The Little Rock 9

Do you remember what it felt like to start a new high school? Maybe you moved to a new city or perhaps you started at a private school instead of going to a public school or vice versa. Do you remember the feelings of apprehension and nervousness about finding your classes, about who you would eat lunch with, if you would fit in and make friends?

What would you have thought if you were an African American student and you were going to integrate? In other words, you were going to attend an all-white high school for the first time?

This is what it was like for the Little Rock 9.  Who are the Little Rock 9? The Little Rock 9 were 9 African American students who were to integrate into an all-white high school. The year was 1957 and the high school was Central High. One of the members of the Little Rock 9 spoke to our group today at the Little Rock 9 Visitor’s Center.  Her name is Dr. Minnijean Brown Trickey.

Minnijean told us about her experiences attempting to go to Central High.  When she and the other 8 students went to Central for the first day of school, they were turned away by the National Guard who were sent out by the Governor of Arkansas to keep the 9 students away. The second day /attempt #2, the students were met by an angry mob of white people and were turned away again.  The third day/attempt #3, the students made it to their first class but were again sent away after another, this time violent mob scene  erupted.   Finally, President Eisenhower intervened and sent in federal soldiers to accompany the 9 from classroom to classroom.   (Excerpts from “Teaching Tolerance Fall 2007 – The School Year that Changed a Nation).

When Minnijean and the rest of the African American students were finally able to attend Central High regularly, they were constantly harassed. Today, in our session with her, Minnijean recounted how the students would constantly step on her heels so that her heels were consistently bleeding. She was called every name in the book and was regularly followed  by students continuing to harass her throughout the hallways.  She was subjected to jeers about her appearance and was consistently called “Ugly.”  At one point, a student threw a purse at her and hit her in the head.  The purse was full of combination locks.

It is difficult to think about having to endure this type of harassment as an adult, but for a 16 year old girl, it is unfathomable.  I think back on my own experience  and consider the time I spent worrying about starting a new school when there was no harassment, no fear for my life, no jeering from an angry and violent mob.  Mine was just the struggle of a normal teenager wanting to make sure I could fit in and was comfortable.  My worries were laughable compared with these 9 students who endured physical and emotional pain and suffering in order to gain their high school education.

Today, I think of the courage that these 9 exhibited am sobered by the following quote from Minnijean. “Before Central High, I knew racism as condescension. At Central, I came to know racism as hatred.”