Thursday, June 14, 2012

A near spiritual experience at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas

The stately
Central High School in
Little Rock, Arkansas

Chosen as "the most beautiful high school"
in America the year it was built
by the American Institute of Architects
1927

When my girls and I decided to go down to Little Rock, Arkansas to see the Clinton Presidential Library, I went to Tripadvisor.com to see what else there was to do in Little Rock. I was surprised to see that the Presidential Library was actually rated #2 on the list of things to do.

What people had rated even higher was going to see the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and Visitor's Center, where the gigantic American desegregation battle got a very visible push in 1957. As a lifelong learner, history buff, and former grade school student in the years that followed, I thought my family should devote a day of our trip to see it.
The building itself is so wonderfully grand.
A mix of Art Deco and Gothic Revival styles.

You can see why anyone
would want their child to attend this school.

You can also see why any teenager
would want to attend this school.

It's a universal desire, isn't it?
To go to a good school.

Little Rock Central High School is recognized for the role it played in the desegregation of public schools in the United States.  The admission of nine African-American students to the formerly all-white Central High School was the most prominent national example of the implementation of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
We caught a tour just beginning
for tweens and teens
at the Visitor's Center
We tagged along with a tour by the park ranger for a group of Arkansas school kids because the reviewers on Tripadvisor had raved about the park ranger-led tours. As Brian Schwieger, our tour guide began to tell the story of what happened in Little Rock, I was awed by what superb metaphors he used for explaining the thoughts and roles of all involved in a way that didn't demonize them.

The park ranger asked, "have you ever had to share with your brother or sister and you didn't want to? That's kind of how the folks felt who protested the integration of this school." Everyone instantly understood that feeling.

Then he asked, "how many of you are married? When you get married, you're forming a union. Imagine all the ways we have to change when we get married. Some times, we have to compromise and do what we don't want to do. To form a more perfect union, each person has to give up a little of life the way they knew it before to create something even stronger and better in a union. When I got married I had to start doing a few more chores or going to bed earlier or doing things that help both of us succeed. This is how we formed a more perfect union.

He continued, "integration and sharing schools was deemed one of the ways America could form a more perfect union. Separate and equal schools did not end up being equal and without changing we would have a less perfect union."  These were such perfect analogies! Every kid there could relate to these metaphors.
Our ranger
telling us about Elizabeth Eckford,
the young woman who faced
the crowds alone.

I was shocked to learn that the 1957 crowd who assembled to prevent integration hadn't done that on their own but had actually been incited into it by a Governor who took control over local decision-making and directly challenged the Federal Government's authority to tell school boards to integrate. The Governor called in the National Guard to supposedly "protect" the students, but really it was to prevent their admission. That stunned me.

Governor Faubus did it because he faced an upcoming election challenge from someone more conservative than he and he wanted to be proactive about presenting a tough face on the subject of integration. But what Governor in their right mind would take on the WWII hero and President, Dwight Eisenhower?

The park ranger then told the story of local heroine named Daisy Bates, who had been president of the local NAACP chapter and a publisher of a newspaper widely-read in the black community. She was the adult who helped choose which teenagers would take on the daunting task of integrating the school. She also was the supporting adult for the Little Rock Nine.
Before the days of cell phones
and Twitter, the national press
had to call in the story on a pay phone
from this gas station
across the street from the school.
The actual first day of integration was delayed one day. Ms. Bates was able to reach all of the students to tell them to stay home, except for one young woman who didn't have a phone and showed up for school all by herself. The tour really helped me imagine what that young woman went through. When I listened to her story, I wept. I could not be more thankful for brave people like this young woman who dealt with all of the disorder and hate that day.
The gas station has been preserved as it was then
and will be turned into a classroom
for visiting field trips.
The tour made me so thankful for President Dwight Eisenhower who called in overwhelming force (the 101st Airborne) to get the job of integrating nine students done. I was shocked that Governor Faubus would even think of taking on the man who was the Supreme Allied Commander in charge of defeating the Nazis now that the General was President. Did the Governor honestly think he would be successful?

Governor Faubus, not only did not want to implement this desegregation but he actually closed the school in the following year, just to spite the President and the Federal Government. So now he was wrecking everyone's high school years, black and white alike! I wondered what would have happened if we had had a different President who wasn't as comfortable using force to make this happen.

Our park ranger has to go home at night with incredible job satisfaction. I could not help but think that sharing this story with Americans, especially young people, was sacred, sacred work. He made every child on our tour think about the leadership various people exhibited in 1957. He talked about the young white men at the high school who chose not to be violent, the white students who chose to reach out in welcome to the black students, and the brave African-American nine who took on this challenge. It was soooo moving to hear him make every single person on our tour, young and old alike, feel the leadership they themselves could show when faced with such a challenge. Sacred work!

If I was black, I would be so fed up with America's slow pace of change. This school actually wasn't fully integrated until 1972, but it's probably the same at other schools across the land. Imagine, if you were one of the Little Rock Nine and had undergone all of this hardship just to go to a good school and white school boards kept finding a way to keep the decision from being completely implemented.  How black people must ache!

Martin Luther King said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." If you were a black mom or dad wouldn't you want justice now? Long justice isn't good enough. Everyone wants the best for their child. The slow arc of justice is just not satisfying if it your child.

Reflecting on my own experience

In the month since we were there, I've reflected a lot on my own family and whether or not we have done our share of work to form a more perfect union. I am proud to say that my girls went to an inner-city high school. While my daughters were in a gifted program with less diversity than the overall high school, it was still housed within this inner-city school where the African-American male graduation rate stood at 17%. Don't think I didn't want the best for my kids too, the graduates of the gifted program scored in the top 1% of the nation on the ACT.

 I'm especially proud of the role my youngest daughter took at her high school. The freshman orientation had been cancelled for some reason her first year there so she went in on the first day of school cold. She felt students in the years to follow would do better armed with more information on their first day.

The summer before her senior year she made hundreds of phone calls to her fellow seniors asking them to voluntarily staff a freshman orientation for the students. Dozens of seniors came in and the freshman loved being able to tour the school and see where the classes would be held. The new class learned the school songs, met the administration, and did all of those standard orientation activities.

 Daughter #2 didn't stop there. She created an 8-page color magazine to be given to each freshman with tips on how to be successful at the school quoting those who had made it to the senior level. She raised the thousands of dollars for that magazine herself too.

"The equal dignity of all persons is...a vital part of our constitutional legacy, even if the culture of the framers held them back from fully perceiving that universal ideal." ~ Justice Ruth Bader Gingsburg, 2000

As a citizen, I want our nation to form that more perfect union. I don't want to live in a country where people just tolerate each other. I want our nation to enjoy each other. I believe it is the work of the white people of my generation and my children's generation to make up for those past wrongs and reach out in kindness.

My kids are out of school now, but I can still make a difference by breaking bread with those different than me. I can still make a difference by reading and viewing someone else's stories and putting myself in their shoes. I can still make a difference by having conversations with people who are different than me on this topic. As Congressman John Lewis said back then when he was a young Freedom Rider, "if not us, then who? If not now, then when?"

You might also be interested in:

The Springfield Race Riots of 1908

Why the Obama Presidential Library should be built in
Springfield, Illinois

Touring the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas

Geocaching in Little Rock, Arkansas

Listening to Dissidents

and this from Turkey as I watched the Turkish protests:

Polarization is a Choice


4 comments:

a. maren said...

beautiful post! i completely agree. it's so easy to forget how much work went into making the world we take for granted now. i can't even imagine living in a country with segregated schools. but for many people that is still a remembered time! it's so important to fight for what's right, because it's not guaranteed.

Karen said...

Anna, welcome to my blog! Congratulations on the birth of your child. I'm happy to have a foodie visit and hope you'll return. It's especially easy for foodies to appreciate and celebrate
ethnic diversity, I think.

Anonymous said...

I googled this post after I learned of its existence. I agree with you--Little Rock Central High School historic site is a very emotional experience. I am glad you benefited from your visit. By the way, Brian is my son--he loves his work. Thanks from a thankful mother. Linda Schwieger

Karen said...

Linda, I wept all over again when I read your comment. You must be so deeply proud of your son. I am so grateful I was able to share his impact on me with you. May he touch the hearts of many, many more.

 
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