Monday, June 08, 2009

Day 2 - Little Rock

I mentioned briefly in my last blog that segregation and race relations were a major theme in Memphis. Being in Nashville, only three hours from Memphis, I was pretty aware of the fact that whites and blacks keep to themselves, but I did not realize the longstanding tradition behind segregation until we visited Little Rock yesterday. (I would have posted something about our experience there last night, but I really felt like I was still just trying to process it all.)

You may be familiar with the Little Rock Nine, especially if you're a generation or two older than mine. I might have heard the term once or twice, but I genuinely knew nothing about the Little Rock Nine or the historical significance of Little Rock before visiting Central High School yesterday. In 1957, after de-segregation was made law, nine black students enrolled at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Apparently de-segregation had already been implemented in other areas of the South, but none was as outrageously protested or received as much media coverage.

My jaw literally dropped as, in the Central High School National Historic Site Museum, I watched videos of an entire mob of furious white parents and students jeering, throwing brick, physically and verbally assaulting peaceable young black students. I couldn't believe that any parent could assault the classmates of their own sons and daughters; and for simply being black? It is difficult for me to wrap my head around that. In fact, before coming to the South, I thought that tension between whites and blacks was a thing of the past. In my mind we were all on equal playing fields; I was raised by parents who had witnessed racism as young children and were outraged by it; they made sure that my brothers and sisters and I grew up to value every person for their personality and intellect, regardless of the color of their skin. In California we were surrounded by people of very diverse ethnicities, many of whom I looked up to. Racism, for me, was non-existent.

So you can guess how surprised I was to hear this next turn of events...
In 2007, fifty years after the Little Rock Nine made their first appearance at Central High, the National Park Service started a museum across from the high school. The museum, where I saw the videos, documented several eras of Civil Rights Movements...women's suffrage, Native American rights, and disability rights in addition to African-American rights. For the museum's grand opening, Central High's class of '57 was given the opportunity to pre-order the majority of the tickets, and they did--around 200 tickets were sold to the students who attended Central High the year that the Little Rock Nine came.

On the night of the grand opening, virtually none of them came. The museum can't hold much more than 200 people, so even with the other guests who had tickets the total attenders can't have numbered more than 20 or 30. Hearing this broke my heart, but it was in that moment that I realized the true implications of being socialized to hate entire races of people. Racism isn't dead in America, and the class of '57 proved it.

I think what stood out to me the most was a interview with a white woman who was friends with Minnijean, one of the Little Rock Nine. This woman, and any others who showed any sign of amity, were immediately ostractized among the white kids. They were jeered at in the halls, called "N****r-lovers " by their elitest classmates. The idea of being a good citizen in the South during that time period included "protecting the Southern identity" of white, upper class Southerners.

This is such a stark contrast to Jenni's story, a story of how she won the coveted Good Citizen Award in 4th grade. Her parents made a bigger deal of this award than any of her soccer trophies or report cards. She entered 5th grade with one goal: Defend her title of Good Citizen. To her, this meant "not being mean to anyone." How different is this from the Little Rock Nine's experience with "good citizens"?

"If you just don't say anything, you're part of the problem and not part of the solution. If all the other teenagers had been like the Little Rock Nine, they could have changed the situation."
-Minnijean Brown Trickey


  1. In 1975 I was in 2nd grade. We rented a house in a small town in Kentucky. I have clear memories of our friendly neighborhood. It was a big deal to our next-door neighbors (born & bred in KY) that there was a black family across the street. They weren't racist; they just re-iterated to us how they had never lived near an African-American family before. Thankfully, all families--black & white--became friends & race was not an issue at all. Hard to believe that was only 18 years after the awful events at Little Rock HS.

  2. Wow, that's interesting. And comforting. Thanks for sharing!


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