November 18, 2010

Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is a national park site where the infamous battle over school desegretation occurred in 1957.  Following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled that school segregation was illegal and that school districts needed to desegregate with "all deliberate speed". That phrase was used because of the expectation that school districts would drag their feet and not act in a timely manner. As it turned out, that expectation was correct.

By 1957, virtually no high schools in the south had resegregated. So, the NAACP asked for black volunteers to try and attend Central High School. It was one of the best high schools in the state academically and in terms of infrastructure. Nine students volunteered to be the first group. They were all excellent students and had the character to stand up to the verbal and physical abuse they were about to face.

In a blantant ploy for votes, Governor Orville Faubus went on TV to warn of violence ahead and to call out the National Guard to "protect the students". It wasn't until he went on TV that any crowds were even going to gather. A mob showed up and the National Guard refused to let the students enter the school.

It was one of the first ever times that TV news (in its infancy) covered a news story live. People around the country were horrified to see the scene of these mobs trying to keep out 9 well dressed and behaved black students who were exercising their constitutional rights.

Eventually, Dwight Eisenhower was forced to call in the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students and enforce the court rulings, because Faubus had misused the National Guard. Eisenhower went on TV to declare that we can not live in a country that allowed mob rule to overturn the decisions of the courts and the rule of law.

Those Little Rock Nine did attend school that year, despite the constant harrassment of the students there. One of those students was expelled because she spilled chili on some boys who taunted her in the lunchroom. The next year, Little Rock closed down all of their schools for the entire year to prevent any further segretation. But, eventually parents grew weary of the sacrifice their children faces with no schools and the segregationist school board was voted out of office in a recall election. As for old Gov. F
aubus? He continued to be governor for another 10 years. But, he moderated over the years and even endorsed Jesse Jackson for president in 1984? Who knew...

To me, what is amazing about this chapter in our nations history is so how very recent it was. This was the generation of our parents. They saw this on TV or heard it on the radio. There are people alive today who filled the streets with that hatred and vitriol toward other human beings simply by the color of their skin. Perhaps then it shouldn't shock us that while outward racism seems buried, it is not dead. It is simply manifested in more subtle ways and directed at different kinds of people.

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