By Denise Oliver Velez / Daily Kos
Let’s remember the courage of Elizabeth Eckford. While Donald Trump plays games pretending to court black voters (who don’t support him, and almost unanimously loathe and reject him) in order to convince some white folks that he “isn’t so bad,” let’s remind him—and anyone who buys his bullshit—that we black folks have long memories.
The screaming, spittle-flecked people in the crowds drawn to him like flies on shit, his supporters waving confederate flags, shouting racial epithets, and grinning proudly at their own bigoted cleverness evoke a racial déjà vu that some of us participated in, or remember witnessing firsthand on the news, or heard stories about from older kinfolks. We saw Eckford brave an angry crowd alone, separated from the other members of the group who would come to be known as the “Little Rock Nine.” The photograph of a lone Eckford, captured by young journalist Will Counts, will forever remain in my memory and in the minds and souls of all who have seen it.
Like my Jewish brethren, “never again” is the refrain that runs through my head each time I’m faced with having to read about Trump in the news or see him on my television screen. I know that face. It is the face of the Southern strategy that also played to Northern bigotry. It is the face of the people who stoned buses full of black school children in Boston. It is the face of the men and women who applauded the lynching of Emmett Till. Oh, and Mr. Trump, lest you forget the nativist hate you spew against “immigrants” (many of whom are of a darker hue than you) evokes our history of being dragged to these shores in chains and treated as less than human, and ultimately as second-class citizens. Your loudly trumpeted, snake oil salesman, carny barker, birtherist attacks against our nation’s first black president alienate all of us who fought and continue to fight for civil and human rights. Members of the Little Rock Nine were honored guests at his 2009 inauguration.
Charles Guggenheim’s Academy Award-winning short film Nine from Little Rock has been restored and is now available on YouTube.
The Arkansas school integration crisis and the changes wrought in subsequent years. This film profiles the lives of the nine African-American students who integrated Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the fall of 1957. The film documents the perspective of Jefferson Thomas and his fellow students seven years after their historic achievement. Central to this story is their quiet but brave entrance into Little Rock High, escorted by armed troops under the intense pressure of the on looking crowd. We learn first hand their impressions of the past and present and their hopes for the future. Their selfless heroism broke the integration crisis and pioneered a new era.
Nine From Little Rock was digitally restored by the Motion Picture Preservation Lab for the 50th anniversary of its win for Best Short Documentary at the 1965 Academy Awards. Find out more about this film, featured in “The Unwritten Record,” the National Archives blog of the Special Media Archives Services Division
The blog site updates where they are now:
Melba Patillo became a journalist and television reporter in San Francisco after earning her BA from San Francisco State, MA from Columbia, and PhD from the University of San Francisco.
Carlotta Walls graduated from the University of Northern Colorado and went on to become a real estate broker and is the president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation.
Elizabeth Eckford graduated from Central State University and returned to Little Rock where she was a probation officer and substitute teacher in Little Rock’s schools.
Gloria Ray graduated Illinois Institute of Technology and worked for Boeing, NASA, IBM, and co-founded Computers in Industry.
Minnijean Brown earned her BA from Laurentian University and her MA from Carleton University in Ontario Canada. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Workforce Diversity at the Department of the Interior during the Clinton Administration and taught social work at various colleges and universities in Canada.
Thelma Mothershed earned her BA and MA from Southern Illinois State and went on to teach in the St. Louis school system for 10 years and work as a counselor in the school system for 18 years.
Ernest Green, the first African American to graduate from Little Rock Central High, graduated from Michigan State University and became a successful investment banker and served as the Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training during the Carter Administration.
Jefferson Thomas earned the rank of staff sergeant and directed field campaigns in South Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division. After returning he graduated from Los Angeles State College, managed his family’s business, worked for Mobil and the Department of Defense. Mr. Thomas passed away in 2010.
Terrence Roberts went on to earn his BA from California State University, his MS from UCLA, and his PhD from Southern Illinois State in psychology. He is the CEO of his management consultant firm and has his own private psychology practice.
In 1996, Oprah Winfrey viewers were introduced (or reintroduced) to members of the Little Rock Nine, and to some of the white students who had tormented them. Winfrey talked about that broadcast after it was selected as a TV Guide Top 25 pick.
Central High School is now a National Park Service historic site. Included at the site are oral history interviews with members of the nine.
The nine have left us with an enduring legacy:
Little Rock Central High School still functions as part of the Little Rock School District, and is now a National Historic Site that houses a Civil Rights Museum, administered in partnership with the National Park Service, to commemorate the events of 1957. The Daisy Bates House, home to Daisy Bates, then the president of the Arkansas NAACP and a focal point for the students, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2001 for its role in the episode.
In 1958, Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén published “Little Rock”, a bilingual composition in English and Spanish denouncing the racial segregation in the United States. In some verses, the writer used names referring the Little Rock events as qualifying adjectives. Melba Pattillo Beals wrote a memoir titled Warriors Don’t Cry, published in the mid-1990s. Two made-for-television movies have depicted the events of the crisis: the 1981 CBS movie Crisis at Central High, and the 1993 Disney Channel movie The Ernest Green Story. In 1996, seven of the Little Rock Nine appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. They came face to face with a few of the white students who had tormented them as well as one student who had befriended them.
President Bill Clinton honored the Little Rock Nine in November 1999 when he presented them each with a Congressional Gold Medal. The medal is the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress. It is given to those who have provided outstanding service to the country. To receive the Congressional Gold Medal, recipients must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of both the House and Senate. In 2007, the United States Mint made available a commemorative silver dollar to “recognize and pay tribute to the strength, the determination and the courage displayed by African-American high school students in the fall of 1957.” The obverse depicts students accompanied by a soldier, with nine stars symbolizing the Little Rock Nine. The reverse depicts an image of Little Rock Central High School, c. 1957. Proceeds from the coin sales are to be used to improve the National Historic Site.
On December 9, 2008, the Little Rock Nine were invited to attend the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, the first African-American to be elected President of the United States. On February 9, 2010, Marquette University honored the group by presenting them with the Père Marquette Discovery Award, the university’s highest honor, one that had previously been given to Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Karl Rahner, and the Apollo 11 astronauts, among other notables.
Marquette University produced a short video history of the Little Rock Nine for the conferring of the Père Marquette Discovery Award to the group in 2010.
In Murphy Browne’s post “Nine children who impacted America’s education system,“ we learn of other consequences that resulted from the actions of the aroused white mob:
Another photograph from that horrific period which has the dubious honour of being part of a list of “the most important photographs of the 20th Century” is one of Alex Wilson, an African-American reporter covering the story of the attempt to integrate Little Rock Central High School, being brutalized by a White mob. Wilmer Counts, a White photographer whose work documented the Little Rock trauma for posterity, blended in with the crowd and photographed not only the terror to which Eckford was subjected on September 4 but also the brutal and cowardly assault of Wilson on September 23, 1957. Unlike Counts, whose White skin protected him from being terrorized and brutalized by the mob, Wilson and other African-American journalists were identifiable and vulnerable.
When the mob descended, shouting, “Run n_ _ _ er run”, Wilson refused to follow the other African-American journalists who fled. He calmly let the howling White mob know: “I fought for my country in the war and I’m not running from you.” He suffered for his brave stand. Nattily dressed and topped by his trademark fedora, he continued walking in dignity even after he was thrown to the ground several times by members of the vicious and cowardly mob.
Wilson never recovered from the brutal assault. This man, who as editor-in-chief of the African-American newspaper Tri-State Defenderin Memphis, Tennessee, had traveled to Little Rock to cover the story of the nine students who put their lives on the line to integrate Central High School, paid with his life. Wilson suffered neurological damage as a result of the abuse and died at the age of 50 on October 11, 1960.
The Inside Media program discusses the harassment of black media at the time with Carlotta Walls LaNier.
There are those of us who also remember Grace Lorch, the white woman who led Elizabeth Eckford to safety away from the mob that day. She and husband, mathematician Lee Lorch, were white members of the local NAACP. Ethel Payne wrote in the Chicago-Defender about meeting the Lorches in Little Rock.
Numerous books have been written about that period of time, which is a living history. Some are the stories told by members of the nine. One is A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, by Carlotta Walls Lanier and Lisa Frazier Page, with a foreword by Bill Clinton.
When fourteen-year-old Carlotta Walls walked up the stairs of Little Rock Central High School on September 25, 1957, she and eight other black students only wanted to make it to class. But the journey of the “Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be known, would lead the nation on an even longer and much more turbulent path, one that would challenge prevailing attitudes, break down barriers, and forever change the landscape of America.
For Carlotta and the eight other children, simply getting through the door of this admired academic institution involved angry mobs, racist elected officials, and intervention by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was forced to send in the 101st Airborne to escort the Nine into the building. But entry was simply the first of many trials. Breaking her silence at last and sharing her story for the first time, Carlotta Walls has written an engrossing memoir that is a testament not only to the power of a single person to make a difference but also to the sacrifices made by families and communities that found themselves a part of history.
As we remember racist mobs, those who ignited them in the past, and those who stood up for equality and dignity, we must double and triple our efforts to fight back against individuals and organizations who spark them in the present—especially anyone who is running for public office. That includes those who are complicit in their silence or their refusal to denounce said persons, and any media that enables a rising tide of hatred and bigotry by reporting without denunciation.
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote:
“The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way”
We see you, Mr. Trump: You and your Republican enablers. We don’t forget. We know what you are doing, and we will be fighting—and voting—to stop you.