THE LITTLE ROCK 9
So for those who don’t know any of the history of the integration of America’s public schools, you should Google the LR9. It’s such a well-documented history that I won’t bother rehashing what others have already covered. I’ll just add some odds-n-ends commentary to supplement what you’ll readily find online:
- Carlotta Walls is the young woman in the second panel, standing closest to the guardsman, looking directly at the camera. She was the youngest of the 9. Ms. Walls actually signed up to attend Little Rock Central High School WITHOUT FIRST TELLING HER PARENTS. They supported her decision to go to Central, after the fact. More on her below.
- “Go home nigger! Go back to Africa!,” is what Hazel Bryan is spewing at the back of Elizabeth Eckford’s head, in panel four. The two women actually actually met again as adults, and they reconciled; sort of. That story is interesting, and can be found here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/8813134/Elizabeth-Eckford-and-Hazel-Bryan-the-story-behind-the-photograph-that-shamed-America.html
- Panel seven depicts a contemplative Ernest Green on graduation day, 1958. He was the first to receive his diploma from Little Rock Central. More on him below.
- The next-to-last panel shows the LR9 receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Bill Clinton, in the East Room of the White House, November 9, 1999.
- That last photograph was taken just this past June, in the auditorium of Central High. From left to right are Ernest Green, Carlotta Walls-LaNier, Spirit Trickey (daughter of LR9 member Minnijean Brown) and current Central High principal Nancy Rousseau.
So I was in Little Rock, AK, last month, on history business which placed me in that auditorium, merely three rows away from the panelists. Here is some of what Mr. Green and Mrs. Walls-Lanier shared with the audience on Wednesday, June 4, 2014, while reflecting on their experience integrating Central:
… We were the first back-packers. It only took us about a week of having our books knocked out of our hands several times a day and getting hit in the face with debris to realize that we needed our hands free. So we bought back packs to carry our books around in so that our hands would be free.
… We developed a system, along with the National Guard, to move through the halls safely. We would always walk up against the walls of the school building - in the hallways, through the stair wells - so that the Guard could walk beside us a shield from the white students who most vehemently didn’t want us there.
… When it came close to time for me to graduate, the principal of the school offered to mail my diploma to my house, so that I could avoid the tension of walking across the stage. I politely refused and stated that I intended to walk across that stage like everyone else. There was no way I was gonna miss out on that, after all I had been through… When I walked across the stage, there was dead silence. And then one slight Black man in a nice suit, who was sitting next to my parents, began to clap. That man was Martin Luther King, Jr. He had been following us in the news, and came just to support us. Luckily, white folks hadn’t yet discovered him. This was 1958, so we knew who he was, but most of them didn’t yet.
… I received an invitation to my 50th class reunion. I assume there had been other ones, since the invitation said “50th,” but it was the first one I’d ever received. So I went, in 2008. Everyone was nice to me, and many people even posed for pictures with me with their families. The funny thing was… they all were against racism, and told me how much they hated the way I was treated while at Central, but nobody in that reunion that night was racist, and certainly none of them had been involved.
… I learned that night that this one main group of our tormentors was being assisted by some of the teachers in the school. It was our chemistry teacher, who actually seemed pretty nice, who was making the bombs that that group used to firebomb some of our houses.
… I want to make one thing clear: we wanted to come to Central because it was the best high school in the city. Period. I don’t get a kick out of sitting next to white people, so I wasn’t here for that. Today this school is ranked in the top 16 of U.S. public high schools. Central High has always been a top-notch school. So I wanted to come here because I had plans for my life post-high school, that demanded that I get the best education Little Rock had to offer.
… My parents had no idea that I had signed up to attend Central. But they didn’t object once I told them. I waited until about two weeks before school was about to start before I did, though.
… In my family, we didn’t talk about what happened to me at school each day. There was the news, and eventually the National Guard could be withdrawn, but it was just something we never discussed at home. You know, there is counseling for soldiers who return home from war, but we were children, and we were traumatized daily in this school, for years, yet no one provided any of us any kind of relief or counseling.
… Some of the very people who tormented us the most came up to us at the reunions. One leader of the pack, in particular, who I’ll never forget, because he’s since been… well, his troubles with the law were in the local news, so it’s not a secret… He came up to me and introduced me to his wife and children, asked to take a picture with me, and even asked me for my autograph. He acted like he had no memory of all the awful things he did to me while at Central.