Little Rock Nine tells Boston crowd how perseverance overcame segregation in the 1950s
Lydia Maxwell wanted to see the face of history.
She wanted to see, in the flesh, the faces of the teenagers who 50 years ago walked brazenly into Little Rock Central High School and became the first black students to integrate a school in the Deep South.
She wanted to see the Little Rock Nine.
Last Wednesday evening, eight of the Nine attended a celebration of their efforts at Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall, sponsored by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School and the City of Boston.
For Maxwell, it was a chance to see those who had suffered to stand up for what was right.
“I wanted to see people who went through a very serious and tough time in order to get a quality education,” Maxwell said. “Just to be afforded the same opportunities that other groups got. That takes a lot of strength, a lot of courage.”
Malden resident Carrie Peapples, a state auditor and graduate student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, agreed. As a white woman, Peapples knows she’ll never be able to feel what it means to be a person of color. But frequent conversations with a black co-worker have given her better insight into the vital role that Little Rock Central’s integration played in the civil rights movement and beyond.
“I’m just astounded by the courage of [the Little Rock Nine] as teenagers,” Peapples said. “The inner conviction that they, too, deserve this; that we are all created equal. I cringe when I see the pictures, when there were only nine of them against nearly the whole town and the National Guard. I don’t think I could do that.”
Moderated by Houston Institute Founder and Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., the night included award presentations to the Nine by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, state Rep. Willie Mae Allen, Boston City Councilor Sam Yoon and Cambridge City Councilor Brian Murphy.
During his speech, Yoon thanked the Nine for paving the way for younger people of color to become successful.
“I really do feel that in the work that I and other younger people do, we stand on your shoulders. And we will never forget that,” he said. “And the view from up there is a good one, but we have a lot of work yet to do and we’re going to keep doing it.”
Fifty years later, the Little Rock Nine are still here. They all graduated from high school, and all went on to successful careers. But the road to success was lined with tests of will and the overwhelming obstacles of racism, hatred and fear.
“We saw Little Rock Central as a school that had more options for us, but also I think each of us saw in our own way the moment that change was occurring in Little Rock in the South,” said Ernest Green, the first black to graduate from Central, and now the managing director of public finance for Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in Washington, D.C. “I wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountain. Each of us was indebted to our parents and adults in our families. We were teenagers. We believed we could walk through brick walls. They were the ones who had a vision that tomorrow could be better than today. We did understand that we were breaking barriers, and we believed there was a connection between what we were doing and the future.”
Several of the Nine also mentioned parents in their remarks, crediting the older generation with instilling in them the thirst for education. But as Nine member Carlotta LaNier pointed out, the students themselves were “the designated drivers” of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
“The road to success was through education,” she said. “Any opportunity that comes along, whether it’s a crack in the door or the door’s wide open, you’re supposed to go through it. That’s the step I took at the age of 14 in signing that little sheet of paper to go to Little Rock Central High School.”
LaNier, a real estate broker for over 30 years, was just 14 when she entered Central, the youngest of the Nine. She and the others have received numerous awards over the years, including the Congressional Gold Medal, bestowed upon them in 1995. But to her, what they did wasn’t about future recognition.
“It was about access to an opportunity, and I did take it,” she said. “I always thought that the Brown v. Board of Education [decision] changed the landscape of education here in America, and I’m proud to be a part of that. I had no idea that we would be being honored here today by the great city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts. I had no idea that the Congressional Medal would be a part of my résumé. It was about doing the right thing.”
Doing the right thing meant facing hatred and bigotry every single day, from the very moment they stepped near the school and were barred from its entrance by Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, the National Guard and mobs of angry whites. Only after President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to escort the Nine were they able to safely enter the school.
Once inside, Jefferson Thomas thought school would be a sanctuary, as it always had been.
“We truly believed that once we got inside the school, past that mob of adults outside, that it was going to be peaceful,” Thomas said. “My mother said she didn’t like it but wasn’t going to tell me to stop, and my father said he didn’t like what was happening either, but since I’d gotten the family involved, he’d like me to continue.”
Though the crowd laughed with Thomas’ lighthearted retelling of switching to the only school where he wouldn’t have to measure up to the accomplishments of his seven older siblings, his description of the abuse he took once enrolled at Central was anything but humorous.
“I lost my childhood the day I went to Little Rock Central,” said Gloria Karlmark, who worked for IBM as a European patent attorney, as well as an industrial management specialist for Philips International, before retiring in 1994. “The only thing that was of value was to prove that they were wrong. That I am an American citizen and I will have the right to a quality public education.”
Dr. Terrence Roberts, now CEO of the management consulting firm Terrence J. Roberts and Associates, found a way to harness the fear he felt at Central and use it to drive him to succeed.
“We were scared during that year,” he said. “I hadn’t ever been so frightened in my life. In fact, I thought that if human beings were ever that afraid, they’d probably just keel over and die. What I discovered in the midst of all of that was that no matter how afraid you are, you can still maintain goal-directed behavior. You can put the fear in your pocket and keep on truckin’.
“My first grade teacher had told me, ‘Terry, you’ve got to become the executive in charge of your own learning. You have got to become the CEO of your own personal problems,’ and that made sense to me,” he continued. “I was telling young people that this morning over in Roxbury, because it occurs to me that when young people are willing to take on the executive responsibility, nothing on earth can stop them.”
Over 600 Boston Public School students greeted the Little Rock Nine the morning of Oct. 24 at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury. Each of the Nine stressed the importance of the older generation’s influence on the young, but noted that the ultimate responsibility lies with today’s students of color to take advantage of every educational opportunity.
One of the Nine issued a stern warning to the youth in the Faneuil Hall audience, reminding them that African Americans still have a long way to go in overcoming racial barriers — especially if certain negative aspects of their behavior persist.
“When I talk to young people there is one thing I have got to say — it’s off-topic, but it’s always on my mind because I always hear it,” said Elizabeth Eckford, who still resides in Little Rock and gives frequent lectures about America’s history of racism. “When you use the n-word, you are giving other people permission to use it. You are telling people that you have racial self-hatred.”
Gov. Deval Patrick gave the closing remarks, referencing his own struggles growing up on the South Side of Chicago, sharing a room and set of bunk beds with his mother and sister amid a life of deeply segregated and ill-equipped schools and gang violence.
“I know full well that your courage and that of your families changed my life and the lives of countless others,” Patrick said to the panelists by his side. “And I thank you for that. I remember enjoying reading, but I can’t frankly ever remember actually owning a book. I am amazed and humbled that you did what you did under the circumstances you did them, and have no bitterness today.
“What you made for me and so many others possible, you did because when you walked through the doors of Central High, you made a claim on the American conscience,” the governor continued. “That, I believe, is what the civil rights struggle has always been about. It’s always been about American ideals, about the perennial challenge to reach out across differences. And we define our ideals over time and through struggle, as equality, opportunity and fair play.”
The Little Rock Nine have done their part in the struggle for educational equality, Patrick said, and now it is up to today’s parents and students to fight to retain that right and close the education gap in Boston and elsewhere.
“I grew up in a neighborhood and at a time when every child was under the jurisdiction of every single adult on the block,” Patrick said. “That was a community, where adults taught us the stake that we had in each other. There’s a whole generation of kids watching to see whether we as adults understand our responsibility to steward our times before them.”