Could I have been so brave? That’s the question I found myself asking yesterday as my travels took me to the Clinton Presidential Library, to sculptures like this one of Civil War abolitionist Harriet Tubman along the Little Rock riverfront, and finally to Little Rock Central High School.
In 1957, nine black teenagers, dubbed “The Little Rock Nine,” stood up – stood against – segregation to attend previously all-white Little Rock Central High School. The naivete they operated under on the first day they showed up for classes was soon erased as the angry crowds that met them each morning became increasingly hostile and the National Guard troops present in the first days were replaced by ill-prepared and frightened city police.
Yet they continued to brave the gauntlet, never faltering, never letting anyone see them cry. They feared for their lives and yet they continued to show up. Only when President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Army with bayonets fixed did those teenagers begin to feel safe again. And even then, their fight was far from over.
The Old Testament of the Bible includes the book of “Esther,” which is the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen to a powerful king. While she is queen, the king is convinced to give the order to kill all the Jews. Esther’s uncle tells her she must go to the king and convince him not to carry out the order. But Esther fears for her life. If she goes to the king when he hasn’t called her, she could be killed. (Harsh, yes, but that was the law.)
Esther’s uncle says to her: “if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14 New International Version)
The bravery of these black teenagers in 1957 astounds me. Times were such that if they had chosen not to walk the gauntlet in Little Rock, it is likely that someone else would have eventually done it – just as Esther’s uncle advised her. But also like Esther, the Little Rock Nine were there at a time and a place in our history when they could step up and make a difference. They looked hatred in the face, and they kept moving forward.
Children if you are tired, keep going.
If you’re hungry, keep going.
If you’re scared, keep going.
If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
— Harriet Tubman