise might have gone. And former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson was adamantly unreconstructed, insisting (unpersuasively) that blacks and whites would have integrated without federal court intervention.
Green said the episode continues to echo a half-century later because it helped the nation grow in its understanding of the American promise.
“Whatever the defining struggle of our time, it seems to me that this one, this principle of trying to imagine an expansive sphere of rights and liberties, constitutes the struggle for the ages,” he said.
“Whether we enter it with a sense of expansive potential or in a spirit of suspicion and fear comprises our ongoing challenge. Little Rock in 1957 – what sense we make of it – helps sort out where we stand on that enduring question.”