Thursday, September 10, 2015

Elizabeth the Great

As I walked towards the schoolyard, I heard the crowd yelling.
“Go home! You do not belong here,” one woman yelled. The other
said with a furious face, “Do you want to get lynched? Burned?”

They told us to go home and get out of here, or get lynched. They
saw me and started chasing me. There was no room for me to
escape. I was surrounded. I was hit on the head by several
bottles and even rocks. I was so terrified I can’t talk. My
lips just froze and my eyes set to look straightforward. I was
unable to cry, unable to scream, and I regret my decision to
go to school. Never before I felt fear at this level.

Suddenly out of the blue, a nice old white woman came out
of the crowd. She held my hand and calms me down, whispering.
“Its okay darling, don’t be afraid. Lets try to walk towards the bus
stop right by the soccer field, and I’ll bring you home”

I skipped school for days.
I was traumatized and haunted by nightmares. ...
One day, an agent from the US marshal came to my house.  ...
They took me to school in their black cars, followed by several
 military jeeps with canons on the roof. For once, I felt safe.
 I was sure I’m going to school from that day onwards.
Elizabeth was met by an angry mob on her way to school.  It was 58 years ago today in 1957. Elizabeth Eckford was just 15 years old. 
Our Supreme Court had ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, but it was not a popular decision in southern states.  Elizabeth Eckford and eight other teenagers were the Little Rock Nine. They were to be the first black students to attend Little Rock Central High School after the court ruling.  Vicious opponents gathered at the school to challenge them and their decision.
The plan was for the nine students to enter the school together, but the meeting place was changed the night before and Eckford didn't get word of the change.  She arrived alone and was met by 400 angry white folks shouting threats and insults.  
The governor, Orval Faubus whom some of us remember with chagrin, had deployed the Arkansas National Guard around the school to keep the black students out.
Faced with armed soldiers and threats from the crowd, Eckford ran from the school grounds in tears.   So much for day one.
The city's Mayor, Woodrow Wilson Mann, asked President Eisenhower for federal troops to step in.  Eisenhower sent the Army 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and took command of the Arkansas National Guard.  With the governor stymied for the moment, the Little Rock Nine started school at the end of September. Soldiers were deployed at the school for the entire year, yet many of the students were abused, including Eckford who at one point was pushed down the stairs.
Governor Faubus continued to fight integration.  The following year, he ordered Little Rock’s four high schools closed rather than allow it to continue. As a result, Eckford did not graduate from Central High but took correspondence courses to complete her requirements. She went on to college and received a BA in history from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
At just fifteen years old, Elizabeth and the others did their part to change things.  They did what was right, it had a price tag, and it wasn't over quickly.  Being the target of hate and malicious intent is devastating, and more so when you're a child and you're aggressively attacked by adults.  With extraordinary courage rarely seen at any age, young Elizabeth did her part for what was right.
On my short list of heroes, Elizabeth Eckford.
Also on the short list, Ruby and her family.
Three years later, Ruby Bridges fought the same battle in New Orleans.  Ruby’s family made the decision to stand up for their rights and enrolled Ruby into the first grade at an all white school. She would be the only black child there.  
Ruby arrived for her first day of school in the escort of four U.S federal marshals and to a threatening crowd of angry parents and teenagers. Ruby remembers thinking the crowd must have been for Mardi Gras. Furious parents took their children out of school claiming that they would not return until Ruby had left. It was a promise they kept. For that academic year, the school taught only five students, Ruby and four white kids.  Ruby was only 6 years old.

Imagine, if you will, the effect of such prejudice on both black and white children.   What might be happening in the mind of one of those little first graders whose parents, spewing their ignorance and bigotry, snatched them out of school.
Apparently, not every battle is for old warriors.
Today, economic inequality and unaddressed system failures are returning America's schools to virtually the same segregation we fought so hard to change.  Should the issue again be a priority?  Is the same courage still required?